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By the Way

Celebrated beauty, unlucky at love


Elizabeth Graeme Fergusson, born nearly 300 years ago – 1739, to be exact – was a celebrated beauty blessed with an impressive intellect, but she was unlucky at love – very unlucky.
She was a poet, a translator, a linguist. Toss in a wealthy physician father who provided private tutors, influential friends, a home in Philadelphia and a 1,200-acre summer retreat, Graeme Park, in Horsham, and she appeared to have it all.
But this extraordinarily gifted woman who spoke five languages was unlucky at love – very unlucky.
When she was 17, she fell in love with William Franklin, Ben’s son, who proposed to her. Neither father was enamored with the match and Ben packed his son off to Europe.
While Elizabeth waited, young William roamed. He returned unannounced five years later with his new bride, another Elizabeth, and took his place in history as governor of New Jersey.
Elizabeth had been in ill health and her parents decided to send her to England and Scotland to revive her. A devastated but still spirited Elizabeth, in a kind of “I’ll show you” pique, sailed for London and Paris where she became a superstar in social circles, and even met King George III.
While she was abroad her mother died and Elizabeth returned to be hostess at Graeme Park and she entertained friends, both patriots and loyalists, at her Saturday night salons, a custom she had picked up in Europe.
In December 1771, she was introduced to a young Scotsman, Henry Hugh Fergusson, 11 years her junior and as penniless as he was charming. While he took the 32-year-old Elizabeth by storm, Daddy didn’t think him a proper suitor; however, a determined Elizabeth married him in secret four months later.
The lovers spent a lot of time apart. Fergusson sailed to England on business and returned as a loyalist working for the British. Elizabeth had inherited Graeme Park but the laws at that time did not allow married woman to own property so Fergusson held legal title to the estate.
To make matters worse, he coerced his wife into delivering a secret message to George Washington, a family friend. The general, though, was appalled. The message asked him to renounce the Declaration of Independence and surrender to the British. Although Elizabeth was unaware of its contents, the general questioned her loyalty, a bitter moment for the woman who had always supported the American cause. Later in life she learned her husband had fathered a child with a maid in Philadelphia and after fleeing to Scotland married and produced more children.

After Fergusson was judged a traitor and had fled the colonies, Graeme Park was confiscated by the Colonial government. Elizabeth eventually regained her property with the help of influential friends but had to sell off parcels of land to make ends meet.
She also had to buy back some of her own furniture. She later sold the estate to her nephew and died in a nearby rented house in 1801.
Graeme Park is one of my favorite places. I knew Elizabeth’s story but I became better acquainted with her when I attended a Lunch and Learn lecture at Graeme Park and Wendy Long Stanley brought Elizabeth to life in a special way.
Stanley spent nine years researching Elizabeth for her book, “The Power to Deny.” Stanley said she was mesmerized by Elizabeth’s story when she first visited Graeme Park and was driven to research and write a historical novel about this almost forgotten woman. She said while she imagined the conversations, all else in the book is based on fact.
It apparently was a compelling relationship between author and subject. This was evident as Stanley traced Elizabeth’s steps through history as well as through the mansion that was her home.
After the luncheon the author conducted a tour of the house and was able to point to a place where Elizabeth actually stood in one of the more dramatic moments in a life filled with drama.
Wed in April, Stanley explained, Elizabeth could not bring herself to tell her father she had defied him and married without his consent. Finally, in September 1772, Elizabeth decided she must break the news. She looked out her bedroom window and saw her father walking on the path leading to the mansion. As she watched, he fell to the ground and died.
Graeme Park has been vacant since the early 1800s, but it may not be unoccupied. Some people believe Elizabeth still walks through its spacious rooms.