Benning Wentworth’s marriage to his second wife Martha Hilton has been the subject of many fanciful tales and a great deal of historic gossip. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow himself wrote a poem describing the unlikely
marriage between the 64 year old Benning Wentworth and his twenty-three year old housekeeper. According to the legend, Wentworth hosted a dinner party with local officials, relatives, and Reverend Arthur Browne. The old, gout-struck, and reportedly unpleasant Governor surprised his guests by informing them that they were about to witness his marriage to his young servant. Martha stood beside him in a silk dress, a shocking garment for someone of her station.
Some have offered details to lessen the scandal associated with the event. Martha Hilton reportedly came from a good family. She was forced to work in order to support herself because she had many siblings. Historians also disagree about Martha’s age. It remains unclear whether or not she was 23 or 33 at the time of her marriage. Finally, following the publication of Longfellow’s poem, a Wentworth descendant wrote to the publishers to correct that Martha wore a calico dress and white apron, not silk.
Benning and Martha Wentworth were married for 10 years until his death in 1770. Benning willed his entire fortune to Martha. The estate remained in the Wentworth family, however, as Martha married her late-husband’s cousin Michael Wentworth.
Be sure to read Longfellow’s depiction of the scandalous marriage below:
By Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
ONE hundred years ago, and something more,
In Queen Street, Portsmouth, at her tavern door,
Neat as a pin, and blooming as a rose,
Stood Mistress Stavers in her furbelows,
Just as her cuckoo-clock was striking nine.
Above her head, resplendent on the sign,
The portrait of the Earl of Halifax,
In scarlet coat and periwig of flax,
Surveyed at leisure all her varied charms,
Her cap, her bodice, her white folded arms,
And half resolved, though he was past his prime,
And rather damaged by the lapse of time,
To fall down at her feet, and to declare
The passion that had driven him to despair.
For from his lofty station he had seen
Stavers, her husband, dressed in bottle-green,
Drive his new Flying Stage-coach, four in hand,
Down the long lane, and out into the land.
And knew that he was far upon the way
To Ipswich and to Boston on the Bay!
Just then the meditations of the Earl
Were interrupted by a little girl,
Barefooted, ragged, with neglected hair,
Eyes full of laughter, neck and shoulders bare,
A thin slip of a girl, like a new moon,
Sure to be rounded into beauty soon,
A creature men would worship and adore,
Though now in mean habiliments she bore
A pail of water dripping, through the street,
And bathing, as she went, her naked feet.
It was a pretty picture, full of grace,-
The slender form, the delicate, thin face
The swaying motion, as she hurried by;
The shining feet, the laughter in her eye,
That o’er her face in ripples gleamed and glanced,
As in her pail the shifting sunbeam danced:
And with uncommon feelings of delight
The Earl of Halifax beheld the sight.
Not so Dame Stavers, for he heard her say
These words, or thought he did, as plain as day:
“O Martha Hilton! Fie! how dare you go
About the town half dressed, and looking so ! ”
At which the gypsy laughed, and straight replied:
“No matter how I look; I yet shall ride
In my own chariot, ma’am.” And on the child
The Earl of Halifax benignly smiled,
As with her heavy burden she passed on,
Looked back, then turned the corner, and was gone.
What next, upon that memorable day,
Arrested his attention was a gay
And brilliant equipage, that flashed and spun,
The silver harness glittering in the sun,
Outriders with red jackets, lithe and lank,
Pounding the saddles as they rose and sank,
While all alone within the chariot sat
A portly person with three-cornered hat,
A crimson velvet coat, head high in air,
Gold-headed cane, and nicely powdered hair,
And diamond buckles sparkling at his knees,
Dignified, stately, florid, much at ease.
Onward the pageant swept, and as it passed,
Fair Mistress Stavers courtesied low and fast;
For this was Governor Wentworth, driving down
To Little Harbor, just beyond the town,
Where his Great House stood looking out to sea,
A goodly place, where it was good to be.
It was a pleasant mansion, an abode
Near and yet hidden from the great high-road,
Sequestered among trees, a noble pile,
Baronial and colonial in its style;
Gables and dormer-windows everywhere,
And stacks of chimneys rising high in air,-
Pandaean pipes, on which all winds that blew
Made mournful music the whole winter through.
Within, unwonted splendors met the eye,
Panels, and floors of oak, and tapestry;
Carved chimney-pieces, where on brazen dogs
Revelled and roared the Christmas fires of logs;
Doors opening into darkness unawares,
Mysterious passages, and flights of stairs;
And on the walls, in heavy gilded frames,
The ancestral Wentworths, with Old-Scripture names.
Such was the mansion where the great man dwelt,
A widower and childless; and he felt
The loneliness, the uncongenial gloom,
That like a presence haunted every room;
For though not given to weakness, he could feel
The pain of wounds, that ache because they heal.
The years came and the years went,-seven in all,
And passed in cloud and sunshine o’er the Hall;
The dawns their splendor through its chambers shed,
The sunsets flushed its western windows red;
The snow was on its roofs, the wind, the rain;
Its woodlands were in leaf and bare again;
Moons waxed and waned, the lilacs bloomed and died,
In the broad river ebbed and flowed the tide,
Ships went to sea, and ships came home from sea,
And the slow years sailed by and ceased to be.
And all these years had Martha Hilton served
In the Great House, not wholly unobserved;
By day, by night, the silver crescent grew,
Though hidden by clouds, her light still shining
A maid of all work, whether coarse or fine,
A servant who made service seem divine!
Through her each room was fair to look upon;
The mirrors glistened, and the brasses shone,
The very knocker on the outer door,
If she but passed, was brighter than before.
And now the ceaseless turning of the mill
Of Time, that never for an hour stands still,
Ground out the Governor’s sixtieth birthday,
And powdered his brown hair with silver-gray.
The robin, the forerunner of the spring,
The bluebird with his jocund carolling,
The restless swallows building in the eaves,
The golden buttercups, the grass, the leaves,
The lilacs tossing in the winds of May,
All welcomed this majestic holiday!
He gave a splendid banquet, served on plate,
Such as became the Governor of the State,
Who represented England and the King,
And was magnificent in everything.
He had invited all his friends and peers,
The Pepperels, the Langdons, and the Lears,
The Sparhawks, the Penhallows, and the rest;
For why repeat the name of every guest?
But I must mention one, in bands and gown,
The rector there, the Reverend Arthur Brown
Of the Established Church; with smiling face
He sat beside the Governor and said grace;
And then the feast went on, as others do,
But ended as none other I e’er knew.
When they had drunk the King, with many a cheer,
The Governor whispered in a servant’s ear,
Who disappeared, and presently there stood
Within the room, in perfect womanhood,
A maiden, modest and yet self-possessed,
Youthful and beautiful, and simply dressed.
Can this be Martha Hilton? It must be!
Yes, Martha Hilton, and no other she!
Dowered with the beauty of her twenty years,
How ladylike, how queenlike she appears;
The pale, thin crescent of the days gone by
Is Dian now in all her majesty!
Yet scarce a guest perceived that she was there,
Until the Governor, rising from his chair,
Played slightly with his ruffles, then looked down,
And said unto the Reverend Arthur Brown:
“This is my birthday: it shall likewise be
My wedding-day; and you shall marry me!”
The listening guests were greatly mystified,
None more so than the rector, who replied:
” Marry you ? Yes, that were a pleasant task,
Your Excellency; but to whom? I ask.”
The Governor answered: “To this lady here”;
And beckoned Martha Hilton to draw near.
She came and stood, all blushes, at his side.
The rector paused. The impatient Governor cried:
“This is the lady; do you hesitate?
Then I command you as Chief Magistrate.”
The rector read the service loud and clear:
” Dearly beloved, we are gathered here,”
And so on to the end. At his command
On the fourth finger of her fair left hand
The Governor placed the ring; and that was all:
Martha was Lady Wentworth of the Hall!