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The Poison PlotThe Poison Plot

A Tale of Adultery and Murder in Colonial Newport

Elaine Forman Crane

Narrated by Beverly Ann Astley

Available from Audible

Book published by Cornell University Press

An accusation of attempted murder rudely interrupted Mary Arnold’s dalliances with working men and her extensive shopping sprees. When her husband Benedict fell deathly ill and then asserted she had tried to kill him with poison, the result was a dramatic petition for divorce. The case before the Rhode Island General Assembly and its tumultuous aftermath, during which Benedict died, made Mary a cause célèbre in Newport through the winter of 1738 and 1739.

Elaine Forman Crane invites readers into the salacious domestic life of Mary and Benedict Arnold and reveals the seamy side of colonial Newport. The surprise of The Poison Plot, however, is not the outrageous acts of Mary or the peculiar fact that attempted murder was not a convictable offense in Rhode Island. As Crane shows with style, Mary’s case was remarkable precisely because adultery, criminality and theft, and even spousal homicide were well known in the New England colonies. Assumptions of Puritan propriety are overturned by the facts of rough and tumble life in a port city: money was to be made, pleasure was to be had, and if marriage became an obstacle to those pursuits a woman had means to set things right.

The Poison Plot is an intimate drama constructed from historical documents and informed by Crane’s deep knowledge of elite and common life in Newport. Her keen eye for telling details and her sense of story bring Mary, Benedict, and a host of other characters—including her partner in adultery, Walter Motley, and John Tweedy the apothecary who sold Mary toxic drugs—to life in the homes, streets, and shops of the port city. The result is a vivid tale that will change minds about life in supposedly prim and proper New England.

Elaine Forman Crane is the author of Witches, Wife Beaters, and Whores: Common Law and Common Folk in Early America and Killed Strangely: The Death of Rebecca Cornell.


“Elaine Forman Crane knows Newport, Rhode Island, like no other historian. The Poison Plot is a process of discovery for this author and her readers, and drawing on her deep research Crane has created a vivid, ‘on-the-ground’ feel to this fascinating story, in which the characters are rounded and alive.”

—John Demos, author of The Heathen School: A Story of Hope and Betrayal in the Age of the Early Republic and The Unredeemed Captive: A Family Story from Early America

“It’s an age-old tale that never fails to fascinate—a middle-aged man, a young wife, a lover, and a plot to murder. Elaine Forman Crane brings her formidable skills as a researcher and historian to the telling of the story of Benedict and Mary Arnold. Much more, the narrative is used to explore the colonial society in which the players of this drama acted. An impressive piece of work.”

—Sandra Hempel, author The Inheritor’s Powder: A Tale of Arsenic, Murder, and the New Forensic Science

The Poison Plot is a riveting tale, combining my two favorite literary features: a fascinating mystery mixed with little-known history. Elaine Forman Crane’s narrative non-fiction is as compulsively readable as a novel. I loved this book.”

—Linda Fairstein, author of Alex Cooper crime novels

“Elaine Forman Crane’s wry examination of unanswered questions around the Arnold case opens a wide window onto early eighteenth century Newport, Rhode Island. Replete with adulterated drugs and tainted foods, fake news and racy novels, and counterfeiters and rampant consumerism, The Poison Plot is meticulously documented history that produces the excitement of a gossip column from the colony once called "Rogue’s Island."”

—Marilynne K. Roach, author of Six Women of Salem: The Untold Story of the Accused and Their Accusers in the Salem Witch Trials

“Elaine Forman Crane's The Poison Plot takes a reliable and well-tried premise for a diverting murder plot and devolves into the literary version of an existential crisis. This book simply doesn't know what it wants to be.”

Providence Journal

“Elaine Foreman Crane, one of the nation’s leading microhistorians, uses a sensational divorce case as a vehicle for exploring law, medicine, and culture in eighteenth-century Rhode Island. With consummate narrative skill and complete mastery of the sources, she takes us into a world of chronic illness, quack physicians, and corrupt druggists, where infidelity and perhaps arsenic poisoned a marriage. By placing her story in a larger historical context, Crane brilliantly enhances our understanding of the harsh realities of life in early America.”

—John Ruston Pagan, author of Anne Orthwood’s Bastard: Sex and Law in Early Virginia

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