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February 27, 2019

The Heiress Wronged by History


Mary Calvi spent years wondering about the heiress who lived in the grand manor in her hometown of Yonkers, New York. Curiosity propelled her to do extensive research that spanned several years. What she uncovered stunned even her, a New York City anchor and reporter, and winner of nine New York Emmy awards. DEAR GEORGE, DEAR MARY, her debut novel, is based on historical accounts, letters and personal journals. In this blog post, written exclusively for, Calvi talks about the day she finally learned if her theory was correct --- that Mary Philipse, the richest belle in Colonial America and George Washington’s first love, was wrongfully convicted of treason during the American Revolution.

2:30am: The alarm clock rings. My eyelids open. A New York heiress is on my mind. The scenario has repeated for years. Today is no different. But this day will be an extraordinary one, for today I’ll learn if my theory is correct that the richest single woman in colonial New York in the mid-1700s was wrongfully convicted during the American Revolution. The charge against her --- treason.

2pm: I arrive in midtown after a full day of work as a morning and noon local news anchor. The newscast was made up of a combination of politics of the day, crime, a spot of asparagus and a kicker of a story about $17 million stilettos for sale…oh, and of course, the weather, which is oddly mixed up. The skies are gray and the temperature hot as the seasons refuse to follow the normal course of things. I walk into the New-York Historical Society with solely my phone and my ID. Left behind were the lip gloss, comb, and the pile of other things I usually carry along in my bag for no particular reason. I rarely look into a mirror after the noon newscast is completed, which is why a stray hair is likely sticking up right about now.

A guide advises me to climb the stairs of the oldest museum in New York City to the second floor and head left into the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library. Once inside, I look around to an astounding setting that is home to millions of manuscripts. I make my request for one of them: a four-piece document dating back to 1776. The manuscript manager kindly agrees to retrieve it for me, but she advises it may take a while. The item hasn’t been out of its hiding space very often in the past 242 years.

The minutes feel like hours. I sit, nervously awaiting my peek into the past. This is just one more stop in my long search for any proof against this woman. You see, after lengthy research, I have found nothing to support the claim against her. In fact, depending on what this document shows, it could prove that Mary Eliza Philipse was NOT a traitor in the American Revolution. Sure, history will tell you differently. In fact, in 1776, this woman who owned nearly 80 miles of property from Harlem north was “convicted” as such, her tens of thousands of acres of property and opulent estate confiscated, then auctioned off to the highest bidder. Where was the proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Where was the clear and convincing evidence? Where was, in the least, the preponderance of the evidence?

This document is the last clue in my search over the course of years that’s led me to libraries, museums, attics, basements and storage closets, looking for any hint of wrongdoing by her. Instead, the evidence shows wrongdoing was done to her in the 1770s by a group of men in a private room in Kingston in Ulster County, who voted in a law, the most repressive ever passed in America. These state legislators acted as judge, jury and executioner, with no proof, no evidence and no allowance for judicial process for the accused.

The New York Act of Attainder, or Confiscation Act, an Act for the Forfeiture and Sale of the Estates of Persons who have adhered to the Enemies of this State, read, in part:

 “…the said several persons herein before particularly named, shall be and hereby are declared to be for ever banished from this State; and each and every of them, who shall at any time hereafter be found in any part of this State, shall be, and are hereby adjudged and declared guilty of felony, and shall suffer death…”

The manuscript manager returned with a bright red folio nearly larger than her. She laid it out on a large dark wood table and unfolded the triangular ends to reveal yellowing linen papers the size of posters. The antique manuscript was in very good condition relative to its age. I walked over to it and took a deep breath. I set my eyes on the papers that I planned to spend the next few hours with. Before me was a written pledge of allegiance --- not the Declaration of Independence, but the little-known Declaration of Dependence, pledging loyalty to the crown:

We whose names are hereunto subscribed, Inhabitants of the City and County of New-York, beg leave to inform your Excellencies: that altho most of us have subscribed a general Representation with many other of the Inhabitants; yet we wish that our conduct, in maintaining inviolate our loyalty to our Sovereign, against the strong tide of oppression and tyranny, which has almost overwhelmed this Land, may be marked by some line of distinction, which cannot well be drawn from the mode of Representation that has been adopted for the Inhabitants in general.

A number of those who signed this declaration between November 26 and November 28, 1776 were later convicted as traitors in the Act of Attainder. I slowly searched through the people who put their signatures on it. Perusal of the first two oversized sheets yielded name after name --- some familiar, like Livingston, Wickham and Bayard.

Mary Philipse’s married name was Mrs. Roger Morris. She was betrothed to a retired British Captain named Roger Morris in 1758, but left for England in 1775 before the Act of Attainder was even considered. She was left alone here in New York.

I am not the first writer to question the conviction of Mary, by the way. Author Lorenzo Sabine wrote in 1864 that “humanity is shocked that a woman was attainted for treason, for no crime…”

The names of Philipse and Morris so far do not appear on these papers. On to page three. Even if she had signed, I wonder, would this mean she was an enemy of the state? Does an opinion of one side over another in war mean a person can be banished from their home country?

History has long forgotten this heiress’ name, and most people have forgotten that Mary was courted by none other than George Washington 20 years before the Revolution. It is interesting to note that when the U.S. Constitution was drawn, a ban on Act of Attainders was added to Article 1 on both the federal and state levels.

Mary is one of three women to be named traitors during the American Revolution. The others were Susannah Robinson, Mary’s sister, and Mrs. Charles Inglis, a minister’s wife. The three of them were the only women, I found, who owned significant property in New York at the time.

As I reached the fourth page of the document and read the very last name, the 547th, I felt a lump in my throat.


Upcoming events for Mary Calvi include:

Monday, March 4th
Author Talk/Book Signing
Shakespeare & Co.
939 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10065
6:30pm – 8:00pm

Thursday, March 14th
Author Talk/Book Signing
Harvard Coop
1400 Mass Avenue
Cambridge, MA 02138
7:00pm – 8:30pm