|READ ALSO: Lady
Wentworth by Longfellow
By Olive Tardiff
Martha Hilton was New Hampshire's Cinderella. Her Prince Charming was neither young nor handsome, but he owned a fifty-room mansion in Portsmouth and thousands of acres of land throughout the state.
Many fanciful tales have been written about the marriage of this servant girl to the wealthy Provincial Governor of New Hampshire, Benning Wentworth. Even without these exaggerations, Martha's story would be romantic.
According to local folklore Martha had said, "Someday you will see me riding in my coach." It must have seemed very unlikely. Although "Hilton blood was as good as Wentworth blood," as one historian put it, Martha came from a large family and needed to support herself.
An Elderly Suitor
At the age of twenty-three, (although some historians add a decade) Martha was working as a maid in the home of Governor Wentworth who was then sixty-four years old. The Governor's wife and three sons had died during a recent diphtheria epidemic. Sad and lonely in his great house on Little Harbor, he must have been concerned about who would inherit his property. He had already proposed to another young woman who had turned him down.
Benning Wentworth, in spite of his wealth, was not an attractive suitor. He was a stout man with a florid complexion, and suffered from gout. He has been described as a haughty, unpleasant, and boring man. Nevertheless, Martha was willing to accept the challenge. It was, after all, a way of turning her pumpkin into a real stage coach.
Martha probably enjoyed the stir that was created on the evening of March 15, 1760 in the council chamber of the Governor's mansion. Without disclosing his intentions, the governor had invited his friend, the Reverend Arthur Browne, rector of Queen's Chapel, to join a group of officials and Wentworth relatives for dinner.
Wife To A Royal Governor
To the astonishment of those assembled. local legend says, Martha entered the room dressed in a silk gown and stood at the Governor's side. He gave quiet instructions to the Reverend Browne, then announced that his guests were about to witness his marriage to Martha Hilton.
Among those present was a nephew, later governor, John Wentworth. Probably he had hoped to share in the inheritance from this aging man, and must have been shocked at this turn of events.
Martha did not have an easy time as mistress of the "State House," as the Governor liked to call it. On one occasion, when she asked a servant to pick up an object she had dropped, the servant refused. She said she would not wait on a person so recently employed as a maid in the household.
The society women of Portsmouth admitted Martha to their circle grudgingly. She must have reveled in her new position that permitted her to sit in Queen's Chapel in the Wentworth pew with its red carpet and its canopy with red velvet draperies. In later vears, George Washington was to sit in that very pew as her guest after having tea at her home.
The Governor himself did not always approve of Martha's behavior. once, while they were spending a vacation at their summer estate on Island Pond near Hampstead, he locked the gate after Martha had gone to a party. When she did not return, the Governor and some servants began to search the grounds. To their horror they saw Martha's dress and cloak floating on the pond. Grief-stricken, the Governor went back to the house, only to find Martha, who had slipped through the open gate, snug and warm in her bed.
True details of her life are hard to come by, but the romantic tale of Martha Hilton Wentworth captured the Victorian audience thanks to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. His poetic, though not very accurate, depiction of the story made Martha a romantic heroine of the late 19th century. Longfellow, it appears, took his account from a newspaper article by Portsmouth editor Charles W. Brewster.
Governor Wentworth died in 1770. His wish for an heir had not been fulfilled, since the two sons born to Martha had died young. To the disappointment of the Wentworth family, the Governor had willed his entire fortune to Martha. She further scandalized them by marrying, on December 17, 1770, her late husband's cousin, Colonel Michael Wentworth, who had recently come to Portsmouth from England. It was a slight consolation that the estate would remain in the family.
Michael and Martha Wentworth had two daughters before his death in Philadelphia, an apparent suicide. After Martha died at the age of sixty-eight, her surviving daughter, also named Martha, inherited the Wentworth wealth.
The story of the servant girl who married a royal governor was over but has remained a romantic favorite with all ages. Martha rode in her own coach after all.
From: "They Paved The Way - A History Of NH Women", Women for Women Weekly Press, 1980
Illustrations by Richard Donovan.
Reprinted by permission of the author
© 1997 SeacoastNH.com
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