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May 21 2016

Scandal, Sex & The (Colonial) City In 18th-Century Philadelphia

Historic Philadelphia Sites Recount Founding Fathers' & Mothers’ Sinful Shenanigans

Philadelphia is the birthplace of the United States. It’s where the Declaration of Independence was written and where the U.S. Constitution was signed. Philadelphia's Historic District has many more tales to tell. The 18th-century metropolis was a hotbed of extramarital affairs, excommunications, elopements and blowout bashes—all resulting in rampant gossip. A visit to the Historic District reveals it was 18th century America’s original Sin City.

Here are some true stories of prominent Colonial Philadelphians’ gasp-worthy goings-on—and a list of sites to revisit their oft-salacious private lives.

  • Historians debate whether Betsy Ross stitched the first flag, but there is one thing on which they agree. Ross was feisty and ahead of her time when her young passions led her to elope with John Ross, a non-Quaker. The marriage horrified Ross’ Quaker family and friends—and her unsanctioned inter-faith marriage caused her to be excommunicated from her faith and disowned by her family. Visitors to the pint-sized Betsy Ross House learn about her life and her upholstery business from a Ross re-enactor. 239 Arch Street, (215) 686-1252, historicphiladelphia.org
  • Statesman, inventor, printer and ladies’ man. Ben Franklin enjoyed legendary dalliances in London and Paris. He also fathered a son, William, whose mother still remains a mystery. Deborah Franklin, his consort of many years, had her own scandalous past. She was previously married and—gasp!—never legally divorced or widowed before partnering up with Franklin. The two lived happily in sin their whole lives. At Franklin Court, Franklin’s print shop, Post Office and museum, visitors discover more about Philly’s favorite Founding Father. 322 Market Street, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
  • Future third Vice President Aaron Burr set up Dolley Payne Todd on on the 18th-century equivalent of a blind date with longtime bachelor and older man John Madison, then a U.S. Representative. A hot romance ensued, and the young widow and future fourth president wed. Dolley would go on to make history as the First Lady who not only popularized ice cream in the White House, but also saved a famous portrait of George Washington when the British set the president’s house on fire. In the summer, those with free timed tickets walk through the furnished Dolley Todd House (a.k.a. Todd House), where she lived with her first husband. The one-hour tour also includes the Bishop White House. 4th & Walnut Streets, (215) 965-2305, nps.gov/inde
  • Even after two decades of marriage, George Washington had goo-goo eyes for his wife Martha. The couple feted their 20th wedding anniversary at the Powel House, where guests danced the night away—most likely into the wee, small hours. A tour of the well-preserved Old City home reveals a letter from the president thanking the Powels for their hospitality. 244 S. 3rd Street, (215) 627-0364, philalandmarks.org
  • The Colonial gossip mill went wild when Elizabeth Emlen Physick left her husband, the esteemed Dr. Phillip Syng Physick, known as the father of American surgery. After the couple’s separation, Emlen Physick retained her fortune, thanks to one of the nation’s first pre-nuptial agreements, but lost custody of her children, who were permitted to visit her in her new Pine Street home on Sundays. Tours of the Physick House recount the unhappy melodrama, and tell of the doctor’s many medical accomplishments and celebrity patients, including Dolley Madison, Benjamin Rush and Chief Justice John Marshall. 321 S. 4th Street, (215) 925-7866, philalandmarks.org
  • George Washington’s stern portraits belie his underrated love of a good party. To celebrate the signing of the U.S. Constitution, he and 54 of his closest friends headed to City Tavern for an epic bender, downing 54 bottles of Madeira, 60 bottles of claret, 22 bottles of porter, 12 bottles of beer, eight bottles of hard cider, eight bottles of Old Stock Colonial whiskey and seven large bowls of spiked punch. Today, the restaurant’s costumed servers would certainly cut off such a rowdy display of consumption. 138 S. 2nd Street, (215) 413-1443, citytavern.com
  • Although it is not a name one hears in history class, Sarah Evans was quite familiar to Philadelphia’s 18th-century constables. An enterprising woman of easy virtue, Miss Evans and her fellow streetwalkers Biddy Cummings, Margaret Jeffreys and Elizabeth McSwain were in and out of the pokey numerous times for selling their “wares,” frequently conducting their business beneath the farmers’ country wagons set up along Market Street, then known as High Street.
  • The three people in Alexander Hamilton’s marriage were one too many. While his wife Eliza summered in Albany, the founder of the Federal Reserve Bank carried on a torrid affair with Maria Reynolds in his family home near 3rd and Walnut streets. Upon Eliza’s return, her husband and his paramour thoughtfully relocated their disreputable liaisons to her boudoir just a few blocks away on 4th Street.

In spring 2016, Drexel University and VISIT PHILADELPHIA® launched a new campaign—Historic Philadelphia—to celebrate America’s most historic square mile in the country’s first World Heritage City, as designated by the Organization of World Heritage Cities. Focusing on the attractions and neighborhoods of Old City, Society Hill and the Delaware River Waterfront, the campaign celebrates Philadelphia’s incomparable place in early American history and the vibrant original city neighborhoods.

Between Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends, visitors can engage with costumed history makers, hear stories of the real people of independence and take part in colonial reenactments. And every day of the year, they can tour, shop, dine and drink in the area just like the founding fathers and mothers once did. For more information about all there is to see and do in Historic Philadelphia, go to visitphilly.com and uwishunu.com.

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