The Scandalous Story of Charlotte Temple
Charlotte Temple, or “Charlotte: A Tale of Truth”, was published in London in 1791. Written by Susanna Rowson, it was a best seller in London and New York in the seduction novel genre that was popular at the time. But was it just a novel or was it a true story?
Charlotte, the title character of the novel is 15 when the story begins in the 1770s and a student in a respectable English boarding school for girls. One Sunday at church services she meets a dashing Lieutenant, John Montraville. After a series of secret, romantic meetings Montraville convinces Charlotte to run away with him to New York City, where he is being stationed. She agrees! There is a wonderfully dramatic nighttime scene when they board the ship that’s to take them across the Atlantic. Charlotte, worried about what her parents will think and having second thoughts, ultimately gives in to Montraville and their adventure begins.
When they arrive in New York, Montraville makes arrangements for Charlotte to live in a bungalow on a farm north of the city (Lower East Side today). He is stationed in the Upper Barracks (City Hall Park). Whenever possible, they spend time together. But people are quickly looking askance at Charlotte and her disreputable relationship with the young officer, to whom she is not married. More and more she finds herself shunned by her neighbors.
A complicated series of events takes place (always necessary for a good 18th century novel) which results in Charlotte being abandoned by Montraville, who has fallen for a wealthy, pretty, young Loyalist woman. Charlotte has no way to support herself and, even more horrifying, she is pregnant! The farmers from whom she is renting evict her from the property and in a fantastically melodramatic scene poor Charlotte crawls down The Broadway in the rain and mud, heavily pregnant, begging for help. A kind woman opens her door and takes Charlotte in. She cares for her and writes to her parents in England. Charlotte gives birth to a baby girl and just as her father arrives to see her, she dies, leaving him with a granddaughter, Lucy. Charlotte’s father has her buried in Trinity Church graveyard and returns to England with Lucy.
Of, course, there’s a whole lot more to the novel, including the greatest villain of the story after Montraville, a French woman! (Read it, it’s wonderful!)
Charlotte Temple Grave
A walk through the North side of Trinity Church graveyard (where we also find Angelica Schuyler Church) brings us to a grave marked “Charlotte Temple”. Why is there a stone for a fictitious character? Is someone in the grave? The official story is that a bored stone worked carved the name on the grave as a joke. But I found a different story, one that comes from the author herself, Susanna Rowson.
Susanna Rowson (Mrs. Rowson as she was also known) was an unusual woman for her time. She was a playwrite, actress and novelist. She published under her own name at a time women used male pseudonyms, and insisted on going about in public unattended by a man! Mrs. Rowson was born in Boston, grew up in Scotland and returned to live in Phildelphia. She appeared on the stage in London and Philadelphia and her independent behavior drew loud criticism.
Mrs. Rowson’s cousin was Captain John Montresor, a British officer, cartographer and artillery specialist. (I begin the Revolutionary Era Tour by showing the map he drew of NYC in 1775.) Interestingly, I leared that John Montresor was involved in a huge scandal in NYC when he had an affair with a young woman named Charlotte Stanley and, like Montraville, left her alone and pregnant!
Was Mrs. Rowson writing about her cousin? The similarities between the two stories, including the similarity of the character’s names and Charlotte Standley’s burial in Trinity Graveyard, are too many to be a coincidence. Is the grave really Charlotte Stanley’s, with the original incription scratched off and replaced with “Charlotte Temple”? Mrs. Rowson never confirmed or denied whether the story was about her cousin. Instead, she said the story was a warning to young women to “secure their virtue” and beware “handsome young officers“.
I found an edition of the book with an illustration of Charlotte Temple’s grave as it appears in Trinity graveyard, positioned in the exact location. So maybe there was some belief at the time in the rumor that “Charlotte: A Tale of Truth” really was true and that someone is in the grave, or maybe it was just a great way to market the book.
Either way, New Yorkers then, like now, loved a good, scandalous mystery! The book was published in the US in 1797 with the new title “Charlotte Temple”. It was a best seller, of course.
(Click here to download “Charlotte Temple” from archive.org.)
Montresor’s Plan of the City of New York, 1775
Thank-you for reading.
Get this blog, Behind the HiSTORY, directly in your mailbox!
Click here to sign up.