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'And Peggy': 7 Things You Probably Didn't Know About Peggy Schuyler

A miniature portrait of Peggy Schuyler on ivory by James Peale, circa 1796. Courtesy of New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation // Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Albany, New York.

There were a lot of details that Lin-Manuel Miranda couldn’t fit into the Broadway musical Hamilton—that time Hamilton claimed to have communicated with a dead Revolutionary War commander as a joke, for example, or his epic rivalry with New York Governor George Clinton, or a mic-dropping diss rap directed at John Adams. He also couldn’t fit in much about Peggy, the Schuyler sister who, in the show, is worried about being out too late downtown and disappears after the first act. (The actress who plays her, Jasmine Cephas Jones, plays Maria Reynolds in the second act.) But in real life, this Schuyler sister was much beloved by Hamilton—and much more than “and Peggy.” Here are a few things you should know about her.

1. HER NAME WASN’T ACTUALLY PEGGY.

Peggy was a nickname; depending on the source, she was either Margaret or Margarita Schuyler. She was born in Albany in September 1758.

2. SHE HAD “A KIND OF WICKED WIT.”

The Schuyler family was one of the wealthiest in New York, and each daughter was, according to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, “smart, beautiful, gregarious, and rich … they collectively charmed and delighted all the visitors to the Schuyler mansion in Albany.” Philip and Catherine Schuyler had eight children who survived to adulthood, including three sons; Peggy, the third of Schuyler’s daughters, was “very pretty,” according to the Scottish poet Anne Grant, and possessed “a kind of wicked wit.” The elder Catherine Schuyler’s biographer, Mary Gay Humphreys, described Peggy as having “animated and striking” features; as a young woman, she was “lively” and “the favorite of dinner-tables and balls” and, in later in life, was “bright, high-spirited [and] generous.”

But not all descriptions were so rosy. In a 1782 letter to Hamilton, statesman James McHenry compared Peggy to her sister Angelica (who he calls “Mrs. Carter” because her husband, John Barker Church, was forced to take the alias John Carter during the revolution), noting that “Peggy, though, perhaps a finer woman, is not generally thought so. Her own sex are apprehensive that she considers them, poor things, as [Jonathan] Swifts [sic] Vanessa did; and they in return do not scruple to be displeased. In short, Peggy, to be admired as she ought, has only to please the men less and the ladies more.” According to Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow, Peggy was “sarcastic” and “very beautiful but vain and supercilious.”

3. SHE FIRST BECAME ACQUAINTED WITH HAMILTON VIA LETTER.

In 1780, shortly after Hamilton began courting Eliza (or, as Hamilton also called her, Betsey), Washington’s aide-de-camp wrote to Peggy at length of his love for her sister; he included a bit of flattery for good measure:

“I venture to tell you in confidence, that by some odd contrivance or other, your sister has found out the secret of interesting me in every thing that concerns her; and though I have not the happiness of a personal acquaintance with you, I have had the good fortune to see several very pretty pictures of your person and mind which have inspired me with a more than common partiality for both. Among others your sister carries a beautiful copy constantly about her elegantly drawn by herself, of which she has two or three times favoured me with a sight. You will no doubt admit it as a full proof of my frankness and good opinion of you, that I with so little ceremony introduce myself to your acquaintance and at the first step make you my confident.”

Between when their courtship began and when he married Eliza in December 1780, Hamilton became close to all the Schuylers.

4. HAMILTON WROTE A PIECE IN WHICH HE HOPED SHE’D SERVE AS THE MAIN CHARACTER.

In October 1780, Hamilton wrote to Eliza, asking her to tell Peggy that he’d soon open a letter he had from her. “I am composing a piece, of which, from the opinion I have of her qualifications, I shall endeavour to prevail upon her to act the principal character,” he wrote. “The title is ‘The way to get him, for the benefit of all single ladies who desire to be married.’ You will ask her if she has any objections to taking part in the piece and tell her that if I am not much mistaken in her, I am sure she will have none.” (He added to his soon-to-be wife, “For your own part, your business is now to study the way to keep him, which is said to be much the most difficult task of the two, though in your case I thoroughly believe it will be an easy one and that to succeed effectually you will only have to wish it sincerely.”)

5. SHE ONCE FACED OFF AGAINST SOME TORIES.

In 1781, Albany was not much safer than the warfront: local Native American tribes and British loyalists had been running raids all over the area. Philip Schuyler, who was the mastermind of a spy ring, was even the subject of a British kidnapping plot; on August 7, according to Chernow, a group of Tories and Native Americans surrounded the Schuyler mansion and forced their way into the home searching for the patriarch. The family—including Angelica and Eliza, both pregnant—fled upstairs during the assault, realizing too late that they’d left behind Catherine Schuyler’s baby daughter (also named Catherine). When Peggy snuck downstairs to retrieve the infant, who was in a cradle near the door, one of the raiders stepped in front of her with a musket and demanded to know where General Schuyler was. According to Chernow, Peggy replied, cooly, that he had “Gone to alarm the town.” As the raiders, afraid that troops were coming, fled, Peggy grabbed baby Catherine and ran back up the stairs. According to legend, one raider threw a tomahawk at her but missed, hitting the bannister, which still has a mark.

6. SHE MARRIED WELL ...

Fixman Collection, Institute Archives and Special Collections, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY

In June 1783, when she was almost 25, Peggy married a distant cousin, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, 19; it was likely an elopement. (In fact, Eliza was the only Schuyler sister who didn’t elope.) Stephen was a descendent of Kiliaen Van Rensselaer, an Amsterdam merchant who was the first patroon—a person granted land and privileges by the Dutch government of New York—of a huge tract of land that included Albany county. This made Stephen a patroon as well, and he had plenty of money and servants. After her marriage, Peggy earned another nickname, this one bestowed upon her by Hamilton: “Mrs. Patroon.” By 1789, the couple had three children, only one of whom would survive to adulthood.

7. … AND DIED YOUNG.

By 1801, Peggy had been ill for two years. Hamilton, who had resigned as Treasury Secretary six years before, was in Albany on business that March when Peggy took a turn for the worse. He frequently wrote to Eliza, at home in New York City, about her sister’s health. “Your Sister Peggy has gradually grown worse & is now in a situation that her dissolution in the opinion of the Doctor is not likely to be long delayed,” he wrote on February 25. The situation was dire enough, he said, that Peggy’s husband had requested that their only surviving son, then 11, be brought home.

But by March 9, things were slightly better. “Your Sister Peggy had a better night last night than for three weeks past and is much easier this morning,” Hamilton told Eliza. “Yet her situation is such as only to authorise a glimmering of hope.” On March 10 he wrote again, telling her that he would return home but for “the situation of your Sister Peggy, her request that I would stay a few days longer and the like request of your father and mother … There has been little alteration either way in Peggys [sic] situation for these past four days.”

It wouldn’t be long before things got much worse. On March 16, Hamilton wrote to Eliza with the sad news that her sister, not yet 43, had passed away: “On Saturday, My Dear Eliza, your sister took leave of her sufferings and friends, I trust, to find repose and happiness in a better country. … Viewing all that she had endured for so long a time, I could not but feel a relief in the termination of the scene. She was sensible to the last and resigned to the important change.” He planned to stay for the funeral and leave for New York City the day after. “I long to come to console and comfort you my darling Betsey,” he wrote. “Adieu my sweet angel. Remember the duty of Christian Resignation. Ever Yrs, A H.”

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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