Essays - Summer 2006

The Case for Love

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Did the friendship of an early Supreme Court justice and the wife of a colleague ever cross the line of propriety?

By Natalie Wexler


On Sunday, June 9, 1793, James Wilson—an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court who, at 51, was generally regarded as one of the nation’s wealthiest and most brilliant men—attended church at “Doctor Thatcher’s meeting” in Boston. There he spotted Hannah Gray, a 19-year-old auburn-haired beauty from a wellconnected Boston family. By the time Wilson had left town 10 days later—to hold court in Newport, Rhode Island, the next stop on the judicial circuit he was riding—he had asked Hannah to marry him. “I long for an Answer,” the judge wrote pleadingly from Newport. “Do let that Answer be speedy and favourable: Let it authorize me to think and call you mine.” Hannah—apparently unfazed by the age difference, and unfazed as well by the fact that Wilson, a widower, had six children back home in Philadelphia, two of whom were older than she was—accepted the proposal.

The local gossips had a field day: they immediately concluded that young Miss Gray had been swayed by the judge’s wealth, telegraphed by the “very handsome chariot and four” in which he had arrived at her family’s house to court her. Young John Quincy Adams, then in Boston, wrote to his brother that Wilson had been “smitten at meeting with a first sight love—unable to contain his amorous pain, he breathed his sighs about the Streets; and even when seated on the bench of Justice, he seemed as if teeming with some woful ballad to his mistress eye brow.” Although describing himself as a friend of Hannah’s, Adams added scornfully, “Cupid himself must laugh at his own absurdity, in producing such an Union; but he must sigh to reflect that without the soft persuasion of a deity who has supplanted him in the breast of modern beauty, he could not have succeeded to render the man ridiculous & the woman contemptible.”

The conclusion that Hannah had been persuaded not by Cupid but by Mammon—or by that other time-honored aphrodisiac, power—was not unreasonable: after all, what else could she have been thinking after having known Wilson for a mere 10 days? Stiff and stodgy, with a round face and glasses that were frequently slipping down his nose, the middle-aged justice was not the kind of man likely to inspire love at first sight. And yet, three years later, when Wilson’s shaky finances began to come crashing down around him, launching an ignominious decline that landed him—while still a sitting Supreme Court justice—in debtor’s prison, Hannah confounded those scornful Boston gossips. Braving poverty and disgrace, she stood staunchly by her husband’s side rather than running home to mother, a choice that her contemporaries would surely have found understandable given the circumstances. True love, it seems, had in fact taken root during those 10 days in Boston or, at least, had grown on Hannah sometime later.

Or had it? After being ill used and neglected by a husband who—despite his early ardor—was increasingly preoccupied by the demands of his creditors, had Hannah Wilson perhaps sought comfort from another man? And might that other man have been one of her husband’s own colleagues on the nation’s highest court, his friend James Iredell (whose marriage to another Hannah had not gone altogether smoothly)? Wouldn’t Iredell, a charming and gregarious man with an eye for the ladies, have been much more Hannah Wilson’s type? More than 200 years later, there is no way of answering these questions with certainty. But the letters left behind by the four principals—the two Jameses and the two Hannahs—open the door to some tantalizing speculation.

AS AN EDITOR of documents relating to the early history of the Supreme Court, I’m not really supposed to give much thought to matters like this. My mission—and that of my colleagues who have worked on the eight volumes of The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800—is to trace the origins of the institution, painstakingly re-creating its inner workings during the first 10 years of its existence and dredging up the details of cases that are mostly long forgotten. And that is what I do devote myself to, for the most part. But every once in a while some human tale leaps out and takes hold of me, and I find myself delving into documents that we’ve set aside as inappropriate for publication.

It can be frustrating, of course, to try to piece together what might have happened in the private lives of people who lived two centuries ago. There are huge gaps in the documentary record—some people wrote few letters, some letters have disappeared, and of course some things were better left unrecorded—and those documents that have survived are often torn or barely legible. (Having once tried to write with a quill myself, I’m surprised that anyone back then managed to write legibly at all.) And yet I can happily puzzle over some antique spidery scrawl for hours, mesmerized until my eyes begin to ache: there’s nothing like an old letter to bring the past vividly to life—even if you can never know the whole story behind it.

And the very elusiveness of the facts, combined with the letter writers’ remoteness in time, has a liberating effect on the imagination: I feel free to speculate about the Wilsons and the Iredells in a way I’d never think of doing about people who are still alive. It’s as though I’m exploring a wreck that’s half submerged in the depths of time, freely poking into its various holds and chambers, fantasizing about what might have taken place there and who might have said what to whom—with no one left to shout, “Hey, you—no trespassing!” After contemplating these semi-historical figures for years, and reading every letter of theirs I could get my hands on, I feel I truly know them—but of course, what I know is largely what I’ve made of them. They’ve become ghostly emanations, hovering in some limbo between truth and fiction.

IT WAS A LETTER by an Iredell, not a Wilson, that first grabbed me—a letter written almost three years before the Wilsons’ fateful meeting in Boston. “I have made no visits,” Hannah Iredell wrote to her husband in November 1790. “I could not prevail on myself to run about the town alone after people whom I had never seen & whom I did not care if I never saw again. It is impossible for you to make a fashonable woman of me & therefore the best thing you can do with me I think will be to set me down in Edenton again where I should have nothing to do but to attend to my Children & make perhaps three or four visits in the year, what a dreadful situation that would be for a fine lady, but to me there could be nothing more delightful.”

Compared to the polite and tepid circumlocutions that constitute the general style of 18th-century correspondence, this passage was like a splash of ice water, brimming with raw emotion and frustration. Where had this cri de coeur come from, and what lay behind it? As I soon discovered, Hannah Iredell was an intensely, perhaps pathologically shy woman, who— despite being unusually well educated for the time—was by her own description “almost as helpless as a Child amongst Strangers.” Some months before, she had reluctantly abandoned her small, cozy hometown of Edenton, North Carolina, to follow her husband to the bustle of New York, which was the temporary national capital. And there James Iredell—who was as much in his element “amongst Strangers” as she was out of hers—had left her, in order to fulfill his judicial duty of riding around the country holding circuit courts. His parting injunction was that Hannah must pay the visits and social calls expected of a lady of her station. This was difficult enough with her husband by her side, but—as Hannah put it in an earlier letter, written just after James had left—“When shall I get spirits to pay all the social debts I owe, now that I have not you to go with me?”

The letter provided another clue as well, a hint of underlying tensions in the Iredells’ marriage: Hannah’s despairing conclusion that her husband would never “make a fashonable woman” of her. The letters that James Iredell wrote to his wife during the several months of every year that he spent riding circuit—sometimes at the rate of one or more a day—frequently remark on the charms of other ladies he has encountered: for example, he observed that a young matron in Charleston was “very pretty”; reported that at a ball in Boston “there were at least 6 Beauties of the small number present—and several more that were nearly such”; and told his wife that he had “refused a seat in a coach with a very fine young lady, to come home and write this letter”—adding, “However I must go and drink tea with her.” Some women might have scarcely noticed such comments, but—several years older than her husband, and already in her mid-40s—Hannah was no longer young, and she had apparently never been beautiful. When Hannah was only 22, Iredell had written a letter to his father in England—a letter that he may actually have shown to Hannah—describing his thenfiancée’s face as “not what is generally called handsome” (although he added that “there is an expression of goodness and benignity in it that is infinitely charming”). The only existing portrait of Hannah—albeit painted when she was an old lady—seems to confirm Iredell’s assessment. Under the circumstances, wouldn’t the frequent reminders that her husband valued good looks have been somewhat galling?

Beyond that, there was the issue of Hannah’s extreme shyness, which seems to have puzzled—and no doubt frustrated—the naturally outgoing James Iredell. In that same letter to his father, Iredell had written that his beloved was “very sparing” of her conversation “among all but her intimate friends, and even with them too diffident to be properly communicative.” Her reticence, and Iredell’s dissatisfaction with it, clearly persisted. Alluding to a lady he had met in Charleston in 1792, Iredell advised his wife: “The only fault imputed to her is the very same to which you are liable, her too great fondness for retirement, and an exclusive attachment to domestic life.” As a creature of her times, who accepted the idea that her position in the marriage was subordinate—she addressed her husband in her letters as “Mr. Iredell,” while he addressed her by her first name—Hannah would certainly have received criticism from her husband more graciously than would many modern women. Not only that, she would have tried her hardest to be the woman she believed her husband wanted her to be, a “fashonable” lady who chattered gaily at balls and tea parties, no matter how much it went against the grain. As a naturally shy person myself, I can well imagine the pain she must have felt, struggling—and failing—to muster the courage to transform herself in this way.

It would be misleading to portray the Iredells’ marriage as tempestuous and unhappy: their letters are also replete with expressions of affection and concern for one another’s welfare, and they both took obvious joy in the three children they eventually had together—children born after 11 years of barrenness, and the death of their first child at the age of only two days. But even people who love each other can be mismatched. In the Iredells’ case, there were temperamental differences that were exacerbated by circumstances. If they had stayed in familiar, cozy Edenton—rather than moving to a national capital that had borrowed the trappings of English court society, with mandatory attendance at levees and reciprocal social calls—and if James Iredell had not been on the road so much, perhaps things would have gone more smoothly.

Then again, perhaps not. In 1779—after six years of marriage, and long before their move away from Edenton in 1790—James Iredell did something that caused him to write a series of letters abjectly begging Hannah for forgiveness, pledging to “atone for every thing wrong that is past,” and declaring that he was “as deep a Penitent as Man can be.” The details of what he had done have been lost to history, but it requires no wild leap of speculation to conclude that some kind of marital infidelity was involved—a transgression that Hannah eventually forgave, but presumably could never entirely forget. Add to all this the fact that Iredell had greatly enhanced his career prospects by marrying Hannah: she was the sister of Samuel Johnston, a prominent North Carolina lawyer and politician of considerable wealth (little of which seems to have passed to her), to whom the ambitious and penniless James Iredell had apprenticed himself shortly after his arrival from England at the age of 17. Wouldn’t any wife in this position have suffered from some insecurity concerning her husband’s affections? And wouldn’t she have worried that her susceptible husband might be seduced by some of the “fashonable Ladies”—endowed with the conversational skills and beauty that she herself so noticeably lacked—that he encountered on his travels or in the ballrooms of the nation’s capital?

INTO THIS MAELSTROM of marital tension and lingering jealousy and suspicion (or rather, the maelstrom that I have conjured up) stepped the young, attractive, and “fashonable” Hannah Wilson. Her portrait—painted around 1805, when she was 30 or so—depicts her in a vaguely Oriental headdress, from which peek out artfully arranged curls, and an Empire-style, high-waisted dress that shows off her bosom. Although she looks fairly somber in her portrait, she was probably a bit of a coquette as well: the few letters she wrote that have survived reveal a playful, flirtatious disposition, even though most of them were written when she was very much down on her luck. And she must have done something to bewitch James Wilson so thoroughly over the course of those days in Boston in 1793.

In fact, Mrs. Wilson (I will now resort to last names in an effort to keep this confusingly named cast of characters straight) didn’t actually step directly into the maelstrom where I have placed the Iredells. By the time she reached Philadelphia—now the national capital—in late 1793, the Iredells had at last decamped to return to their home in Edenton, no doubt to Mrs. Iredell’s great relief. The two women did not cross paths until December 1794, and then only briefly. The Wilsons, riding the southern circuit together that fall, accepted Mr. Iredell’s invitation to visit Edenton and may have spent Christmas and New Year’s there. But Mrs. Wilson would almost certainly have encountered Mr. Iredell before that, in August 1794, when he traveled to Philadelphia for a sitting of the Supreme Court.

Justices Wilson and Iredell considered themselves friends—when Iredell was in Philadelphia to attend court, he visited the Wilsons frequently—although the two men were as different as were their wives. Iredell (despite occasional remarks in his letters to his wife that strike us as cruel, or at least inconsiderate) was a generous, empathetic person whose letters also reveal his wry sense of humor, his curiosity about the world, and his willingness to freely express his emotions. Wilson’s letters—with the exception of the one he wrote in 1793 to his future wife, pleading for a favorable answer—are cold, businesslike, and often stern. (“I never expect to hear in a letter from you how you or your Family are,” his friend Iredell once wrote to him good-naturedly.) Of course, people sometimes come across differently in person than they do in their letters—and, as a documentary editor, I may be biased in favor of Iredell, because he left behind such a wealth of material. But the fact is, their contemporaries made similar assessments of the two men: Iredell appears to have charmed virtually everyone he met, whereas Wilson managed to antagonize all sorts of people. We can’t know for certain how the first meeting went between Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Iredell, but presumably—like everyone else—she was charmed. And it’s reasonable to assume that he was, too.

As far as we know, things went fairly smoothly for the Wilsons over the next few years—although Mrs. Wilson would have had to adjust to her new role as the instant mother of six children, ranging in age from 8 to 21. She developed a particularly close relationship with Bird Wilson, roughly two years her junior and Wilson’s favorite son and heir apparent. “Do not let anybody see this, as I should not be as open to everyone as I am to you,” Mrs. Wilson once wrote to Bird after confessing some theological doubts. Although she signed her letters “Your affectionate Mother,” it’s difficult not to wonder if her feelings were something other than strictly maternal, if Bird’s were something other than filial, and if the relationship raised any eyebrows in gossipridden Philadelphia society. There’s no hard evidence, of course; but Bird lived to a ripe old age, eventually becoming a minister and dean of the General Theological Seminary in New York, and he never married. Is it possible he never got over a youthful passion for his young and captivating stepmother?

But when the year 1796 rolled around, the Wilsons’ affairs started to go rapidly downhill. In May of that year, Mrs. Wilson gave birth to a son—the only child the Wilsons would have together—who died in infancy. And before the Wilsons would have had a chance to recover from that blow, a general financial crisis that was sweeping the country began to shake the foundations of Wilson’s apparent wealth.

The career of James Wilson is one of the great unsung tragedies of American history. One of only six men who signed both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—and a major architect of the latter document—Wilson was, in the 1770s and 1780s, the foremost exponent of America’s developing legal system. Most likely, he would have been appointed the nation’s first chief justice, were it not for one thing: his apparently insatiable appetite for buying land, which had already, in 1789, plunged him into debt. By the mid-1790s, things had gotten to the point where he was borrowing money in order to pay the interest on old loans—while still buying up thousands and thousands more acres in the unsettled, and largely unmapped, western frontier. Wilson was convinced that if he could only hang onto his lands long enough, he would make a killing—and, of course, with the advantage of hindsight, we can see that in a way he was right. But his creditors were growing increasingly impatient, especially as the economy took a downward turn. And, in an era when there was no federal bankruptcy law and state laws usually provided relief only for small debtors, the threat of debtors’ prison loomed. When James Iredell arrived in Philadelphia for the February 1797 sitting of the Supreme Court, he reported to his wife, “The misfortunes of Judge Wilson throw an unfortunate gloom over his house, though I have been there two or three times, and have experienced all their former kindness.”

Wilson had already failed to attend a couple of circuit courts—causing their adjournment for lack of a quorum—apparently because he feared arrest by creditors in those states. Now he decided it would be in his best interest to get out of Philadelphia, where his hometown creditors were becoming ever more troublesome. In June 1797, he and Mrs. Wilson holed up in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania—far enough from Philadelphia to escape the reach of creditors, but close enough so that Bird could make periodic visits to keep Wilson apprised of the state of his affairs. When the Supreme Court met in Philadelphia in August, Wilson didn’t dare venture back to attend it. “All the Judges are here but Wilson,” Iredell wrote to his wife, “who unfortunately is in a manner absconding from his creditors—his Wife with him— the rest of the Family here! What a situation! It is supposed his object is to wait until he can make a more favorable adjustment of his affairs than he could in a state of arrest.”

In fact, Mrs. Wilson may no longer have been with her husband. At some point in the summer or fall of 1797, she went home to Boston. Was this just a visit with her mother and sisters? Or had there been some quarrel in the cramped quarters of a Bethlehem tavern that led to the Wilsons’ separation? Was Mrs. Wilson having second thoughts about a marriage that was turning out to be not at all what she had expected? Certainly the relative calm of life in Boston must have looked attractive. But while she was there something happened to break that calm: her sister Lucy’s husband, of whom Mrs. Wilson herself was very fond, suddenly died. Perhaps the sight of Lucy’s wifely grief led Mrs. Wilson to feel some regret, or at least guilt, about her abandonment of her own husband.

In any event, by early November Mrs. Wilson had put whatever doubts she may have had behind her. She wrote to Bird about her eagerness to return to Philadelphia, asking him to come and get her or, failing that, to send her money for the trip. “Have you not hea[r]d from your papa Bird?” she asks. “I am very anxious to hear.” Wilson’s failure to write to her seems to have been characteristic: the only letter from him to her that has survived is the one in which he begs for an answer to his proposal of marriage. Although he surely must have written others, it seems that Hannah Wilson was often kept in the dark about her husband’s plans and financial affairs.

What Mrs. Wilson may not have known in this instance—and what her husband may not have been eager to tell her—was that he had been imprisoned for debt in Burlington, New Jersey, a town that he apparently had simply been attempting to pass through. In early September 1797 Wilson wrote to Bird from the Burlington jail, expressing his “Astonishment” that his son had not yet come to bail him out, and instructing him to bring at least $600 and “some Shirts and Stockings—I want them exceedingly.” Wilson’s disgrace was becoming ever more public. A Philadelphia lawyer named Thomas Shippen recorded in his diary, “What shall we come to? One [member] of the highest Court in the United States . . . in a Jersey Gaol!”

By the time Mrs. Wilson made it back to Philadelphia in late 1797, her husband had already gone off to ride the southern circuit—apparently concluding that the Carolinas and Georgia were safer for him than the Philadelphia area. In fact, Wilson ultimately decided that it was best for him to lay low in the South indefinitely, and by January 1798 he had taken up temporary residence in—of all places—Edenton, North Carolina, the home of the Iredells. From there, Wilson fired off angry letters to Bird and to his lawyer, Joseph Thomas, demanding information about settlement negotiations with his creditors. At the same time, he was begging his lawyer to send funds so that he could buy yet more land.

Meanwhile, back in Philadelphia, Mrs. Wilson and her two stepdaughters were trying to support themselves with money from selling their needlework, supplemented by whatever income Bird could bring in through a small legal practice. When Mr. Iredell arrived in Philadelphia for the February 1798 sitting of the Supreme Court, he immediately went to call on Mrs. Wilson. “She was very well,” he wrote to Mrs. Iredell, “but extremely affected in seeing me; and finding Mr. Wilson was not coming, she burst into tears.” Among other things, she may have been concerned that Wilson’s continuing neglect of his judicial duties would result in impeachment and the loss of his salary. And Wilson’s nonappearance certainly signaled that he was not yet ready to come to the kind of settlement that his creditors would have accepted—a settlement that would have required him to turn over all of his lands to them. It was beginning to seem that there was no way out of the morass into which the family had sunk.

For reasons that are unclear, Mrs. Wilson, traveling in the company of Mr. Iredell, decided to leave the rest of the family and join her husband in Edenton. Iredell may have told her that Wilson was ill—a contemporary reported that Wilson’s “poor Wife gives it out that he is sick in Carolina.” In fact Wilson’s troubles, at this point, were probably more psychological than physical in nature; certainly his letters reflect a mind that was losing touch with reality. Perhaps Mrs. Wilson felt pangs of love for her distracted husband; perhaps she felt only a sense of duty; perhaps it was some combination, or something in between. What is clear is that she was distraught and in need of comfort. And Mr. Iredell—her escort on a difficult winter journey that would easily have taken two weeks, maybe more—was kind, sensitive, and concerned for her welfare, all the things her own husband was not. Who can say what might have happened between Philadelphia and Edenton, when these two attractive people (who, as their later correspondence shows, were clearly fond of one another) were thrown together against a background of intense emotional distress? It’s not hard to imagine a scene in which a sobbing Mrs. Wilson leans her head on Mr. Iredell’s sympathetic shoulder, and one thing leads to another.

THAT’S NOT TO SAY, however, that they lost their heads and fell madly, and permanently, in love. Perhaps Mrs. Wilson allowed herself a moment’s fantasy of what life would have been like if she’d married a relatively modest and reliable type like Mr. Iredell instead of a great man who lusted after wealth and glory and who was now, as a result, reduced to a shabby and neardelusional shadow of his former self. And maybe Mr. Iredell wistfully imagined himself with a wife who sparkled in a crowd instead of shrinking. But when they reached Edenton, the travelers returned to their respective spouses. Iredell was presumably as glad to see his family as ever—he was sometimes so agitated at parting from them that he felt physically ill—although one wonders if Mrs. Iredell was less than thrilled to see young, beautiful Mrs. Wilson leaning delicately on Mr. Iredell’s arm. Did she suspect that something had transpired between them on the journey?

As for Mrs. Wilson, she might well have been shocked to see the transformation in a husband from whom she’d been parted for six or more months. And, despite the comforting presence of Mr. Iredell, life in Edenton was no picnic. The Wilsons’ room and board at Horniblow’s tavern, a modest establishment just down the street from the Iredells, was expensive, their clothes were growing threadbare, and, as spring turned into summer, the coastal climate became hot and humid. Mrs. Wilson’s letters to Bird show that she was homesick; that she worried about the gossip back in Philadelphia (“write me what people say to our not coming home, you need not be afraid of distressing me, as I can hear nothing worse than I expect”); and that there was tension resulting from her unsuccessful attempts to convince Wilson to compromise with his creditors (“it is a subject that he never wishes to he[a]r mentioned. he says that he knows his own affairs best”). Perhaps, as well, Mrs. Wilson detected a certain coolness, even hostility, on the part of the taciturn Mrs. Iredell. It’s certainly understandable that when Mr. Iredell prepared to depart for Philadelphia in late July for the August sitting of the Supreme Court, Mrs. Wilson was tempted to leave her husband and go with him.

But she didn’t, and, as she wrote to Bird later, “I never should have forgiven myself if I had left him.” At just around the time Iredell would have been beginning his journey northward, Wilson really did become physically ill—with malaria, which was so endemic to the Edenton climate that one visitor expressed surprise that any child who lived there managed to survive to adulthood. His condition fluctuated for about a month, but on August 21, 1798—just hours after Iredell returned from the Supreme Court—James Wilson died. In a way, this development must have come as a relief. Wilson would certainly have suffered the disgrace of impeachment if he had lived and continued to neglect his judicial duties; and now Wilson’s heirs were at last free to reach an agreement with his creditors. But the only relief Hannah Wilson appears to have felt was that her husband’s suffering was “at an end”—“his mind had been in such a state for the last six months,” she wrote to Bird, “harassed and perplexed, that it was more than he could possibly bear.”

Not only was Mrs. Wilson’s grief genuine, her devotion to her husband in his final, delirious days and hours was nearly superhuman. “When he was sensible he took so much pleasure in seeing me by him,” she wrote to Bird, “and requested me not to leave him, but that was not five minutes at a time, I had not my cloaths off, for three days and nights, nor left him till the evening of his death, when I could not bear the scene any longer.” Mr. Iredell confirmed this account, although he had not witnessed the ordeal at first hand: “What she underwent for some days previous to the unfortunate event [Wilson’s death] of anxiety, trouble [handwriting unclear], and distress, I believe no language could paint.”

What accounts for this display of wifely self-sacrifice toward a husband who seems to have done little to deserve it? My own theory is that what drew Mrs. Wilson to her husband initially was not simply the allure of wealth and power. More than that, it was the thought that this great man, before whom people bowed and scraped, was prostrate at her feet—that he needed her desperately. Her affection for him may have waned as he neglected her and seemed to need her less, but now, at last, though no longer a great man, he needed her desperately again. And her love for him—or her need to be needed, or whatever you care to call it—was rekindled.

What happened next is particularly tantalizing in the context of the narrative I have constructed: Mrs. Wilson, broken in spirit and health and penniless to boot, moved in with the Iredells. “Mr. Iredell has been kind beyond every thing,” Mrs. Wilson wrote to Bird. “he has watched by me night and day.” And how did Mrs. Iredell view her husband’s solicitousness toward their guest? Was she softened and reassured by Mrs. Wilson’s admirable behavior at her husband’s deathbed? I like to think that the two women—outwardly so dissimilar, and perhaps even hostile to one another—found some common ground in the hours they spent together. Perhaps Mrs. Wilson came to realize that, beneath Mrs. Iredell’s reticence, there was a lively mind and a good heart. Perhaps they talked of the trials and tribulations of their respective marriages, the way each of them had been led by her husband down a path she herself would not have chosen—or the wrenching loss of a first child, which they had both suffered. Perhaps, in the end, what Mr. Iredell wrote to Bird Wilson was true: “Whenever the time arrives when Mrs. Iredell must part with [Mrs. Wilson] she will regret it most painfully.”

Mrs. Wilson remained with the Iredells until it was time for Mr. Iredell to travel back to Philadelphia for the February sitting of the Supreme Court, at which point she accompanied him. Let’s assume, to round out our story, that this return trip was an entirely chaste one, now that emotions were more subdued and Mrs. Wilson had formed a bond of mutual respect with Mrs. Iredell. And yet the two of them, Mrs. Wilson and Mr. Iredell, clearly remained close friends. Iredell stayed in the Philadelphia area until late May, holding various circuit courts, and his letters indicate that he saw Mrs. Wilson frequently—she even chose some muslin that Mr. Iredell brought back for his wife. He also made Mrs. Wilson a present of a book of poems—James Thomson’s Seasons—writing in an accompanying note that he hoped “that it may sometimes be the means of recalling to your recollection the person who presented it.” He added, rather charmingly, “You will, I flatter myself, forgive this selfish motive . . . in consideration of the earnest wish I naturally feel to live with some esteem in your memory as long as I possibly can.” Mrs. Wilson—apparently staying not with her stepchildren, who seem to have dropped out of the picture, but with some wealthy friends—wrote him at least two letters that were long and chatty. (“It is with writing as with talking,” she wrote gaily at the end of one of them, “when a woman once begins, she never knows when to leave off.”) She also expressed her extreme disappointment that Mr. Iredell did not attend the August 1799 sitting of the Supreme Court because he was ill. This may have been the last correspondence between them: James Iredell died in Edenton two months later.

Hannah Wilson went on to marry again, to have another child, and to take up residence in London, where she died in 1808 at the age of 34. Perhaps she kept Thomson’s Seasons with her to the end; perhaps from time to time, she would leaf through it and, as Mr. Iredell had hoped, fondly remember the man who had given it to her. Perhaps, without realizing it, she smiled, and her second husband wondered why.

IT’S QUITE POSSIBLE, of course, that things didn’t unfold in this way—that the relationship between Mr. Iredell and Mrs. Wilson was nothing more than a courtly 18th-century friendship, that Mrs. Iredell never felt anything but admiration for Mrs. Wilson. But I like to think that, in the hours I’ve spent reading these letters and filling in the gaps between them, I’ve at least been able to grasp the essential character of the people who wrote them. Even if they didn’t do exactly the things I’ve ascribed to them, they could have. And in trying to imagine what they might have done or thought or said, I’ve had to find parts of myself that correspond to things like Hannah Iredell’s shyness, Hannah Wilson’s need to be needed, James Iredell’s wistful yearning for a spouse who better matched his own personality, and even James Wilson’s stubborn persistence on a path that led to ruin. I may not have hit the bull’s eye on historical truth, but I feel I’ve gained something else: a direct and immediate connection to people who lived long ago, in a world very distant from my own. And, in a way, it’s their very distance—a distance that has forced me to slip into their skin in order to solve the mysteries they left behind—that has enabled me to achieve that sense of closeness.

Natalie Wexler is an associate editor of The Documentary History of the Supreme Court of the United States, 1789–1800.


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