History/GWS 249 Reading Guide

The "Romance" of Elizabeth Whitman

  • Bryan Waterman, "Elizabeth Whitman's Disappearance and 'Disappointment'," William and Mary Quarterly 3rd Ser. LXVI.2 (Apr. 2009), 325-364.  JSTOR


  • Jane E. Locke, "Historical Preface, including A Memoir of the Author," The Coquette; or, The History of Eliza Wharton.  A Novel:  Founded on Fact (Boston, 1855), 3-30. (e-reserve)
  • Mary E. Crawford, "A Pre-Revolutionary Belle," The Romance of Old New England Churches (Boston, 1903), 11-43. (e-reserve)

Additional texts:


We will use this class as an exercise in pursuing research and analyzing sources.  The process began by reading Hannah Foster’s, The Coquette.  Since Foster’s title claimed that the novel was “founded on fact,” it raises questions about the actual story of Elizabeth Whitman.  A search for secondary sources that could provide information about Elizabeth Whitman yielded Brian Waterman’s essay.  In his text and his footnotes, he offers a remarkable bibliography of primary and secondary sources on Elizabeth Whitman and “Eliza Wharton” that could be used for a variety of research projects on Elizabeth Whitman, or on Hannah Foster’s version of Whitman’s story.  His particular study focuses on an array of newspaper reports and other sources from 1788 and 1789, which he groups into “three distinct waves of commentary” (330). 

  • What does Waterman emphasize in his analysis of those newspaper articles from July-Sept, 1788? 
  • Waterman reprints the early newspaper accounts in his closing section, “The Elizabeth Whitman Paper Trail.”  What do these accounts actually reveal about Elizabeth Whitman? 
  • How does Waterman analyze Hannah Foster’s novel in the context of the members of the elite male writing and publishing network who first discussed the circumstances surrounding Whitman’s mysterious death?  How might that earlier context have influenced—or constrained—her portrayal of Eliza and her moralizing at the end of the novel?
  • At the end of his article, in a discussion of the multiple meanings that later generations assigned to Elizabeth Whitman’s story, Waterman briefly discusses some of the mid- to late nineteenth century versions of the story written by women.  How do the accounts by Jane E. Locke and Mary E. Crawford (who borrowed substantially from Caroline Wells Healey Dall’s 1875 account) attempt to unravel the mystery of Elizabeth Whitman’s story?  What do they explain, emphasize, and why?
  • Are we any closer to knowing what happened to Elizabeth Whitman in the last years of her life?