Of the many known unknowns about the life of Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784), the first published African-American poet, one of the greatest has been her husband’s character. Until very recently, all we’ve had to go on were two very brief nineteenth-century accounts of John Peters (1746?–1801). The first depicts him as a failed grocer with an aspiration to gentility, who married Phillis in April 1778, and who abandoned her as she lay dying in desperate poverty 6 years later. He was also said to have been something of a handsome ne’er-do-well con man, who fraudulently posed as a lawyer or physician. We’re left with the image of a Dickensian villain in a tale of the decline and death of a duped sentimental heroine. But how reliable are those accounts? Census, church, court, prison, and “Taking Book” (tax assessments) provide an answer.
When or where Phillis Wheatley first met John Peters remains unknown. He was certainly a free man of African descent on 1 April 1778, when they announced their intention to marry later that year. Peters was a free man when he first appears in court records in 1776, identified as a “Shopkeeper.” He may never have been a slave. Their engagement may have been prompted by the death on 12 March 1778 of Phillis’s former owner, John Wheatley, with whom she had continued to live since having gained her freedom in 1773. He left her nothing. Phillis’s willingness to marry no doubt reflected at least in part a desire for some degree of social and economic security. But Phillis Wheatley and John Peters did not rush into marriage. She moved into his home months before they married on 26 November 1778, Thanksgiving Day.
Their marriage was initially prosperous and promising, according to tax and court records. Phillis and John Peters lived in a relatively upscale section of Boston. Peters and his white business partner sold rye, wheat, tea, nails, sugar, and other goods in the counties of western Massachusetts during the spring and summer of 1779. At a time when creditors often had to take debtors to court to collect what was owed them, Peters won one lawsuit against a debtor. But he simultaneously lost a much larger lawsuit by one of his own creditors in 1780. The debt he owed her was greater than his net worth. Faced with the choices of imprisonment for debt, or fleeing to avoid prosecution, Peters apparently chose the latter. He and Phillis disappeared from the public records for the duration of the American Revolution.
Phillis and John were definitely back in Boston by June 1784, when John Peters, “Labourer,” won another lawsuit against the debtor he had first sued in 1776. Winning, however, gained him nothing because his debtor had fled to England. The identification of Peters as a “Labourer” shouldn’t surprise us. In the eighteenth-century, especially during the depression following the Revolutionary War, many men had multiple occupational identities, simultaneously as well as successively.
“Shopkeeper” Peters successfully petitioned town officials on 28 July 1784 to allow him to sell liquor at the store he had recently opened in north Boston. His petition, however, may have alerted his creditors that he had returned to Boston, including the creditor to whom he had lost the lawsuit in 1780. John Peters was in prison for debt by the beginning of September 1784. Quarterly prison records show that he was in and out of jail for the next several years. He was probably in prison when Phillis Wheatley Peters died on 5 December 1784.
John Peters’ economic situation stabilized 12 years after Phillis’s death.
He had regained his economic footing by early 1788, and by 1790 he was clearly financially and socially upwardly mobile. The 1791 “Taking Book” acknowledges his claim to gentility, identifying him as a “Lawyer Physician Gent pintlesmith” (Pintles are the pins or bolts on which other parts, such as rudders or hinges, turn). Peters was not extraordinary in simultaneously practicing medicine, law, and multiple other careers.
Most eighteenth-century medical practitioners lacked medical degrees, and most had more than one occupation. Many were clergymen. Similarly, many men who practiced law lacked law degrees. Peters was certainly very experienced as both a defendant and plaintiff in the court. He was indicted in Boston in August 1793 on a charge of barratry for having been excessively litigious during the previous three years. The warrant for his arrest was issued in September 1793, but the charge was dropped the following February. The court had apparently made its point; Peters’ lawsuits ended after his indictment.
The nineteenth-century accounts mistakenly say that Peters eventually went south, and that where and when he died are unknown. He went instead north of Boston, to Charlestown, Massachusetts. A Boston newspaper reported in early March 1801 the death “At Charlestown, Dr John Peters, aged 55.” The administration of the estate of “John Peters late of Charlestown negro and physician, deceased, intestate,” dated 2 June 1801, shows that, like many of his white as well as black contemporaries, Peters died as he had often lived—in debt. His final effects may suggest some of the reasons Phillis Wheatley found him attractive. His collection of books indicates that he was an unusually well educated man, and perhaps a religious one as well. His horse, sleigh, feather bed, leather-bottomed chairs, and other luxury goods reflect his aspiration to be recognized as a gentleman.
The recently discovered evidence about John Peters’ life allows us to see him not as the feckless rogue found in the nineteenth-century accounts, but rather as an ambitious jack-of-all-trades, who never ceased striving to achieve the status that he felt he had earned.
Featured image credit: Title page of Wheatley’s Poems on various subjects, religious and moral, 1773. Houghton Library at Harvard University, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.