Revolutionary Chess Ladies


The second half of the 18th century was an fascinating time for the Western world as well as an interesting, if cloudy, time for chess.  Two major revolutions took place - one in America, one in France.  Philidor, whose home and family were in France, spent a lot of time in London plying his chess trade.  Philidor left for London in 1792 when the Reign of Terror was but a hint, but, probably due to his associations with the monarchy, was prevented from returning to Paris in 1793 and 1794. Before he could gain permission for a secure  passage home in 1795, after things had calmed down a bit, Philidor had become sick and soon died - and chess entered a new era.

Ben Franklin, who had even invaded an English lady's bath for games of chess and used chess for political intrigue, was old by the last quarter of the 18th century, but was suceeded in the enjoyment of this pasttime by other patriots such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and even Baron von Steuben.

A Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War: from 1775 to 1783
by Dr. James Thacher, MD,  surgeon in the American army, published in 1827, tells us:
"Dining at head quarters, which he [Baron von Steuben] did frequently, Mrs. Washington asked what amusement he had recourse to now that the certainty of peace had relaxed his labors. 'I read, my lady, and write, and play chess, and yesterday, for the first time, I went a fishing. "
"After the peace the Baron retired to a farm in the vicinity of New York, where, with forming a system for the organization and discipline of the militia, books, chess and the frequent visits of his numerous friends, he passed his time as agreeably as a frequent want of funds would permit."

This article is mainly concerned with the ladies of the American Revolution, but the previous reference to von Steuben was a necessary prelude to the following -

In the Olden Time: a Short History of the Descendants of John Murray, the Good  written by Sarah S. Murray in 1894 states:
pp 65-77

"Soon after his daughter's marriage Mr. Murray died, the house in Queen street was given up, and Beulah went to reside with Mrs. Willett [Beulah's sister -née Susan Murry] on Murray Hill. Gen. Gates was at this time their nearest neighbor, and Baron Steuben, once the aide-de-camp of Frederick the Great, lived not far off in a rustic dwelling. With these families there seemed to be considerable intimacy, and the ladies of Murray Hill, in their association with these patriots of the Revolution, must often have recalled the earlier days when such were strangers to them, and the red-coated royalists the only frequenters of their house. One may wonder if they ever recognized in the noble baron one of the four generals who pronounced the death sentence upon their old friend Major Andre, and bore him any grudge therefore.

Mrs. Willett was noted as a chess player. Her chess table, board, and ivory men were the gift of Baron Steuben. The gallant Thaddeus Kosciusko, the hero of the hour, who also prided himself upon his game, once challenged her. Too spirited to decline, she accepted the challenge, though greatly alarmed, on condition of being allowed to use her own board and men. It had doubtless often been a victorious battlefield for her in her engagements with the illustrious baron. A smile, it is said, flitted over the faces of those present when, upon seating herself, she called for "a glass of water." She beat him, and the stately Thaddeus of Warsaw, rising, bowed profoundly and said, " Madam, Kosciusko bows at your feet and acknowledges you his conqueror." The old chessboard and table are still in existence.

The fame of this lady's playing seems to have extended beyond her own country, for Mr. Grellette a French gentleman, writes, praying "that Mrs. Willett will begin a game of chess with him by correspondence," and Mr. K came to New York for the express purpose of meeting so great a proficient in the game."




Sarah Franklin Bache

Ben Franklin's only daughter, Sarah, aka Sally, married a merchant named Richard Bache.  Sally Bache was a chess player, taught the game by her father.
"It has been related that her father, with a view of accustoming her to bear disappointments with patience, was sometimes accustomed to request her to remain at home, and spend the evening over the chess-board, when she was on the point of going out to some meeting of her young friends. The cheerfulness which she displayed in every turn of fortune, proves that this discipline was not without its good effect." - Women of the American Revolution, 1900, by Elizabeth Fries Ellet, p. 395


Lucy Flucker Knox was the daughter of the Royal Secretary of the Province of Massachusetts, Thomas Knox.  She married Henry Knox, a bookstore owner and future Major General in Washington's Army.  Despite the conflicts in their family, Lucy and Henry had a strong marriage.  After the war, they lived in various places, such as Boston and New York, according to Knox's jobs and finally built a huge mansion in Maine called Montpelier after Madison's Virgina estate.

While James Madison was known to have been a chess player, his wife Dolley was more devoted to cards.  Dolley's sister, Anna Cutts, wrote her sister about her visit with Lucy in Boston in 1804:  "The town of Boston is all confusion. No regularity anywhere, and after New York and Philadelphia, it seemed as if I should be stifled.... We have very pleasant lodgings, and for my companion, the famous Madame Knox, who although very haughty, I find pleasant and sensible. Chess is now her mania which she plays extremely well, only too often for my fancy, who am not of late so partial to it. Every morning after breakfast there is a summons from her ladyship, which if I attend, pins me to her apron-string until time to dress for dinner, after which she retires, again inviting me to battle. Out of twenty-one games, in only two, and a drawn game, has she shown me any mercy; she is certainly the most successful player I have ever encountered."

Both Henry and Lucy Knox were rather portly.  The silhouette above, the only existing representation of Lucy Knox, is a caricature created by one of the five sons of Robert Morris, whose loans during the war enabled Washington to pay his troops.



Once again, I and the readers owe a debt of gratitude to my dear friend, Deb, who alerted me to these ladies, excited my interest and supplied me with much of the information.