Or, How Ladies’ Gossip Tore Apart the White House
Once upon a time (roughly 1816 or so), a 17-year old Peggy married a man named John Bowie Timberlake, a 39-year-old former navy purser. Timberlake tried to open a store, Peggy gave birth to a little boy – but within six months, both ventures were struggling. The store went under and the couple lost their young child.
Two years later, the Timberlakes met the widowed senator John Eaton, and all quickly became good friends. When Timberlake decided he had to return to the navy to work off his debt, Peggy started helping her father with his tavern, a role she’d spent many of her girlish days filling when the bar needed an extra pair of hands.
And this is the time when Peggy gained her reputation for being “too bold,” which translates to “a woman that speaks her mind.” She openly discussed politics and expressed her opinion frankly, and Andrew Jackson, who often stayed at the tavern when Congress was in session, became quite taken with her. Always a fan of strong women, he wrote to his wife Rachel about her constantly.
Timberlake was only able to return home for short, occasional visits. When he was forced to leave on a four-year sea voyage, he wrote his wife telling her that if anything happened to him, “there is one man to whose hands I should be willing to entrust you, and that is John H. Eaton, the noblest work of God, an honest man.” He died at sea suffering from anxiety and depression, but gossip spread that Timberlake had killed himself while in a drunken stupor, supposedly unable to bear his wife’s infidelity with his friend, John Eaton.
No one is sure whether the rumors were true. Peggy and Eaton had developed feelings for each other, but did not marry after the news of her husband’s death. At least not right away that is. In 1829, less than a year after Timberlake passed, Peggy and John Eaton tied the knot.
And America went berserk. This went against all societal customs, mainly that of women waiting one year before remarrying. But life was short back then – when 30 was “over the hill.”
So the ladies began to shun. It began with Vice President Calhoun’s wife, Floride, who (with nose firmly turned-up) refused to pay the couple a visit after their honeymoon. While men ran the country, the women reigned over societal norms. The Cabinet Wives’ of the 1800s would have put the Real Housewives on Bravo to shame with their cattiness, expert snubbing, and endless gossip.
When Peggy complained to her buddy Andrew Jackson about the incessant gossip, he replied “I had rather have live vermin on my back than the tongue of one of these Washington women on my reputation.”
Jackson had always believed that it was his duty to protect all women, and the years of defending his beloved Rachel had made him intolerant of slanders against any woman. So, fighting man that he was, he set out to make things right. He would literally force her into social circles and demand the other women to be kind to Peggy. Years later, the scandal still followed her. Because of her sullied reputation, her husband was not able to regain his Senate seat. And while they stayed in the political scene for a few more years, the couple ultimately retired in 1840.
When Jackson died five years later, he was buried beside his Rachel at their home the Hermitage. In 1856, John Henry Eaton followed Jackson, leaving Peggy a widow once again.
But even then, her scandals were not at their end. In 1859, a 59-year old Peggy married the 19-year-old dancing master of her grandchildren, Antonio Buchignani. This Italian lover got her ostracized once again, but reporters and writers still came to her for the juicy details about her life. A perfect example of not letting others get in the way of your happiness and perhaps more importantly, that you’re never too old for love.