This anecdote is given in the first number of the American Quarterly Review, and is said to be taken from Lydia's own narration. It is mentioned or alluded to by several other authorities, and in letters written at the time. The story is familiar to many persons in Philadelphia, who heard it from their parents; so that there appears no reason to doubt its authenticity.
On the second day of December, 1777, late in the afternoon, an officer in the British uniform ascended the steps of a house in Second street, Philadelphia, immediately opposite the quarters occupied by General Howe, who, at that time, had full possession of the city. The house was plain and neat in its exterior, and well known to be tenanted by William and Lydia Darrah, members of the Society of Friends. It was the place chosen by the superior officers of the army for private conference, whenever it was necessary to hold consultations on subjects of importance; and selected, perhaps, on account of the unobtrusive character of its inmates, whose religion inculcated meekness and forbearance, and forbade them to practice the arts of war.
The officer, who seemed quite familiar with the mansion, knocked at the door. It was opened; and in the neatly furnished parlor he met the mistress, who spoke to him, calling him by name. It was the adjutant-general; and he appeared in haste to give an order. This was to desire that the backroom above stairs might be prepared for the reception that evening of himself and his friends, who were to meet there and remain late. " And be sure, Lydia," he concluded, "that your family are all in bed at an early hour. I shall expect you to attend to this request. When our guests are ready to leave the house, I will myself give you notice, that you may let us out, and extinguish the fire and candles."
Having delivered this order with an emphatic manner which showed that he relied much on the prudence and discretion of the person he addressed, the adjutant-general departed. Lydia betook herself to getting all things in readiness. But the words she had heard, especially the injunction to retire early, rang in her ears; and she could not divest herself of the indefinable feeling that something of importance was in agitation. While her hands were busy in duties that devolved upon her, her mind was no less actively at work. The evening closed in, and the officers came to the place of meeting. Lydia had ordered all her family to bed, and herself admitted the guests, after which she retired to her own apartment, and threw herself, without undressing, upon the bed.
But sleep refused to visit her eyelids. Her vague apprehensions gradually assumed more definite shape. She became more and more uneasy, till her nervous restlessness amounted to absolute terror. Unable longer to resist the impulse - not of curiosity, but surely of a far higher feeling - she slid from the bed, and taking off her shoes, passed noiselessly from her chamber and along the entry. Approaching cautiously the apartment in which the officers were assembled, she applied her ear to the key-hole. For a few moments she could distinguish but a word or two amid the murmur of voices; yet what she did hear but stimulated her eager desire to learn the important secret of the conclave.
At length there was profound silence, and a voice was heard reading a paper aloud. It was an order for the troops to quit the city on the night of the fourth, and march out to a secret attack upon the American army, then encamped at White Marsh.
Lydia had heard enough. She retreated softly to her own room, and laid herself quietly on the bed. In the deep stillness that reigned through the house, she could hear the beating of her own heart - the heart now throbbing with emotions to which no speech could give utterance. It seemed to her that but a few moments had elapsed, when there was a knocking at her door. She knew well what the signal meant, but took no heed. It was repeated, and more loudly; still she gave no answer. Again, and yet more loudly, the knocks were repeated; and then she rose quickly, and opened the door.
It was the adjutant-general, who came to inform her they were ready to depart. Lydia let them out, fastened the house, and extinguished the lights and fire. Again she returned to her chamber, and to bed; but repose was a stranger for the rest of the night. Her mind was more disquieted than ever. She thought of the danger that threatened the lives of thousands of her countrymen, and of the ruin that impended over the whole land. Something must be done, and that immediately, to avert this wide-spread destruction. Should she awaken her husband and inform him ? That would be to place him in special jeopardy, by rendering him a partaker of her secret; and he might, too, be less wary and prudent than herself. No, come what might, she would encounter the risk alone. After a petition for heavenly guidance, her resolution was formed; and she waited with composure, though sleep was impossible, till the dawn of day. Then she waked her husband, and informed him flour was wanted for the use of the household, and that it was necessary she should go to Frankfort to procure it. This was no uncommon occurrence; and her declining the attendance of the maid-servant excited little surprise. Taking the bag with her, she walked through the snow; having stopped first at head-quarters, obtained access to General Howe, and secured his written permission to pass the British lines.
The feelings of a wife and mother - one whose religion was that of love, and whose life was but a quiet round of domestic duties, bound on an enterprise so hazardous, and uncertain whether her life might not be the forfeit, may be better imagined than described. Lydia reached Frankford, distant four or five miles, and deposited her bag at the mill. Now commenced the dangers of her undertaking; for she pressed forward with all haste towards the outposts of the American army. Her determination was to apprise General Washington of the danger.
She was met on her way by an American officer, who had been selected by General Washington to gain information respecting the movements of the enemy. According to some authorities, this was Lieutenant-Colonel Craig, of the light horse. He immediately recognized her, and inquired whither she was going. In reply, she prayed him to alight and walk with her; which he did, ordering his men to keep in sight. To him she disclosed the secret, after having obtained from him a solemn promise not to betray her individually, since the British might take vengeance on her and her family.
The officer thanked her for her timely warning, and directed her to go to a house near at hand, where she might get something to eat. But Lydia preferred returning at once; and did so, while the officer made all haste to the commander-in-chief. Preparations were immediately made to give the enemy a fitting reception.
With a heart lightened and filled with thankfulness the intrepid woman pursued her way homeward, carrying the bag of flour which had served as the ostensible object of her journey. None suspected the grave, demure Quakeress of having snatched from the English their anticipated victory. Her demeanor was, as usual, quiet, orderly, and subdued, and she attended to the duties of her family with her wonted composure. But her heart beat, as late on the appointed night, she watched from her window the departure of the army - on what secret expedition bound, she knew too well! She listened breathlessly to the sound of their footsteps and the trampling of horses, till it died away in the distance, and silence reigned through the city.
Time never appeared to pass so slowly as during the interval which elapsed between the marching out and the return of the British troops. When at last the distant roll of the drum proclaimed their approach; when the sounds came nearer and nearer, and Lydia, who was watching at the window, saw the troops pass in martial order, the agony of anxiety she felt was too much for her strength, and she retreated from her post, not daring to ask a question, or manifest the least curiosity as to the event.
A sudden and loud knocking at her door was not calculated to lessen her apprehensions. She felt that the safety of her family depended on her self-possession at this critical moment. The visitor was the adjutant-general, who summoned her to his apartment. With a pale cheek, but composed, for she placed her trust in a higher Power, Lydia obeyed the summons.
The officer's face was clouded, and his expression stern. He locked the door with an air of mystery when Lydia entered, and motioned her to a seat. After a moment of silence, he said -
"Were any of your family up, Lydia, on the night when I received company in this house?"
"No," was the unhesitating reply. "They all retired at eight o'clock."
"It is very strange" - said the officer, and mused a few minutes. "You, I know, Lydia, were asleep; for I knocked at your door three times before you heard me - yet it is certain that we were betrayed. I am altogether at a loss to conceive who could have given the information of our intended attack to General Washington! On arriving near his encampment we found his cannon mounted, his troops under arms, and so prepared at every point to receive us, that we have been compelled to march back without injuring our enemy, like a parcel of fools."
It is not known whether the officer ever discovered to whom he was indebted for the disappointment.
But the pious quakeress blessed God for her preservation, and rejoiced that it was not necessary for her to utter an untruth in her own defence. And all who admire examples of courage and patriotism, especially those who enjoy the fruits of them, must honor the name of Lydia Darrah.