Later Life and Death


Before the publication of her book, “Poems on Various Subjects Religious and Moral”, Phillis traveled to England to meet her sponsor Selina Hastings. Phillis made an impression in the London society and networked among wealthy people. The sudden illness of Susanna Wheatley cut Phillis’ trip short as she felt obligated to return to Boston to nurse her master. As soon as she returned from England Phillis was manumitted.

As a free slave Phillis remained in the Wheatley residence until 1778 when John Wheatley died. Mary died the same year. John left all his possessions to his children and Phillis was not mentioned in his will. Phillis was left alone suffering from the loss of her closest friends.

In April of 1778 Phillis married John Peters, a free slave. It is not clear when and where Phillis met Peters. The first time he is mentioned is in a letter Phillis wrote to her friend Obour Tanner.

Phillis continued to write, working on proposals for two more volumes of her poetry but it never materialized as she could not find financial support. The war of independence was economically felt in every corner of the colonies, shortages of goods and lack of work was common. The manuscripts of her proposal were never found.

The couple had three children, none of them survived. John Peters could not hold a steady job, his business ventures failed and the family’s financial situation was dire. She had given him all she had from the sale of her book, he was eventually incarcerated for debt. It is ironic that as a slave Phillis had the freedom and support to be creative but as a free married woman she had none of it.


Phillis was pregnant at the time her husband abandoned her and lived the rest of her life in poverty. Phillis stopped writing in order to support herself and her soon to be born child. She found work in a boarding house, she was not used to physical work and soon she fell ill. She developed pneumonia and on December 5th, 1784 after giving birth to her daughter, Phillis died alone and poor, her daughter died the same day. Phillis was 31 years old.

No one knows for sure where Phillis and her newborn child were buried. Some historical sources say that she was buried in an unmarked grave at The Granary Burying Ground where John Wheatley was buried. Other sources say that she was buried in Copp’s Hill Burying Ground.


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