J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Burning Benedict Arnold in Connecticut

In its last issue for the year 1780, the Connecticut Journal carried a letter from the town of New Milford dated 31 October. It described yet another example of Americans converting customary Pope Night imagery into a condemnation of the recently revealed traitor Benedict Arnold:

On the evening of the 26th ult. [i.e., last month] the Infamous Traitor ARNOLD was carried through this town in effigy: He made his appearance sitting on his coffin, in a horse cart, hung round with several pair of splendid lanthorns; behind the Traitor stood the devil, who seemed however ashamed of so unprofitable a servant; the traitor being dress’d in uniform, pinioned, and properly accoutred for the gallows, having made the tour of the town, was brought under strong guard to the place of execution, where, in the view of some hundred spectators, he was formally hanged, cut down, and buried.

The numerous populace, express’d their universal contempt of the Traitor, by the hissing, explosion of a multitude of squibs and crackers with which they graced his exit; as well as their joy at the timely discovery of his hellish treason, by a beautiful illumination of the town. The whole procession and execution, with all things pertaining to the exhibition, were conducted with the greatest decency and good order. Thirteen vollies were fired by the guards, and three cheers given by the people in testimony of their joy that the States were rid of the traitor, which closed the scene.

On the breast of the traitor was fix’d a label, expressive of his real character; the justice of his condemnation; and a bequest of his soul to the Devil. A label from the Devil’s mouth announced his acceptance of the bequest, in regard to the traitor’s intentional service; but, on account of his motly performance, assigned him a place below every devil of enterprise and principle.
The printers added:
’Tis hoped the ever memorable 25th of SEPTEMBER, (the day when the blackest of crimes was unfolded) will be observed yearly throughout the United States of America, and handed down to the latest posterity, to the eternal disgrace of the TRAITOR.
People in Connecticut probably felt particularly betrayed by Benedict Arnold because he’d come from that state, and been one of its military heroes. But they hadn’t seen anything yet. The following September, Arnold led a devastating British raid on New London and Fort Griswold, shown above.

The online exhibit about colonial Boston’s 5th of November that I assembled for the Bostonian Society notes how New London commemorated Arnold’s raid for years. The boys of that town converted the traditional “Remember, remember, the 5th of November” chant into:
Don’t you remember, the 6th of September,
When Arnold burnt the town,...
TOMORROW: Burning almost all of Benedict Arnold in 1781.

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