How much did New Londoners despise Benedict Arnold after the turncoat ordered the burning of their fair city?
Enough to return the favor - at least symbolically.
After the Sept. 6, 1781 inferno, city folks created a festival where revelers burned Benedict Arnold in effigy every Sept. 6. The event ended up spreading - like wildfire, if you will - to other parts of the country, and its popularity lasted for about 100 years.
"It's what I like to call the original Burning Man festival," says Derron Wood, artistic director of Flock Theatre.
Flock is reviving the tradition Saturday night during the Connecticut Schooner Festival in New London.
Alas, the performance group won't literally set fire to the Benedict Arnold puppet, which consists of papier mache and burlap. They will use huge staged flame effects instead. They are hoping that, next year, they can work with the city to get the okay for an actual burning.
In keeping with how Arnold was portrayed during the 18th-century festival, Flock's Arnold figure has two faces because, well, Americans viewed him as two-faced. He carries a mask, too, as if the public can never tell which face he's hiding. He's holding a mirror, because he was criticized for being vain.
And he has a detachable leg. Here's why: Arnold's right leg was wounded during battle while he was still fighting on the American side. So, in some places, before they'd burn the figure, they'd cut off the right leg - and bury it with high honors.
Flock will stay true to that custom, too. A representative from the Leffingwell House Museum in Norwich called to say they'd heard what Flock was doing - and to suggest they bury the effigy's leg in the Leffingwell's backyard. So, after the burning, the leg will make its way by boat to Norwich. And the leg will be placed in a wooden coffin made expressly for it. Someone even contacted the Leffingwell to donate the services of their antique hearse for transportation. The burial ceremony will happen at 2 p.m. Sept. 21 ceremony at the Leffingwell.
And it won't just be the Arnold effigy being paraded about at the Schooner Festival. As was done historically, the figure will be followed by a giant devil with a pitchfork - since Colonists figured he was on his way to eternal damnation.
Flock is incorporating something else they found in the past - a group formed in the 1800s called the "Moustache Fusiliers." They were members of the mayor's council and prominent businessmen who would dress up in fake military uniforms and slip on fake noses and fake moustaches. They'd parade around, conducting mock military drills on Sept. 6, in honor of the burning-of-Benedict-Arnold festival.
Modern-day versions of those Moustache Fusiliers will turn up Saturday during Flock's part of Schooner Fest.
Wood says, "Well, New London loves an eccentric festival, so this should be right up our alley. And people are having a blast with it right now."
Moustache Fusiliers T-shirts, in fact, have been selling well at Dev's on Bank and the Monte Cristo Bookshop.
"It's just sort of silly and fun and, at the same time, a great way to draw attention to the history that is so rich in New London and this region," Wood says.
So, from 6 to 8 p.m. Saturday, Flock will host a stationary parade, as they are calling it, with performances by the Mystic Garland, Not For Joe's and the Ancient Mariners. Then, around 7:30-7:45 p.m., Flock will hold Arnold "accountable for his grievous crimes against the City of New London and Liberty" - meaning firing up the faux flames.
In addition to the burning in effigy on Saturday, Flock will be involved with a presentation about Arnold Friday at the Thames Club. It's a roving party, with people gathering at the Thames Club and then travelling by bus to the Hempsted Houses and the Shaw Mansion, where they'll sample food and learn what happened in those buildings on the day Arnold burned New London.
They'll return to the Thames Club for dinner. While they eat, a Flock performance will take place around them, touching on decisions that pushed Arnold to become a traitor and on the burning of New London as seen through the eyes of various historical characters.
Burning of Benedict Arnold in effigy, 6-8 p.m. Saturday, Waterfront Park, New London; stationary parade 6-8 p.m., "burning" expected 7:30-7:45 p.m.; schoonerfest.com.
Roving Party, bus leaves at 5 p.m. from Thames Club, State Street, New London; dinner is at 7 p.m.; dinner, trip to two museums and show, $70; dinner and show, $60; (860) 443-5504.