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Benedict Arnold: Is the traitor really getting his just deserts?

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published September 22. 2013 4:00AM
Tim Cook/The Day
Historical re-enactors conduct guided tours Saturday at the Leffingwell House Museum in Norwich during a historic "visit" to the house by Benedict Arnold. A Benedict Arnold re-enactor was interviewed and tour groups discussed artifacts from Arnold's childhood at the museum.

Norwich - Benedict Arnold has had a rough month.

On Sept. 6, a likeness of the infamous Revolutionary War general, a man raised in Norwich, was burned in effigy as part of a revived New London tradition now associated with the city's Schooner Festival.

And on Saturday, Norwich Mayor Peter Nystrom accepted a representation of Arnold's "good leg" - the leg that he injured while fighting for American freedom, before becoming a turncoat and siding with the British - and sent it to a vault at the city's 1675 Leffingwell House Museum.

Later in the day, Arnold could be found at the Leffingwell House reminiscing about his early life in Norwich and explaining what turned him against the patriot cause. But a minister, overhearing the conversation, could contain himself no longer and rose from a wooden bench to shout an insult that much of the community has been waiting to hurl for more than 200 years.

"I suggest you leave this city and never return," the minister said.

It was only an imaginative homecoming for America's long-dead traitor, but Art Mueller, a WICH radio personality and community theater veteran who portrayed Arnold, said his performance was based on historical fact.

Mueller added that he believes Norwich should try to emulate the approach of Salem, Mass., which has embraced the history of the witch trials rather than try to bury it. Benedict Arnold, who famously guided the British in their 1781 burning of New London, has been "under-utilized" as a historical asset in Norwich, he said.

"We do not feel that we have to apologize for him, nor are we trying to condemn him," Mueller said after one of his eight brief performances. "We're just trying to tell the history."

It's a history also being embraced by the Spirit of Broadway Theater, which had a staged reading of "Benedict Arnold, the Musical," on Saturday and plans a final reading today.

According to Mueller's telling, Arnold faced tremendous financial pressures because of his initial support of the American cause, and many of the promises of compensation for his service went unfulfilled. He also lost his wife during the war and suffered many slights and false accusations from officers competing for power, despite badly injuring his leg leading a charge that reinvigorated Americans' fighting spirit during the Battle of Saratoga.

"If a man gives his heart, his soul, his bride and his children's inheritance to a cause ... and then be required to repeatedly defend himself - would that not drive any man to pause and rethink his position?" Mueller said during his performance.

Arnold lived just down the road from the Leffingwell House in a home on Washington Street that was destroyed by fire many years ago. He was the son of a well-off merchant also named Benedict Arnold who turned to drink and financial ruin after the deaths, in quick succession, of three children.

The elder Arnold could often be found at the Leffingwell Tavern, which had been in operation since 1701. His son would have to drag him from the tavern on many occasions, until the elder Arnold, whose wife also died before him, finally drank himself to death.

"He looked for too many solutions in the bottom of the glass," Mueller said in his portrayal of the younger Arnold.

Mueller recalled that Arnold, who according to legend never drank after seeing what it did to his father, found work during this dark period in the apothecary shop of cousins Daniel and Joshua Lathrop. He later started his own apothecary business in New Haven and left many of his Norwich ties behind, emerging as a wealthy man and helping to restore his family's good name - for a time.

But in the Leffingwell House, run by the Society of the Founders of Norwich, there was ample evidence Saturday that Benedict Arnold was hated in his day, perhaps none more powerful than an acrostic penned over two centuries ago by Norwich resident Oliver Arnold, a relative of Benedict. The piece ended:

"Let hell receive you riveted in chains,

Damned to the heated focus of its flames."

Greg Farlow, president of the society, said Arnold may still be reviled, but he is also remembered, and the traitor's fame will most likely impel the Norwich historical group to resurrect his memory again next year. The activities, he said, could include trials of Arnold by schoolchildren debating whether he should be condemned as a traitor.

"Anytime you can get the public involved in looking at history, they're also looking at themselves," Farlow said.

l.howard@theday.com

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The final staged reading of "Benedict Arnold, the Musical" will be performed at 2 p.m. today at Spirit of Broadway Theater, 24 Chestnut St. in Norwich. For more information, visit spiritofbroadway.org.

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