Benedict Arnold’s Heroic Leg

Here’s an odd ritual that you might like to attend, or at least know about.  This Saturday, September 20, 2014 at  1:00 pm, the “coffined heroic leg of Benedict Arnold” will be presented to Norwich officials for internment at the Leffingwell House Museum vault. 

It’s something that you might not have known about Benedict Arnold.

While the tradition of torching an effigy of Arnold as an American replacement for England’s Guy Fawkes Bonfire Night started quite soon after his infamous treachery in September 1781, it wasn’t until the 1800s that New Londoners altered the ceremony by cutting off one of the effigy’s legs and burying it in honor of Arnold’s considerable service to the American cause.   According to local historian Frances Manwaring Caulkins, the once popular annual burning had gone out of fashion by the late 19th century, but the quirky tradition has been renewed in recent years, and this Saturday’s internment in Norwich mark just one part of a series of events.

Here’s something else you might not have known about Benedict Arnold. 

Having grown up in 18th century Norwich, Connecticut, the son of Benedict Arnold, Sr. and Hannah Waterman King, it is reasonable to presume that he had a familiarity with the local Native communities.  Both sides of Arnold’s family frequently interacted with the Mohegans, either in business dealings or within ordinary daily life.  Some had purchased land from Uncas or Owaneco.  Others provided services to the tribe, like the Norwich apothecaries Daniel and Joshua Lothrop, Benedicts’ cousins.  And when the royal courts of review for the long-running Mohegan Case came to Norwich, as they did in 1738 and 1743, several of the Arnolds, Watermans, and Lothrops were witnesses, worked on investigatory committees, or met at the Leffingwell Inn and Tavern to socialize with the commissioners and staff.

As for Benedict himself, several historians have indicated that his boyhood companions included several Mohegan lads who taught him how to paddle a canoe, use snowshoes, and stalk deer.  According to one biographer, Benedict was taught how to throw and use a tomahawk by Ben Uncas, the Mohegan sachem.   Might he have used his familiarity with the Mohegan when recruiting for soldiers in 1775?  Possibly.  He organized (but did not command) the company under the eventual leadership of Colonel John Durkee of Norwich, a unit that included Jonathan Occom, John Ashbo, Samuel Ashbo, Joseph and Amos Tanner, Simon Choychoy, Peter Tecomwas, Amos Qui, and Noah Uncas.

So, if you’re feeling adventurous or want to take part in a pageant of historical events, stop by the Leffingwell House for the festivities.  (For a schedule and more information, click here.)  If you want to explore the connections between Arnold’s family and the local Native peoples, check out this document from the Yale Indian Papers Project Collection.  In 1758, when Benedict was 17, his uncle Oliver Arnold had an altercation with a Native woman employed in the Arnold household as a servant, for which she was arrested.  To access that document, click here.  To read more about Arnold’s apparently quite famous leg, click here.

The Leffingwell House Museum is a collaborative partner of the Yale Indian Papers Project and a member of the Southeastern Connecticut Cultural Coalition.

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