It is well known that the first universally hated American traitor was Benedict Arnold. In New London, Connecticut, they still hold the grudge to this day, which they demonstrate by burning his two-faced effigy once a year.
Arnold served as a general for the newly formed United States of America and was given control of West Point. He had a bone to pick with the military as he was passed over for promotions again and again with others taking credit for his accomplishments. He began a secret plot to turn over West Point to the British in exchange for the rank of brigadier general. However, the plan was found out. Arnold fled West Point, but was still accepted into the British army with the rank of brigadier general.
One of his campaigns as a turncoat happened to involve the Connecticut town of New London. It was doubly cruel as Arnold was born in Norwich, right next to New London, and his family was well known in the area. On September 6, 1781, Benedict Arnold attacked—as a British officer—New London and the neighboring townships on the Thames River.
These were important hot spots for mercantile trade as well as a strategic military center for control of the waterway. Arnold lead a brutal attack on his native county with British and Hessian troops burning, pillaging, and committing acts of terrorism. He led the last British victory of the American Revolution in the burning of New London, specifically ordering that “every building should be on fire.”
The citizenry of New London held a deep grudge, and they never forgave Arnold. His name became synonymous with traitor, and among the people of New London, they even still evoke his name as a form of insult or as a means to convey a purposeful arson.
In 1782, one year after the infamous traitor led the burning of New London, the townspeople paraded an effigy of Arnold through the streets and burned it on the anniversary of the brutal attack. This tradition continued all the way up to the Civil War. Because of the horrors of the Civil War, the tradition faded away… until… a history-loving theater troupe decided to resurrect it.
In 2013 the troupe, with very little organization, marched an effigy of Benedict Arnold down to the pier, dressed in colonial garb, and burned it. As they paraded it through the streets of New London, curious bystanders started following the procession, and the tradition was revived.
The effigy, complete with a papier-mâché head with two faces, is dressed in a British red coat uniform. Once the parade reaches the pier, the traitor, complete with a wooden shame sign around his neck, is displayed in his wooden cart until 8 p.m., when he is rolled to an empty blocked-off area, doused with flammables, and set on fire for the crowds to watch.
Still going strong half a decade later, the event has grown and is now accompanied by live music, a police escort, and the mayor traditionally performing the ceremonial “lighting.” The citizens of New London still rally around, with cries of “traitor” and “Burn him!”
Many start at the Shaw House and march all the way to the pier, but the parade still grows as it travels along Bank Street to the Waterfront Park. People leave bars and shops to stare and ultimately follow the procession. At the pier there are performances, puppets, performers on stilts, dancing, live music, and a beer tent.