Local anti-hero Benedict Arnold could draw tourists to Rose City

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwich - posted Mon., Aug. 12, 2013
Norwich native Benedict Arnold's legacy could be transformed from consummate traitor to local-history tourist draw, say officials. Courtesy photo. - Contributed Photo

The city could turn one of its most famous – or infamous – native sons into a source of cultural tourism revenue. But first, it would have to get past its decidedly ambivalent relationship with Benedict Arnold, the man whose very name is synonymous with “traitor.”

“There’s such a great history with Benedict Arnold. Why not use it? Who else can claim it?” said Brett Bernardini, whose Spirit of Broadway Theater in Norwich has commissioned the script for a musical stage production about Arnold. The play would be a central event in the proposed Benedict Arnold Week in September, complete with walking tours and other special events. But the stigma attached to the Arnold name, which has survived two centuries, shows no sign of fading completely. “It’s really, really silly, the pushback I’m getting on this project,” Bernardini said.

Arnold won widespread fame and respect as a commander of patriot forces at the start of the American Revolution. But perceived slights, lack of funding for his troops, and refusal of advancements in rank led him to betray the revolution and attempt to capture West Point. Perhaps his most notorious act – the one for which many 21st century locals still haven’t forgiven him – was the burning of New London in 1781 and the carnage that ensued during the capture of Fort Griswold in Groton, both by British troops under his command.

While local sentiment about Arnold has never been warm, Norwich Historical Society President William Champagne said that the Arnold connection is a way to interest the wider public in local history. He pointed out that other communities have turned their less-than-savory history into tourism cash cows, citing Salem, Mass., home of the infamous 17th-century witch trials, which now offers tours and theme museums on the topic. “Why sweep things under the carpet? Why not allow Benedict Arnold’s infamy to open up a discussion?” he said.

Champagne said a walking tour designed by Norwich Community Development Corporation intern Regan Miner would feature landmarks from Arnold’s years in the city, from Meetinghouse Rocks to the grave of his mother in the Ancient Burying Ground. According to a plaque at the gravesite, the stone markers for Arnold’s father and infant brother, both also named Benedict, were uprooted and removed by an angry mob after New London was torched.

Arnold’s actual birthplace, located on Washington Street, isn’t on the tour, although it’s marked by a commemorative plaque. The prefabricated house that now occupies the site is decidedly not 18th-century vintage. Champagne said that the city had been offered the chance to buy the lot years ago, but refused.

The Leffingwell House Museum, another 18th-century landmark, also plans an Arnold Week observance, said Champagne. Both he and Bernardini envision Arnold Week as an annual event.

Bernardini said that he hopes to fund the $30,000 commission for the  proposed musical with an online Kickstarter campaign. He estimated that the full production would cost at least $100,000 – considerably more than the theater’s usual productions, since sets and costumes would have to be constructed that could withstand repeated use for annual stagings. At press time, just under $10,000 had been pledged.

“If we don’t raise the money, I don’t know what we’re going to do,” he said. The playwrights have already begun work on the piece and would likely market it to another theater, and Arnold’s hometown would lose out, “which makes no sense to me,” Bernardini said.

Project supporters can pledge to the Benedict Arnold Project Kickstarter campaign at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/526171759/the-benedict-arnold-projec.... The pledge deadline is Aug. 22 at 9:50 a.m.

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