By ADAM BENSON, The Bulletin of Norwich
NORWICH, Conn. (AP) _ There are no statues of Benedict Arnold in Norwich. There are no schools or parks bearing his name.
Arnold Place, a small asphalt tributary of Route 32 just south of The William W. Backus Hospital, is a dead end–perhaps a symbol of the Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor who was born in Norwich on Jan. 14, 1741, to Benedict Arnold and Hannah Waterman King in a homestead on what is now Washington Street.
But if a group of city artists, economic development officials and preservationists get their way, the nation’s most famous traitor will finally be acknowledged by his hometown.
Arnold will be the subject of a new, original musical at the Spirit of Broadway Theater in just a few months. Rarely seen artifacts from his homestead will be on display at the Leffingwell House Museum. And there’s even a planned Benedict Arnold walking tour built around his old stomping grounds.
“It is about saying, `This is Norwich, this is who we are,”’ said Brett Bernardini, the theater’s founder and creative director. “Nobody else can lay claim to this man, and whether you want to or not, we can and should.”
Bernardini is partnering with organizations, including the Norwich Historical Society, the Norwich Community Development Corp. and the Leffingwell House, to create a week of Arnold-themed events in September, hoping to capitalize on Arnold’s role in American history and draw tourism year after year.
Another major Connecticut city already recognizes Arnold in a very public way.
Every April since 1904, New Haven has celebrated Powder House Day in commemoration of Arnold’s demand that, on April 22, 1775, city leaders open their munitions depot to the Governor’s Foot Guard so members could arm themselves as they marched to Cambridge, Mass., to fight the British after the Battle of Lexington.
Greg Farlow, vice president of the Leffingwell House Museum’s board of directors, said pieces of Arnold’s early days in the Rose City will be dusted off for the first time in more than a century for the public to view, including a key to his house and several pieces of clapboard from his Washington Street residence.
“It is time to get him out of hiding,” Farlow said. “We know that he’s been inside our building in the tavern, because he lived across the street, so we kind of have to embrace the man.”
Denison Gibbs, a Norwich resident and historian who was close friends with the late Bill Stanley, said Arnold has been persona non grata here for far too long.
“I applaud the effort to create awareness about what Benedict Arnold represented, and I’m in favor of it,” Gibbs said. “This period of time in our nation’s history was very confusing. Many people were on both sides of the issue.”
Robert Gross, a history professor at UConn whose 1976 book, “The Minutemen and Their World,” was awarded Columbia University’s Bancroft Prize, is curious to find out whether Norwich’s plan will work.
“It’s a good idea,” he said. “But Connecticut is still revolutionary, not traitorous.”
The musical, with a working title of “Benedict Arnold,” is being written by Jeffrey Lodin, William Squier and Richard Vetere. It’s set to run from Sept. 11 through Oct. 13, and will be a part of the theater’s schedule for at least the next three years, Bernardini said. Its tagline is, “He pledged allegiance … but to who?”
The walking tour will include stops at such places as the Meeting House Rocks in Norwichtown and the Lathrop Home at 380 Washington St., where Arnold spent five years as an indentured servant. But it won’t include the site of his birthplace on Washington Street.
Arnold’s mother is buried at the Old Norwichtown Burial Ground. She died in 1758.
Arnold was a star in the Continental Army, commanding American forces to a decisive win at the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, which is considered a turning point in the Revolutionary War.
A few years later, he defected to the British and led a series of attacks that included the burning of New London in 1781 during the Battle of Groton Heights. He died in London in 1801.
Arnold remains such a lightning rod that Bernardini said many faithful Spirit of Broadway donors have withdrawn funding for the enterprise. It cost about $30,000 to commission the work, and another $100,000 in production costs, he said.
Jason Vincent, Norwich Community Development Corp.’s vice president, said officials are confident Arnold’s place in American lore is enough to bring in tourism dollars without much of an outlay.
“We’re not spending a lot of money testing the market and seeing if it’s there. We believe this name brand recognition exists,” he said.
The concept is to make the Arnold recognition a yearly tradition, eventually accessing grant money to help build it up, he said.
“This first year is really just kind of figuring it out ourselves. How do we capitalize on this asset?” Vincent said.
Organizers promise to go deeper than providing a rundown of the things most people already know. For example, what role did Peggy Shippen, Arnold’s second wife with known Loyalist leanings, play in his decision to become a turncoat?
“I am not going to pass judgment on whether this man is a traitor or not. I am fascinated by who the man was, by the influence of his wife, by what the character of the man was,” Bernardini said.
Information from: Norwich Bulletin, http://www.norwichbulletin.com