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Arts & Culture

'Burn The Traitor!' New London Keeps Revolutionary War-Era Tradition Alive

September 6th is the anniversary of the burning of New London during the Revolutionary War. British troops, under orders from former Patriot turned British loyalist Benedict Arnold looted and burned over 140 buildings in town.

In the decades following the incident, an effigy of Arnold was regularly paraded through town and ceremonially burned. The tradition eventually faded away, but in recent years a local theater company has stepped up to keep the ritual alive.

Benedict Arnold's name became synonymous with "traitor" about a year before the brutal raid on New London and the attack on Groton's Fort Griswold 238 years ago.

Derron Wood is the Executive Artistic Director of the New London-based Flock Theater. He said as early as 1782, the year after the raid, angry New Londoners, many who had survived the attack, took to the streets to vilify Arnold.

“The citizens of New London created an effigy of Benedict Arnold and paraded it through the streets, followed by a devil, and burnt him in effigy on the day of September 6th, or thereabouts,” said Wood.

Wood says the ritual of burning Benedict Arnold's effigy evolved over the years, later becoming more of a celebration with music and costumes. A group called the “Mustache Fusiliers” helped organize the event starting in the early 1800s.

“They were a group of prominent people in New London,” said Wood. “They would dress up in costumes and wear fake mustaches, and do military drills with rakes and gardening implements. They would march behind the effigy. They were a unique New London organization.”

The effigy burning caught on, and other cities like Philadelphia, New York and Boston adopted their own Benedict Arnold effigy burning rituals. But the tradition stopped after the Civil War.

That is, until Derron Wood decided to resurrect it about 8 years ago.

Credit A. Vincent Scarano / Flock Theater
Flock Theater
The effigy is marched through the streets of New London in a recent iteration of "The March of the Traitor."

Actors from the Flock Theater perform during the effigy parade as members of the “Mustache Fusiliers.” Piecing together information from old newspaper articles and other historic materials, Wood and the Flock Theater recreated what's called "The March of the Traitor" as faithfully as possible, down to the appearance of the effigy itself.

“They had painted on the effigy two faces, and so ours is a papier-mâché sculpted head with two faces,” said Wood. “ It was followed by someone dressed as the devil, and we have our devil, usually he is on stilts. We process with a fife and drum corps, there is musket fire, and sometimes there's cannon fire.”

Wood says in its modern iteration, the Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival turns downtown New London into a Mardi Gras-like celebration.

“The people of New London come out,” said Wood, “there’s music, and they cheer as the cannons go off and the muskets go off, they might scream ‘burn the traitor!”

This year's Burning of Benedict Arnold Festival takes place Saturday, September 14th in New London.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series “Where Art Thou?” Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of “Morning Edition”, and later of “All Things Considered.”

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