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The Notorious Benedict Arnold
A True Story of Adventure, Heroism, & Treachery
By Steve Sheinkin
Roaring Brook PressCopyright © 2010 Steve Sheinkin
All rights reserved.
Clearing in the Woods
October 2, 1780
* * *
It was a beautiful place to die. The sky above the woods glowed blue, and the leaves on the trees were a riot of fall colors: sunshine yellow, campfire orange, blood red.
In a grassy clearing, a small group of American soldiers quickly built a gallows. It was a simple structure, made of two tall, forked logs stuck into the ground, with a third log laid horizontally between the forks. The soldiers tied one end of a rope to the middle of the horizontal log, letting the other end hang down. There was no platform to stand on, no trapdoor to fall through — the prisoner would have to climb onto a wagon with the rope looped around his throat. Horses would jerk the wagon forward, and he would tumble off the back. The force of his falling weight should be enough to snap a man's neck.
As the soldiers worked, a crowd began to gather. Officers rode up and sat still on their horses. Soldiers and citizens from nearby towns gradually filled the clearing. By late afternoon, hundreds of people surrounded the gallows, and thousands lined the road leading to it. It was a somber crowd. People spoke in whispers, if at all.
Shortly before five o'clock, a wagon carrying a plain, pine coffin rattled along the road and into the clearing. The driver stopped his horses just beyond the gallows, with the wagon lined up under the dangling rope. The ghoulish figure of a hangman appeared, his face sloppily smeared with black axle grease to disguise his identity. He stood by the wagon and waited.
A few minutes after five, the distant sounds of a fife and drum band reached the clearing. The music grew louder, and the crowd recognized the tune — a funeral march. Soon the players came into view, stepping slowly and heavily in time with the music.
Behind the band marched the prisoner. He wore a spotless officer's uniform, his long hair pulled back and tied neatly behind his neck. When he reached the clearing he saw the gallows and stopped. The color drained from his skin. He swallowed, making a visibly painful effort to force the saliva down his throat. Then he began marching again, walking steadily toward his death.
But this is the end of the story. The story begins thirty-nine years earlier and 125 miles to the east, in the busy port town of Norwich, Connecticut. The story begins with Benedict Arnold.
January 14, 1741
* * *
He was the sixth Benedict Arnold.
The first Benedict Arnold sailed from England to America in the early 1600s. He settled with his family in Newport, Rhode Island, became a wealthy landowner, and was elected governor of Rhode Island ten times — still a record. His son, the second Benedict Arnold, mismanaged the family's estate and lost most of the money, though he did serve several terms in the colony's House of Deputies. The third Benedict Arnold was not elected to anything, as far as we know. He inherited just enough land for a modest farm, farmed badly, apprenticed his son to a barrel maker, and died poor.
Determined to turn the family fortunes around, the fourth Benedict Arnold learned to make barrels, moved to Norwich, Connecticut, and went to work for a prosperous merchant and sea captain named Absalom King. After King died suddenly of smallpox, Arnold married King's widow, Hannah, and himself became a captain and successful merchant. Hannah gave birth to the fifth Benedict Arnold in 1738, but the child died of fever at just ten months. She had a second son on January 14, 1741. The boy was given the same name as his dead brother.
The Arnolds feared for their new baby. He was born right in the middle of one of the coldest months on record in the northeast, before or since. Early in January a mass of arctic air blew down from Canada and sat on coastal Connecticut, driving temperatures far below zero and holding them there for twenty days. Frozen snow covered fields and towns, silent roads, and abandoned wharfs. The streams froze, then the rivers, then, for the first time in local memory, shallow sections of ocean. Families huddled indoors, shivering when they stepped a few feet from the fireplace. It was a very bad time to be a newborn.
The sixth Benedict Arnold surprised everyone by surviving.
Pranks and Plays
* * *
Ten-year-old Benedict Arnold walked through the streets of Norwich with a sack of corn over his shoulder. He was on his way to the mill to have the corn ground into cornmeal.
When Benedict got to the mill, he saw a line of people ahead of him. This was not a boy who liked to wait. Reluctantly taking his place in line, he stood watching the rushing stream turn the mill's huge wooden waterwheel. He looked again at the people in front of him — impatient boys and chatting adults: a perfect little audience.
Without a word, Benedict dropped his sack of corn, sprinted to the bank of the stream, and leaped through the air toward the spinning waterwheel. He slammed hard into the turning wheel, but managed to grab hold of one of the wet wooden spokes. Wrapping his body around the soggy wood, he rose high in the air, then swung upside down as the wheel turned, disappearing underwater. Seconds later he burst up with the wheel, dripping and smiling.
As he rose for another spin, he turned toward the line of people outside the mill. The boys grinned with admiration; the adults were in shock. The best part: they were all looking at him.
The people of Norwich soon got used to this kind of behavior. One local resident remembered young Benedict Arnold as a "daredevil." Another, an early teacher, called him "a bright boy, so full of pranks and plays."
Locals described Benedict as lean and strong, always carefully dressed in fine clothes. When not stuck in school or church, Benedict could be seen running or swimming, or sailing small boats, or jumping onto ships at the wharf and wriggling up the tallest masts just for the joy of the challenge. If the ship's captain came out to curse him, he'd dive off into the river and swim to a safe distance. He was a thrill seeker, a natural athlete, a born show-off.
When Benedict was eleven years old, his parents sent him to a respected boarding school in the nearby town of Canterbury. There his troubles began.
* * *
In August 1753, Benedict opened a letter from his mother, Hannah. He was expecting routine news about his father and his three younger sisters: Hannah, Mary, and Elizabeth. Instead he read: "Deaths are multiplying all 'round us, and more daily expected, and how soon our time will come, we know not."
An epidemic of yellow fever was ripping through Norwich, and Benedict's sisters all had the telltale chills and yellow eyes. Benedict wanted to rush home to be with his family, but his mother refused to let him come — not while the deadly fever was still spreading. So he stayed at school, helplessly waiting for news.
Two weeks later his mother sent a terrifying update: "For three or four days past we looked on Mary as one just stepping off the banks of time, and to all appearances, Hannah just behind." Prepare for the worst, she told her son. "What God is about to do with us I know not," she wrote, "We have a very uncertain stay in this world."
The next letter brought more news: Hannah seemed to be out of danger, but eight-year-old Mary was dead. Soon after that, his youngest sister, Elizabeth, also died. Benedict could not come home for the funerals for fear of catching the fever.
It was at about this time that twelve-year-old Benedict's "pranks and plays" took on a different, more aggressive form. One day a barn near his schoolhouse caught fire, and Benedict and the other boys ran out to watch it burn. Their teacher arrived moments later, glanced through the small crowd, and demanded to know where Arnold had gone. The boys looked around. He had been there a moment earlier.
Then the mystery was solved — everyone looked up at the burning barn and there, on top of the slanted roof, holding out his arms for balance, was Benedict Arnold. Through black smoke and rising orange flames the boys and teacher watched Benedict walk from one end of the barn to the other. Death may have taken his sisters. Balancing on the burning roof, Benedict was fighting back, letting death know he would not go quietly.
The yellow fever epidemic eventually ran its course in Norwich, but the Arnold family troubles only deepened. Throughout Benedict's early childhood, the Arnolds had been among the richest families in Norwich. But that was changing. An economic slowdown in New England was killing his father's shipping business. As debts piled higher, creditors began threatening to have Captain Arnold arrested for his failure to pay. The constant stress fueled an even bigger problem: Captain Arnold's drinking. He'd always enjoyed his rum, but after watching his daughters die and his business collapse, he started drinking more frequently, more heavily.
"Your father is in a poor state of health," Benedict's mother wrote to the boy, disguising the true cause of the illness. She couldn't cover it up for long, though. The family's money ran out, and the Arnolds had to pull Benedict from his expensive school when he was thirteen.
Benedict may have been a troublemaker at school, but he actually enjoyed the classes and had been doing well, especially in math and Latin. He was disappointed to be forced to quit. And he was embarrassed to come home so suddenly, especially when he realized that everyone in town was gossiping about the fall of the once-proud Arnold family.
The angry teenager's response was to push his public stunts further and further. When Norwich celebrated the anniversary of a British victory over the hated French, Benedict got his hands on a pouch of gunpowder, dumped the powder down the barrel of a small cannon on the town green, followed it up with a lit match, and leaped backward. He yelled "Huzza!" as the cannon spit fire past his face.
Soon after that, he celebrated another local holiday by leading a group of boys down to a waterfront shop and stealing some empty barrels. The plan was to make an enormous bonfire. But the shop owner saw the theft and shouted for help. When a constable came running, the boys left the barrels behind — all the boys except Benedict, that is, who stripped off his coat and dared the big man to a fistfight. He continued challenging the constable, even as the much stronger man carried him, kicking and cursing, from the street.
Within a year of Benedict's return to Norwich, his father was finally arrested and jailed briefly for not paying his debts. The family's dreams of sending Benedict to college were abandoned.
Unable to handle both a husband incapacitated by alcohol and an increasingly wild son, Hannah arranged for the fourteen-year-old Benedict to spend the next seven years as an apprentice with Daniel Lathrop, a relative of hers who ran an apothecary shop in town.
There are only scraps of evidence from this period, and they suggest that Benedict recognized this as a valuable opportunity, and behaved well. Channeling his energy into hard work, he learned to mix medicines and run the store. The only trouble came during the French and Indian War, when Arnold, then eighteen, ran off, without permission, to join the fighting. He was training at an army camp in New York when he heard from someone who'd recently come from Norwich that his mother was very sick, possibly dying. Arnold deserted the army and raced back to his family's home. He sat by his mother's bed for days, leaving only for brief periods to hide in the attic whenever army recruiters came through town. Hannah died in August 1759.
Arnold returned to the Lathrops' shop to finish his apprenticeship. He gained the Lathrops' trust, and they began sending him on trading voyages to Canada, the Caribbean, even Great Britain.
But life in Norwich was only getting worse, as Arnold's father slipped further out of control. Church leaders threatened him. The justice of the peace issued an arrest warrant, stating: "Benedict Arnold [Senior] of Norwich was drunk in said Norwich, so that he was disabled in the use of his understanding and reason."
Night after humiliating night, the younger Arnold was sent out to search the waterfront taverns for his father. He often had to literally drag the groaning, puking, crying man through the streets to their home. Curious eyes looked out from doorways and windows. Arnold felt the eyes watching him, judging him.
* * *
The old man finally died in 1762, leaving his son with nothing but debts and a fouled family name. Benedict Arnold was just twenty-one, but his many-sided character was already well formed. He was smart, a quick learner, and a hard worker with a ferocious determination to succeed. He longed for action, craved attention, and bristled at anything he perceived as criticism or disrespect. He respected authority when it suited him, but made his own rules when he felt the situation warranted. And he had a bold recklessness, a hunger for danger that both excited people and intimidated them. He was just beginning to realize what a useful weapon this could be.
These traits made an explosive mix, more than enough fuel to power a dazzling rise — and a spectacular crash.
Making of a Rebel
* * *
When Arnold's apprenticeship ended, the Lathrops gave him some money to help him get started on his own. Arnold sailed to London to buy goods and opened his own shop in New Haven, Connecticut. He sold books and maps, cosmetics and jewelry, and some of the medicines he'd been trained to make, including various cold cures and an aphrodisiac called "Francis' Female Elixir."
At twenty-one, Arnold was the head of his family, which included only himself and his eighteen-yearold sister, Hannah. Hannah helped run the business, taking over entirely when Arnold sailed off on long trading voyages. Arnold, in turn, took his position as head of the family seriously — perhaps too seriously. Late one night he was walking home with a friend when he saw, through the lighted living room window, Hannah sitting with a French gentleman, a man Arnold had warned to stay away from his young sister.
Arnold told his friend to go to the front door and open it loudly. While the friend walked toward the door, Arnold loaded and cocked a pistol, and crouched in the shrubs beneath the window. The friend opened the front door as instructed. Thinking it was Hannah's overprotective brother, the Frenchman leaped from the couch, tripped to the window, lifted the glass, jumped out, and sprinted down the dark street. Arnold took a shot toward the bouncing figure, purposely aiming just a little high.
That was the last time anyone saw Hannah's Frenchman.
Over the next few years, Arnold was too focused on business to care much about politics — until politics began to threaten his business.
Soon after the French and Indian War ended in 1763, the victorious but deeply indebted British government decided to tax the American colonists. With no representation in the British Parliament, colonists protested that Britain had no right to tax them. Along with merchants all over the Colonies, Arnold refused to pay the duties on imported goods. Instead he became a tax protester — and a smuggler. This led to an important turning point in Arnold's life.
In January 1766, a sailor named Peter Boles was seen sneaking into the customs house at the New Haven waterfront. The customs commissioner wasn't there, and Boles came back out moments later. But Arnold could guess what had just happened. Boles had meant to inform the commissioner that Arnold was importing goods without paying British taxes. He was hoping to collect a reward for turning Arnold in.
Boles, who'd been a sailor on Arnold's most recent trading trip, had some gripe against Arnold; we don't know the details. Arnold insisted that during the entire voyage Boles "was used with the greatest humanity." In any case, whatever Boles's grievance was, the sailors' unwritten code was clear: a man does not inform on his fellow sailors.
Excerpted from The Notorious Benedict Arnold by Steve Sheinkin. Copyright © 2010 Steve Sheinkin. Excerpted by permission of Roaring Brook Press.
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