Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Traitor's Ghost

New England cemeteries are living history.  Interactive, open air museums that boast of colonial revolt, romance, lives lived and lost.  As some of the earliest records of our nation, eighteenth century graveyards house the strongest roots of the American story.  Whether you are a history buff, a taphophile, a ghost seeker, nature lover, artist or a photographer, the graveyard welcomes all without prejudice. 
The key to the best New England cemeteries is a good story.  New England loves local lore!  One small cemetery in Norwich, Connecticut is a prime example.  Located just off Norwichtown Green, at the dead end of Cemetery Lane, the Old Burial Ground rests peacefully along a babbling brook and green meadow footpaths.  Revolutionary War soldiers’ remains mingle with early folk art death angels under lichen and moss.  There are headstones so crudely carved it takes a few tangled looks to read the epitaph.  Some stones stand hilltop in graceful repose- having withstood harsh New England elements for more than 200 years. Here, fearless sea captains rest alongside key players in the Declaration of Independence.   But it is the graves that are missing in the Old Burial Ground that get the most attention.  To this day, Hannah Arnold, a grieving mother and wife, is rumored to walk these grounds looking for her husband and sons. It is said, her most infamous son, Benedict Arnold, returns every Halloween on a ghostly white horse to ask his mother for the forgiveness of his sins.
Benedict Arnold, famed traitor of the Revolutionary War, was born and raised in Norwich.  Though he would be a very successful Continental Army General he felt he was slighted in both recognition and money for his service. He traded sides and gave key information to the British that cost the lives of many colonists.  In one particularly bloody battle in New London, Connecticut, a ship named Hannah exploded fueling the fires that would destroy the town.  Benedict’s mother, Hannah, and father, Benedict, died before these acts of treason took place.  But once the Norwich colonists heard of Benedict’s betrayal, an angry mob formed looking for revenge.  Angry citizens descended upon the Old Burial Ground and destroyed the gravesites.
In New England, legend and fact often mix to create campfire stories that are anchored in truth.  Playing in this graveyard as a child I heard both sides of the tale.  Some say the bodies of Benedict Arnold’s father and brother were dug up and destroyed by the angry mob. Details of the destruction depended on the storyteller and the tale grew longer with every new narrator. Others say only the headstones were toppled.  I remember one vivid story about the houses where he served as apprentice and the home where he was born were both burned to the ground. Details of the destruction depended on the storyteller and the tale grew longer with every new narrator.  The one certainty we all counted on: Never be in the graveyard at night, especially not Halloween night. 
No matter where one travels in New England, an early cemetery is in every town.  Ask a local and they are sure to share a haunted or intriguing tale. 
This story was originally published in Folk Magazine Summer 2013.

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