A Knotty Problem

By Joe Craig, Park Ranger

Benedict Arnold’s desertion to the British in 1780 produced a firestorm of anger by Americans. It is arguable that no one was more outraged than General George Washington. Arnold had petitioned directly to Washington for the posting to West Point in order to betray it to the British. Washington saw Arnold’s actions as affronts on a very personal level.

Amid the fallout of the discovery of Arnold’s treasonous activities, and Major John Andre’s death by hanging, Henry Laurens of the Continental Congress wrote to Washington. In the letter he opined that Arnold was doubtlessly fearful of meeting the same fate as Andre. Perhaps Laurens felt that the notion of the once bold Arnold forever worrying about being hanged would somehow cheer up Washington. Washington retorted in a cold fury: “but I am Mistaken if at this time [Arnold] is undergoing the torments of Hell…He wants feeling…”

However, even George Washington could be wrong: Laurens assessment of Arnold’s state of mind was closer to the truth. Captain Johann Ewald of the Hesse-Cassel Leibjager Corps who served directly under Arnold in Virginia in 1781 noted: “In his military actions [Arnold] consistently displayed his former resolution, which however, was mixed with a cautious concern due to his fear of the gallows if he fell into the hands of his countrymen. He always carried a small pair of pistols in his pocket as a last resource to escape being hanged…”

This is a rather startling revelation about Arnold, a man whose daring in battle appeared to ignore the possibility of death. Why should such a bold individual who seemed to ignore the perils of enemy gunfire worry about being hanged? On a similar note, why should Major Andre have petitioned Washington to have his sentence of death changed from hanging to shooting?

For many modern observers dead is dead, whether it be by gunfire or rope. However, those who entertain this notion miss the symbolism of death by hanging that was very evident to Arnold, Andre and their contemporaries.

Death by hanging was considered to be a very shameful way to die. Those condemned to such a fate were usually convicted of theft or murder, or other very anti-social acts, like espionage or desertion to the enemy. Hangings were public affairs meant to set an example, and, above all terrorize.

In England, public hangings generated a variety of descriptive and darkly humorous terms. To die of a hempen fever was a jocular reference to the means of hanging, but other expressions describe the nastiness of the act. To dance upon nothing, or, to dance at the sheriff’s ball and loll out one’s tongue at the company remind us that the condemned were pushed off a cart and strangled slowly, their bodies violently struggling for air. Having a wry mouth and a pair of pissen breeches graphically shows the humiliating end where the body relaxes and urine and feces are involuntarily released. Hanging was calculated to be an undignified exit from this mortal coil.

Arguably, death on the battlefield could be even uglier and more lingering, but such demise could be contrived to be “heroic”, especially if one was an officer. Hanging on the other hand had layers of symbolism that were not lost on the 18th Century observer. The condemned, once dangling, was suspended between Heaven and Earth, symbolically excluding the hanged man from those two locales.

Perhaps worst of all, hanging was a method of destroying unwanted dogs in the Early Modern Period. Those condemned to be hang were unwanted dogs being shipped straight to Hell.

Benedict Arnold was very much in danger of suffering the same fate as John Andre. American Doctor James Thatcher expressed the outrage of many: “Could Arnold have been suspended on the gibbet erected for Andre, not a tear or sigh would have been produced, but exultation and joy would have been visible on every countenance.” The ballad, Death of Major Andre, noted that the hanging “fill’d each one with terror and caus’d their hearts to bleed/They wished that Andre was set free and Arnold in his stead”. Public tableau and processions consigned effigies of Arnold to the flames, and the man to Hell.

No, it definitely would not be a Good Thing for Arnold if he were captured by his former comrades in Arms. The “small pair of pistols” would allow him to avoid the humiliating revenge that was planned for him.

It is somewhat ironic to consider that Andre died a “shameful death”, and yet was mourned by his enemies and countrymen alike. A monument in his memory was erected in Westminster Abbey, and in 1821, Andre’s remains were removed to that distinguished spot.

By contrast, Arnold died of natural causes in relative obscurity in 1801, his passing barely noticed or mourned.


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