From the Archives: Benedict Arnold’s hair
Why is a lock of Benedict Arnold’s hair at DU? One of the strangest items in DU’s archives is a read more…
Why is a lock of Benedict Arnold’s hair at DU?
One of the strangest items in DU’s archives is a braided lock of hair from New England Revolutionary War hero-turned-traitor Benedict Arnold. Wrapped in parchment paper, with the words “Genl Arnold’s Hair” written in fine black script, the tresses are part of a collection of memorabilia and letters from the Arnold family donated to the University in 1988, says Steve Fisher, curator of archives and special collections at Penrose Library.
The collection—cataloged and stored in two boxes in the DU archives—includes letters written by Arnold family members dating back to 1781.
How did the family papers—and the hair—of the Connecticut-born Arnold make their way to the University of Denver?
Fisher says the collection belonged to Arnold’s last living descendant and great-granddaughter, Helen Chadwick. As an elderly woman, Chadwick lived alone in a home near the University. After she died, the papers were left to a neighbor. The neighbor, a DU alumna, donated them to the University. Fisher says that DU history professor and early American scholar Joyce Goodfriend has made good use of the collection over the years, as have other researchers from DU and elsewhere.
Arnold was born in Norwich, Conn., on Jan. 14, 1741, and fought in the American Revolution with valor for five years on the rebel side before defecting to the British in 1780, sullying the family name on this side of the Atlantic forever.
Arnold died in London on June 14, 1801. The collection includes a letter written by Arnold’s wife to her sons informing them of their father’s death. Dated July 1, 1801, the letter says, in part, “My dear Sons, Your dear father, whose long declining state of health you have been acquainted with, is no more.”
In addition to dozens of letters faded with age but still legible, the collection includes a large coffee-table-book-sized album with the words “Collected by Helen Chadwick, great-granddaughter of Gen. Benedict Arnold” on the cover. The pages in the album include a written history of goings-on in the family, interspersed with memorabilia such as calling cards and newspaper and magazine clippings on the travails of Benedict Arnold.
About that lock of hair: It is not dated, but Fisher says it was not uncommon during that time to clip a lock of hair from the deceased, or for a person to cut a lock of their own hair and give it to a loved one as a keepsake before a long journey.
That lock brought Fisher a bit of fame in the 1990s, when the Society of Rocky Mountain Archivists had a contest for the “most unusual, far out, wacky, different kind of thing” in a collection, Fisher says.
“I said, ‘We have a lock of Benedict Arnold’s hair,’ and I won.”