“That Greatest of All Possible Villains”: Benedict Arnold and the first slander case in New Brunswick, Part 1

Benedict Arnold
Benedict Arnold by Thomas Hart, 1776 (Public Domain via Wikimedia)

In May of 1779, Benedict Arnold informed the British of a planned American invasion of Canada, and from then, his name became synonymous with the word “traitor”.  

 

Benedict Arnold (1741-1801) was a Major General in the Continental Army under George Washington during the American Revolutionary War.  Some of the stories of Arnold’s wartime heroism and shenanigans have been told in the Major Andre, Vanderbeck and Jonathan Odell Atlantic Loyalist Connection blog posts. 

 

At the end of the Revolutionary War, Arnold moved back to London for a brief period, and then sailed for Saint John, New Brunswick, sometime around 1786 (he would stay until 1791).  There, Arnold was involved in a West Indian trading business with his son Richard, and Monson Hayt [also spelled as Munson Hoyt], a former Loyalist officer from New York who served in the Prince of Wales American Regiment. 

 

While in Saint John, Arnold initiated a series of legal actions, not sparing his friends and fellow Loyalists such as Edward Winslow. Legal wrangling was dear to Arnold’s heart. According to Barry K. Wilson, author of Benedict Arnold: A Traitor in our Midst, the minute books of the New Brunswick Supreme Court show that, during his short stay in NB, Arnold was in court 50 times!

 

Hayt and Arnold soon dissolved their partnership and became involved in a complicated series of legal actions. Hayt had borrowed money from Arnold and had given promissory notes for which he was unable to make payments. As a result, Arnold had Hayt arrested and took him to court to get back his money (to the tune of a little over 2,500 pounds). In a note from Hayt to Winslow, Hayt calls Benedict Arnold “that greatest of all possible villains.”

Note from Hayt
Letter from Monson Hoyt to Edward Winslow, 1789, Winslow family Papers, MG H 2, Vol 7-28, UNB Archives & Special Collections

The most significant of Benedict Arnold’s suits was against his previous business partner. On July 11, 1788, the building used by Arnold and Hayt to store their merchandise burned to the ground.  Benedict Arnold’s son Henry almost lost his life in the conflagration, as he often slept in that building.

 

Hayt publicly stated that he thought the fire had been deliberately set by Arnold for the sake of the insurance money. Arnold sued him for slander.  In an article written in 1958 for the Atlantic Advocate, Fredericton lawyer J. J. Fraser Winslow called this “the first slander case in New Brunswick.”

 

In the plea put in by Monson Hayt  regarding the statements which began the Arnold v Hayt slander case (New Brunswick Supreme Court July 17, 1790), Hayt proclaims: “I will convince the Court that you are the greatest rascal that ever was, that you burnt your own store, and I will prove it.”

Plea by Hayt
A plea put in by Monson Hayt that he made the statements which began the slander case, New Brunswick Supreme Court, 17 July 1790, Benedict Arnold and Monson Hayt fonds, MG H 3, File 6, UNB Archives & Special Collections

Benedict Arnold hired Ward Chipman to represent him. Chipman, a graduate of Harvard, was solicitor general of New Brunswick (1784-1808) and had written the charter for the City of Saint John. Hayt engaged Elias Hardy, a prominent Saint John lawyer. 

 

The case was tried on September 7, 1791 in the New Brunswick Supreme Court with a jury of 12 men. The court was held in an Episcopal church on Germain Street.  Hayt’s lawyer was restricted to asking only questions related directly to the case and that would not “besmirch” Arnold’s reputation.

 

The court records state: “After the evidence for the defence was all in, the Plaintiff called witnesses to rebut it, two of them being his sons (Richard and Henry) who were in the store at the time it was destroyed by fire.”  Arnold won the slander case against Hayt but received only a small amount of the £5000 he had claimed in damages.

Verdict Arnold case
The verdict given to Benedict Arnold of 20/- damages and 20/- costs, 1790
Benedict Arnold and Monson Hayt fonds MG H 3, File 8, UNB Archives & Special Collections

Shortly thereafter, a group burned Arnold in effigy in front of his home.  Can one blame the Arnold family for leaving Saint John and sailing back to London?

Stay tuned next week for Part II:  How did UNB Archives & Special Collections come by documents related to the Benedict Arnold v Monson Hayt case?  And…are they available digitally?  (Spoiler alert:  They are!)

 

Secondary Sources Used:

 

Louis Quigley,  “Benedict Arnold,”  https://mynewbrunswick.ca/benedict-arnold/  Accessed 14 April 2018.

J. J. Winslow Fraser, “The First Slander Trial in New Brunswick.”  Atlantic Advocate 49, no. 3, November 1958

 

 

Christine Lovelace has a MA in Records and Archives Management and is Archivist with UNB Archives & Special Collections.

 

 

SUBJECTS:  Benedict Arnold, loyalist, slander, Monson Hayt/ Munson Hoyt, Edward Winslow, Ward Chipman, Elias Hardy, Saint John, law, crime

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Benedict Arnold continues to be a controversial character in the 21st century. Was he hero or villain, or did he walk some middling ground as occasion – and inclination – demanded? Christine Lovelace’s recounting of the Arnold vs Hayt slander case adds still another dimension to Arnold’s character, and to the list of his acts of “heroism” and accusations of “shenanigans.” My curiosity was further piqued by her closing question: “How did UNB Archives & Special Collections come by documents related to the Benedict Arnold v Monson Hayt case?” The plot thickens …

Thank you for your interest in this topic!  Stayed tuned for the a post on digitization of papers on May 2nd. 

Benedict Arnold and the First Sailing Ship Built on the St. John River
Christine Lovelace’s article on Benedict Arnold “That Greatest of All Possible Villains” focuses on the first slander case in New Brunswick. One of my Loyalist ancestors, Issachar Currier, was involved in another New Brunswick first involving Benedict Arnold, the building of the first sailing ship on the St John River at Maugerville. Details of that ship the “Lord Sheffield” and the controversy surrounding it are found in the document mentioned at the end of the Lovelace article by Louis Quigley, “Benedict Arnold,” https://mynewbrunswick.ca/benedict-arnold/
“Arnold also commissioned the construction of a 300-ton sailing ship at Maugerville. But, true to form, relations between the shipbuilder and Arnold eventually soured. It was reported that the shipbuilder, Nehemiah Beckwith, believed he had been shortchanged by Arnold, who insisted on many expensive changes to the original plan, without compensation. The shortfall was so great that Beckwith was very nearly ruined financially through his dealings with Arnold. On June 6, 1786, The Gazette reported:
On Thursday last came through the falls of the City, now moored, a new and noble ship belonging to Brig. Gen. Arnold, upwards of 300 tons, of white oak, the Lord Sheffield, to be commanded by Capt. Alex Cameron. The General’s laudable efforts to promote the interests of this infant colony have during his short residence been very productive to its commercial advantage and as such deserve the praise of every well wisher to its prosperity.
The ship was christened “Lord Sheffield” in honour of a man who had championed the Loyalist cause in England. Serving as master of the vessel, Arnold made numerous trading forays to the West Indies.”
Issachar Currier was a shipwright from Amesbury/Salisbury, Mass. who came to New Brunswick in either late 1783 or early 1784 without his wife and family. In his July 1785 petition for land at Upper Gagetown he said he had been in the Province for 18 months helping to “build Mr. Beckwith’s ship”. He indicated he intended to set up a shipyard on the land he petitioned for. The grant was issued in 1786 and in 1799 Issachar received two lots at Kingsclear. There is a Currier Creek running through these lots and a Currier Basin was created in the head pond of the Mactaquac Dam in the 1960’s which partially flooded the front part of the lots granted to Issachar. He still owned the land in Upper Gagetown and Kingsclear when he died in 1807.
The Daily Telegraph, Saint John 18 March 1895 had the following article: “Shipbuilding Industry ... The first vessel constructed above the Falls was built for Benedict ARNOLD by Nehemiah BECKWITH, the great grandfather of J. Douglas HAZEN, M.P. Mr. Beckwith failed some what (a day or two) in his contract for the time of launching and Benedict Arnold refused to accept the vessel except at a ruinous reduction. Mr. Beckwith had to accept Arnold's terms greatly to his injury. It was a mean advantage.” (http://archives.gnb.ca/Search/NewspaperVitalStats/Details.aspx?culture=e... )
In July 1788 Nehemiah Beckwith petitioned the New Brunswick Legislature asking that a bill be passed discharging him from his debts. His memorial was read on 19 July 1788 and “ordered to lie on the table”. So, the Legislature did not agree to his request. (http://archives.gnb.ca/Search/RS24/DocumentViewer.aspx?culture=en-CA&rec...)
The Currier family continued building boats at Gagetown for at least two more generations. Captain David Currier, grandson of Issachar, began active life in charge of a passenger sloop and afterwards as that of the first river steamer. In a February 17, 1883 interview in the Saint John Daily Sun Captain Currier recalled his family moved from Upper Gagetown to St. John in 1805 and in 1810 to Kingsclear, thence to Maugerville in 1811, where his father (also named David) engaged in shipbuilding for different parties building the Eliza Ann, a brig of 350 tons for Capt. MacDonald; the Mary Ann, 200 tons for Nelson Deveber and several schooners for William Taylor and Benjamin Taylor. In 1813 “we removed to Gagetown where my father continued shipbuilding and was assisted by an elder brother of mine, Daniel Currier”.
As the Quigley article rightly concludes “Benedict Arnold remains, to this day in Saint John and almost everywhere, “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung.”

John Noble UE

Thank you very much for taking the time to bring addional information to this already intriguing story. If you would like to contribute a post to the blog, you can always contact us at mic@unb.ca.  

I enjoyed reading your response: Arnold’s escapades continue to surface in the twentieth-first century, adding to a well-established legacy of controversy and havoc. He may indeed be “unwept, unhonoured, and unsung” but he is still drawing attention through his dual roles of public figure AND rogue!

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