10 Surprising Facts About Benedict Arnold

When the Revolutionary War broke out, Benedict Arnold became one of America’s first military heroes. But within a few short years, patriots were comparing him unfavorably to the man who betrayed Jesus. As a disgusted Benjamin Franklin wrote to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Judas sold only one man, Arnold three millions [sic].”

That Arnold defected to the British army in 1780 is common knowledge. But before he switched allegiances, Arnold engineered some crucial victories for the colonist rebels and, by all accounts, led a pretty interesting life. Here are a few things you might not have known about one of America's most notorious traitors, who was born on this day in 1741.

1. HE WAS DESCENDED FROM RHODE ISLAND’S FIRST COLONIAL GOVERNOR.

Arnold was born on January 14, 1741 in Norwich, Connecticut—the fifth person in his family to be named Benedict Arnold. Among others, he shared the name with his father and great grandfather, the latter of whom was the first governor of the Rhode Island colony under the 1663 Royal Charter. A wealthy and respected landowner, he would intermittently remain governor until his death. He was laid to rest at a Newport cemetery that now bears his name: Arnold Burying Ground.

2. ARNOLD FOUGHT IN AT LEAST ONE DUEL.

Though he apprenticed at a druggists, and, as an adult, set up a profitable general store in New Haven, Arnold eventually decided to get into the shipping industry, purchasing three merchant vessels by the time he turned 26. He used the boats to trade goods in Canada and the West Indies. (The ventures would later give him a healthy disdain for British tax policies; to get around them, he—like many of his countrymen—ultimately turned to smuggling.) It was while traveling for business that Arnold would get into a disagreement that led to a duel.

On a trip to the Bay of Honduras, Arnold received an invitation to a get-together from a British captain named Croskie. Distracted by an upcoming voyage, Arnold forgot to respond and wound up missing the party. Hoping to smooth things over, Arnold paid Croskie a visit the next morning and apologized. The Brit was having none of it. Irked by Arnold’s apparent rudeness, Croskie called him “a damned Yankee destitute of good manners of those of a gentleman.” Now it was the New Englander’s turn to get offended. His honor impugned, Arnold challenged Croskie to a duel. In the showdown that resulted, the captain fired first—and missed. Then Arnold took aim. With a well-placed shot, he grazed Croskie, whose wound was taken care of by an on-site surgeon. Arnold called Croskie back to the field and proclaimed, “I give you notice, if you miss this time I shall kill you.” Not wishing to risk any further injuries, the British seaman offered an apology. This incident represents the only duel that Arnold is known to have participated in—although some historians believe he may have emerged victorious from one or two others.

3. HE INSPIRED A MINOR HOLIDAY BY COMMANDEERING BRITISH GUNPOWDER.

On April 19, 1775, the battles of Lexington and Concord broke out in eastern Massachusetts, marking the beginning of the Revolutionary War. Three days later, Benedict Arnold led New Haven’s local militia—the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard—to the city’s powder house, where its supply of emergency gunpowder was stored. He was met at the front door by the local selectmen and demanded the keys. At first they resisted, but it soon became clear that Arnold would be willing to force his way into the building if necessary. “None but the Almighty God shall prevent my marching!” he warned. Faced with the prospect of violence, the selectmen handed over the keys. The Second Company then rounded up all of the available gunpowder and began a march to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they rendezvoused with other rebel troops.

Since 1904, New Haven has been commemorating this chapter in its history with an annual Powder House Day celebration. Every spring, a reenactment of the standoff between Arnold and those selectmen takes place on the steps of City Hall. There, members of the Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard (which still exists) arrive in historically accurate regalia led by a member who plays Arnold himself.

4. HE TOOK PART IN A FAILED ATTEMPT TO CAPTURE CANADA.

Arnold made a name for himself by joining forces with Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys to capture Fort Ticonderoga on the New York side of Lake Champlain in May 1775. That fall, George Washington tapped him to lead a military expedition into Quebec. At the time, many Americans believed—falsely—that their Canadian neighbors would be willing to help them overthrow the British. Brigadier General Richard Montgomery and his men were sent to Montreal by way of the Champlain valley. Meanwhile, Arnold (by that time a Colonel) was given command of a second force that was to proceed upwards through Maine before attacking Quebec City.

This campaign wasn’t exactly Arnold’s finest hour. For starters, he’d been given a wildly inaccurate map of the area which led him to underestimate the distance between Maine and his destination. Since the trek took more time than Arnold had bargained for, his force inevitably depleted its food supply along the way. As a result, many of the men resorted to eating dogs, squirrel heads, and even leather. Severe storms and equipment-destroying flash floods did not help matters.

By the time Arnold finally reached Quebec City on November 8, 1775, the force of around 1100 he’d started out with had been whittled down to less than 600. That December, Montgomery and his men—who’d already captured Montreal—met up with Arnold’s demoralized group outside of Quebec City. On the final day of 1775, the Americans attacked. Montgomery was killed in the fray, more than 400 American soldiers were captured, and a splintering musket ball nearly cost Arnold his left leg. Despite this and other setbacks, the invaders from down south remained in Quebec until 10,000 British troops—accompanied by German mercenaries—arrived to force them out in May 1776.

5. AN ARNOLD-LED NAVAL FLEET THWARTED A MAJOR BRITISH ADVANCE.

Having driven Arnold and company from Canada, the Brits decided to go in for the kill. After advancing down to the northern shores of Lake Champlain, General Sir Guy Carleton ordered his men to construct a fleet of new ships from existing parts and available timber. Meanwhile, Arnold and General Horatio Gates set up shop in Skenesborough, located at the lake’s southern end. The Americans got to work building new ships of their own, which would sail alongside four vessels that Arnold and the Green Mountain Boys had captured in 1775. The stage was set for a naval clash that would have profound implications for the rest of the war.

On October 11, 1776, Arnold led the 15-ship American fleet into battle against Carleton’s newly-finished squadron of well-armed war vessels, which was making a beeline for Fort Ticonderoga. Concealing his forces in the strait between Valcour Island and the lake’s western banks, Arnold was able to catch the British off-guard—momentarily, anyway. Despite this sneak attack, Carleton’s superior weaponry took out 11 of Arnold’s ships, killing or capturing 200 rebels. But from a strategic standpoint, the confrontation worked out well for the colonies because it thwarted the General’s primary goal: recapturing Ticonderoga and then funneling Royal troops across the Champlain. The Battle of Valcour Island—along with all the ship-building that had preceded it—kept him busy until winter arrived. By November, the lake had started freezing over, which prompted Carleton to head back to Canada, where he and his men would remain until spring. His temporary retreat gave the Americans some desperately-needed time to prepare for Britain’s next invasion from the north.

In 1777, General John Burgoyne led 8000 troops down the Champlain Valley. At the Battles of Saratoga, the American forces were able to overwhelm them, forcing the General to surrender his army. More than anything else, it was this surprise victory that inspired France to enter the fray on the rebels’ behalf.

According to Alfred T. Mahan, a naval historian, “That the Americans were strong enough to impose the capitulation of Saratoga was due to the invaluable year of delay secured to them in 1776 by their little navy on Lake Champlain, created by the indomitable energy, and handled with the indomitable courage of the traitor, Benedict Arnold.” Arnold was injured at Saratoga when a bullet went through his leg and killed his horse, which then fell on and crushed the injured limb—the same one that had been wounded in Quebec. The Major General spent three months in the hospital; his leg never fully recovered and he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

6. HE SIGNED A LOYALTY OATH AT VALLEY FORGE.

In 1778, the Continental Congress made an attempt to weed out any closet loyalists that might be in its midst by forcing the army’s enlisted men and officers to sign standardized loyalty oaths—which they were also expected to read aloud before a witness. Arnold was presented with a copy when he visited Washington in Valley Forge that May. With no reported hesitation, Arnold recited and signed the document; the event was witnessed by Henry Knox, Washington’s future Secretary of War. Today, the signed agreement can be found at the National Archives.

7. ARNOLD SWITCHED SIDES IN PART BECAUSE HE FELT DISRESPECTED.

On June 18, 1778, after a nine-month occupation, British General Sir Henry Clinton and 15,000 troops withdrew from Philadelphia. (By relocating, Clinton hoped he might avoid any French ships that might visit the area.) Philadelphia, back under colonial control, needed a military commander; Washington picked Arnold, who would presumably be grateful for a post that wouldn’t tax his bad leg too much.

Philadelphia was a city known for its radicals, and Arnold was never able to make peace with them. Instead, Arnold found himself gravitating towards the more pro-British upper classes, where he met a charming young woman named Margaret “Peggy” Shippen. Although she was half his age and the daughter of a wealthy judge with strong connections to the British, he married her in 1779. (It was his second marriage; Arnold's first wife, Margaret Mansfield, died in 1775.) The marriage didn’t make Philadelphia’s new military commander the most popular guy around town. Arnold’s extravagant lifestyle also aroused the suspicions of many, and some suggested that he’d been using his position to fatten his wallet with black market goods. In 1779, he was court-martialed twice, largely on accusations of misusing government resources and illegal buying and selling.

Arnold was cleared of all significant charges, but the experience left him embittered and humiliated. The court-martials were just the latest entries in a long list of perceived slights. Throughout his military career, Arnold felt underappreciated by the Continental Congress, which seemed to constantly ignore him when doling out promotions or praise. On a deeper level, he’d grown increasingly pessimistic about the rebellion’s chances. So before 1779 ended, he used his new wife’s social circle to contact Clinton and the British spy John André. At some point in their correspondence, Arnold let it be known that he’d had enough of the colonies; he was now willing to switch sides—if the price was right.

Arnold started lobbying Washington to grant him command of West Point. On June 29, 1780, the founding father caved and handed over the post. The very next month, Arnold offered to surrender the fort to Clinton for the low price of £20,000 (about $4.7 million in 2017 dollars).

8. WHEN ARNOLD MADE HIS ESCAPE, WASHINGTON WAS EN ROUTE TO HIS HOUSE FOR SOME BREAKFAST.

Arnold arranged to meet with André face-to-face on the night of September 21, 1780. André arrived on the British sloop the HMS Vulture and was rowed to shore. At a location later known as Treason House, Arnold handed André papers that exposed West Point’s weaknesses and the two planned to part ways. But during the meeting, the Vulture had been bombarded by Americans and was forced to move, stranding André in rebel territory. He decided to make his own way to the British-occupied city of White Plains, New York, but along the way he was seized by American militia men who discovered the West Point plans tucked away in his shoe.

André was brought before Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson. Following the dictates of protocol, Jameson sent a letter about this strange man who’d been found with incriminating documents to ... Benedict Arnold. Meanwhile, the documents themselves were mailed to George Washington.

In an amazing coincidence, Washington had arranged to have breakfast at Arnold’s residence in southern New York on September 25, 1780. That very same morning, mere hours before Washington arrived, the turncoat received Jameson’s letter. In a frenzied panic, he dashed out of the house, found the Vulture, and hopped aboard. When Washington learned what had transpired, the normally reserved general shouted, “Arnold has betrayed us! Whom can we trust now?”

9. HE SAW PLENTY OF ACTION AS A BRITISH GENERAL.

Arnold’s involvement with the Revolutionary War didn’t end when he embarked on the Vulture. The British made him a brigadier general, and he captured Richmond, Virginia with 1600 loyalist troops on January 5, 1781. Amidst the carnage, Virginia’s then-governor—Thomas Jefferson—staged a massive evacuation. Arnold wrote to the exiled Sage of Monticello, offering to spare the city if the governor agreed to surrender its entire supply of tobacco. When Jefferson refused, the general’s men burned a number of buildings and looted 42 vessels’ worth of stolen goods.

Later that year, Arnold laid siege to his own home colony. Recognizing New London, Connecticut as a refuge for privateers—who routinely plundered British merchant ships—Arnold ordered his assembled force of British and Hessian soldiers to put over 140 of its buildings to the torch, along with numerous ships. For the rest of the country, this devastating assault became a rallying cry. At the battle of Yorktown, the Marquis de Lafayette fired up his men by telling them “Remember New London.”

But if Arnold thought these raids would earn him Great Britain’s respect or acclaim, he was sorely mistaken. When the war ended, this Connecticut Yankee-turned-redcoat general moved to London with his second wife and their children. To his dismay, Arnold learned that his adopted country distrusted him almost as much as his homeland now did. Although Britain continued to recognize him as a general, the U.K. repeatedly declined to give him any sort of major role in the military. Desperate for work, Arnold then attempted to join the British East India Company only to strike out yet again—a high-ranking employee turned him away by saying, “Although I am satisfied with the purity of your conduct, [most people] do not think so.”

10. HE’S BURIED NEXT TO A FISH TANK IN ENGLAND.

Arnold died on June 14, 1801. His body was laid to rest inside a crypt in the basement of St. Mary’s Church, Battersea in London, where Arnold and his family had been parishioners; Margaret and their daughter, Sophia, would also eventually be interred there. Strange as it may sound, their tomb is embedded in the wall of a Sunday School classroom. Right next to a whimsical goldfish tank, you can read the protruding headstone, which has an inscription that reads: “The Two Nations Whom he Served In Turn in the Years of their Enmity Have United in Enduring Friendship.”

The headstone was financed by the late Bill Stanley, a former state senator and proud native of Norwich, Connecticut who defended Arnold throughout his life. “He saved America before he betrayed it,” Stanley said. Heartbroken by the underwhelming elegy that for many years marked the general’s final resting place, Stanley personally spent $15,000 on the handsome new grave marker that sits there. When this was completed in 2004, the ex-state senator flew out to London with his immediate family and more than two dozen members of the Norwich Historical Society to watch the installation.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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