I’ve been writing this column for over a year now, and during that time I’ve encountered numerous passing mentions of New London buried within stories that mostly aren’t about New London at all. Not substantial enough to write about on their own, but too interesting to ignore, I’ve saved them away or jotted down little notes on them. Now, as happens eventually with all haphazardly done filing, they have accumulated to a point where something must be done about them.
Many names on the list, as one would expect, are those of politicians. In addition to up-and-coming orator , New London has been host to Presidents James Madison (who stayed at a house, no longer extant, on Church Street) and Andrew Jackson. Jackson stayed at the City Hotel on State Street in 1833. Presumably it was far less exciting than his 1813 visit to another City Hotel, in Nashville, when at the culmination of a convoluted and long-simmering conflict, he was shot by the brother of Thomas Hart Benton, who Jackson had promised to horse-whip.
Martin Van Buren also stayed at the City Hotel before becoming president, though the main connection between him and the city is that the Amistad incident took place during his administration. Chester A. Arthur spent the last summer of his life here, the year after his presidency ended. I won’t go into the famously itinerant sleeping habits of George Washington.
One of the most incongruous places I’ve seen New London pop up is the book Edie: American Girl, in which iconic ‘60s party girl Edie Sedgwick’s friend John Anthony Walker recalls inviting Sedgwick to for the weekend. After arriving in New London, Sedgwick characteristically missed the ferry. “New London’s a strange town to be caught in if you’ve missed the ferry., Walker said. “A railroad town; a harbor stop. In the old days what I would have done was spend the night at the ...the Mohican was big and old and very nice, but it was not the sort of hotel Edie would be caught spending a night in.” Walker instructed Sedgwick to catch a plane from Groton, but “O’Neill’s foghorn was blowing wildly” and the pilot would not land in such bad weather. Walker fretted, but Sedgwick made it across the Thames in style, on a yacht belonging to multi-millionaire businessman, ambassador, sportsman, publisher - I could go on -Jock Whitney.
But perhaps my favorite tidbit is the following. In 1898 a man named George Hibbard went missing from his Ithaca, NY home. New York police searched everywhere, but turned up nothing, and six months later it was assumed Hibbard had died. They were unaware that shortly after Hibbard disappeared, New London police came across a man “wandering about the streets” who could not recall his name or where he’d come from. He was taken to the almshouse, where he remained – he was “a model inmate” – until one day he asked to write a letter to Ithaca, soliciting funds. He signed the wrong name, but the letter reached his family nonetheless. His sister soon appeared in New London to claim him, saying that Hibbard had “a wife and son living in Ithaca, from which place he disappeared while laboring under a mental strain.” Hibbard seemed to be improving as he left on the boat for New York, but, the New York Times reported, he “has given no explanation as to how he came to New London.”
Reading about George Hibbard, I thought: with the possible exception of those descended from native Indian tribes or early Puritan settlers to the area, does anyone really know how they got here? I know some came for jobs or other identifiable reasons. But I can’t be the only one who just sort of showed up. That’s the thing about this and all port cities, all “railroad towns and harbor stops.” They are crossroads, required pauses on larger journeys, and they don’t care if you’re important or obscure. They only require that you land, however briefly, on your way to somewhere else.