Top
 

Stories, Legends & Historical Facts from the Mile of History

“This is a mere scratch upon the surface, a glimpse of the many and varied interests of the people who have belonged to the street and loved it, the people who have had a part in its light and shadow, its music and art, and in the gracious and colorful life that ever has marked the pageant of Benefit Street, down through the years.”

Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Pageant of Benefit Street, 1945

 

John Brown House, 1785–1788

Visit by George Washington & Thomas Jefferson

“Benefit for years not only had its daily round of fine driving, but it was the focal point for almost all of the processions in town….

In 1790, when Washington paid his last visit, there was a great jubilee. Rhode Island had at long last ratified the Constitution and like the prodigal son must be properly welcomed into the family circle. So Washington came, and brought with him Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State….

Although Washington, then an old man, seldom went out at night, he broke his custom that evening and strolled about with Jefferson….

The following morning he again went out to see the town….

Washington spent the morning walking or riding, drinking wine and punch at the hospitable home of John Innis Clark at the southeast corner of John, at the John Brown house at the corner of Power, and at Governor Arthur Fenner’s midway between Waterman and College-hill.”

Source: Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Pageant of Benefit Street, 1945


Sullivan Dorr House, 109 Benefit Street, childhood home of Thomas Wilson Dorr

Sullivan Dorr House, 109 Benefit Street, childhood home of Thomas Wilson Dorr

Thomas Wilson Dorr & the Dorr Rebellion

The trouble began with an argument over Rhode Island’s constitution. Rhode Islanders made a very odd choice following the Revolution. Instead of forming a new democratic government, they opted to retain their old royal charter.

This charter enshrined some concepts that seemed increasingly un-American as time passed. At the core of the dispute was the requirement that a citizen had to own property in order to vote. The waves of Irish immigrants who had come to work in the factories were locked out of the political system. It’s estimated that by the 1840s over 60 percent of the state’s white male population was forbidden to vote.

Calls for reform were repeatedly rebuffed by the charter government, so suffrage advocates held their own constitutional convention and organized a statewide referendum in which all white males of 21 years of age or older could vote. Surprisingly, it received a majority not just among the newly enfranchised but also among the landholders.

The old charter government hadn’t given their blessing for the referendum and refused to recognize its legitimacy so two elections were held, one to elect a government under the People’s Constitution and one to elect a government under the charter. Rhode Island suddenly found itself with two competing governors, Thomas Wilson Dorr for the constitution and Samuel Ward King for the charter.

The charter government decided to arrest the members of the rival government. After several of his lawmakers were snatched up, Dorr, who had previously been a rather lackluster lawyer and had no military training, rashly decided it was time to arm his supporters. No battle took place, but many Dorr supporters were arrested.

Dorr went into hiding but he was captured and sentenced to life in prison for treason against Rhode Island, but he proved too popular to jail. While Rhode Islanders hadn’t been willing to go to war for him, they still believed in the cause he championed and made freeing “the People’s Governor” a cause célèbre. Dorr walked out of prison 1845 after serving one year and was exonerated in 1854, shortly before his death.

Whether he was a democratic visionary or a misguided revolutionary (or both), Thomas Wilson Dorr went to his grave unrepentant.

Sources: https://newengland.com/today/living/new-england-history/dorr-rebellion/

http://rhodetour.org/items/show/224


Tom Thumb in carriage given by Queen Victoria

Tom Thumb in carriage given by Queen Victoria

Tom thumb & “Antiques and Horribles”

“In the old days everything went up Benefit street, as a matter of course….

Much to the delight of the children of a latter day, little Tom Thumb drove the length of the street, in the tiny coach given him by Queen Victoria and drawn by the smallest horses in the world….

On St. Patrick’s Day, in early days, there was a gay parade in which tall silk hats of any vintage were jauntily worn at any angle….

On the Fourth of July, for many years, there was a parade of Antiques and Horribles, and the one in 1865 is said to have been so gay, it was like a Mardi Gras.”

Source: Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Pageant of Benefit Street, 1945


Edward Mitchell Bannister

Edward Mitchell Bannister

Providence Art club Founder’s reaction to Prize

Among the founders of the Providence Art Club was Edward Mitchell Bannister, a celebrated African American landscape painter. Bannister’s work Under The Oaks earned him first prize at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876, although he had to overcome prevalent racist attitudes. Bannister discovered from a newspaper that he had won the prize, and when he arrived at the gallery to claim it, the clerk demanded to know “what it was to [him].”

Bannister later wrote: “In an instant, my blood was up: the looks that passed between him and others in the room were unmistakable. I was not an artist to them, simply an inquisitive colored man; controlling myself, I said deliberately, ‘I am interested in the report that Under The Oaks has received; I painted the picture.’ An explosion could not have made a more marked impression. Without hesitation he apologized, and soon everyone in the room was bowing and scraping to me.”

In 2017, a street on College Hill known as Magee Street was renamed Bannister Street to honor Edward Bannister and his entrepreneur and philanthropist wife Christiana Bannister. William Fairchild Magee, for whom the street had previously been named, was involved in both slave and opium trade.

Sources:

Elyssa Tardif, “Providence Art Club,” Rhode Tour, accessed December 2, 2018, http://rhodetour.org/items/show/184.

Beth Comery, “This Street is History,” Providence Daily Dose, accessed February 5, 2019, https://providencedailydose.com/2019/02/01/this-street-is-history/.


Article in New York Times, 1893

Article in New York Times, 1893

Murder on Benefit street

“Benefit Street was also involved in a first-class mystery or murder—the Barnaby case….

The principal suspect was Dr. T. Thatcher Graves, whose picture shows him to have been a dapper-looking man with side-burns and flowing moustaches. He lived in the block opposite the Athenaeum, known as Court-house Row.

In 1891 the case was the sensation of the day. Nineteen of the leading newspapers of the country sent staff members to the trial. Dr. Graves was never technically proved guilty, and it is not proved that he committed suicide, but he was found dead in his cell on the eve of the second trial. Excitement ran high, and his former neighbors shuddered, to think there had doubtless been a murderer there in their midst.”

Source: Margaret Bingham Stillwell, The Pageant of Benefit Street, 1945

More:

http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/dr-t-thatcher-graves-rhode-island-mail-order-murder/

https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/85093110/t-thatcher-graves


Sarah Whitman House, Benefit @ Church Street

Sarah Whitman House, Benefit @ Church Street

Edgar Allan Poe & Sarah Helen whitman Romance

Sarah Helen Whitman was a poet and essayist who lived on Benefit Street. After the death of her husband, she met and was briefly engaged to author Edgar Allan Poe, and was the inspiration for several of his poems. The marriage never took place either due to Poe’s lack of sobriety, his philandering, or interference from her family and friends—depending on which account you believe. Want to know more? Visit:

https://providenceathenaeum.org/about/history/poe-whitman/
https://library.brown.edu/dps/curio/edgar-allan-poe-sarah-helen-whitman/
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Helen_Whitman


Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones

Sissieretta Jones was a gifted and internationally known soprano. Trained at the Providence Academy of Music, Jones made her New York debut in 1888 at Steinway Hall, and in 1892 became the first African-American to perform at Carnegie Hall. She also performed at the White House for President Benjamin Harrison. By the time her 28-year career ended, Sissieretta had performed in Europe, South America, Cuba, the West Indies, Canada, and extensively throughout the United States, appearing in 46 of the contiguous 48 states.

Born in Virginia, Matilda Sissieretta Joyner later moved with her family to Providence and settled at 20 Congdon Street, near the Congdon Street Baptist Church. As a young girl, Sissieretta and her mother lived 7 Jackson Court (a street that used to be between Benefit and North Main Street) and attended Meeting Street Primary (now home of the Providence Preservation Society) and later the Thayer Street Grammar School.

After retiring to Providence in 1915, Jones spent the remainder of her life on the city’s East Side. She lived quietly in her nine-room home at 7 Wheaton Street (now Pratt street), where she enjoyed tending her rose garden and occasionally singing in the choir of the Congdon Street Baptist Church.

At one time she had owned another property on Wheaton Street and one at 15 Church Street and 94 Benefit Street. The Church and Benefit street houses still remain, but both Wheaton Street houses are gone.

In 2012, the Rhode Island Black Heritage Society honored Sissieretta’s memory by placing a plaque near her home site on College Hill at the intersection of South Court and Pratt streets, just east of Benefit Street.

Sources:

Marisa Brown, “The Home of Sissieretta Jones,” Rhode Tour, accessed February 5, 2019, http://rhodetour.org/items/show/59.

Maureen D. Lee, Sissieretta Jones, Providence’s Famous Soprano, Small State Big History, accessed February 5, 2019, http://smallstatebighistory.com/sissieretta-jones-providences-famous-soprano/.


Howard Phillips Lovecraft

Howard Phillips Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft

The horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft was born and spent most of his life in Providence. He lived on College Street and numerous Mile of History buildings and figures are woven into his writings, including the Providence Athenaeum, the Providence Art Club, the First Baptist Church, Prospect Terrace, the Old Court B&B, the Fleur-de-Lys building, the John Hay Library, and house at 135 Benefit Street (setting for “The Shunned House”).

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/14/travel/hp-lovecraft-providence.html
https://providenceathenaeum.org/about/history/h-p-lovecraft
http://www.hplovecraft.com/writings/texts/fiction/sh.aspx


 

Other Historical Resources

Web-based Resources

Rhode Tour http://rhodetour.org/about
A joint initiative of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, Brown University’s John Nicholas Brown Center for Public Humanities and Cultural Heritage, and the Rhode Island Historical Society, Rhode Tour is a smartphone app and website that uses text, sound, and images to bring Rhode Island stories to the palm of your hand. The following tours include persons, places, or events related to the Mile of History:

Providence Library Digital Collection: Laurence E. Tilley Photograph Collection—197 black and white photographs of residential architecture and street views in Providence, Rhode Island taken by Lawrence E. Tilley in 1958. The photographs document the College Hill neighborhood.

Mary A. Gowdey Library of House Histories—Database of histories and photographs of Providence houses listed by street.

Small State/Big History: The Online Review of Rhode Island History

Rhode Island Publications Society—A nonprofit educational and cultural foundation incorporated in 1981 under Rhode Island law to publish and distribute works relating to Rhode Island’s history, economy, and cultural life.

Rhode Island History JournalRhode Island History is a peer-reviewed journal on Rhode Island’s rich and varied history that is published semi-annually by the Rhode Island Historical Society.

NonFiction

Cady, John Hutchins (1957). The civic and architectural development of Providence 1636–1950. Providence, RI: Providence Book Shop.

Caldwell, Samuel, L. & Gammell, William (1877). History of the First Baptist Church in Providence, 1639-1877. Providence: J.A. & R.A. Reid.

Lancaster, J. (2003). Inquire within: A social history of the Providence Athenaeum since 1753. Providence, RI: Providence Athenaeum.

Lee, Maureen D. (2013). Sissieretta Jones, “The Greatest Singer of Her Race 1868–1933,” University of South Carolina Press.

Lemons, J. Stanley (2001). The First Baptist Church in America. Providence, RI: Charitable Baptist Society.

Miner, George Leland (1992). Angell’s Lane: The history of a little street in Providence. Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI.

Stillwell, Margaret Bingham (1943). While Benefit Street was young. Providence: The Ackerman-Standard Press.

Stillwell, Margaret Bingham (1945). The pageant of Benefit Street: Down through the years. Providence: The Ackerman-Standard Press.

Fiction

de Jong, David Cornel (1942). Benefit Street. NY: Harper and Brothers.

Lovecraft, H. P. (2018). At the mountains of madness [e-book edition]. London: Penguin Books.

Lovecraft, H. P. (2017). The shunned house [e-book edition]. Otbebook publishing. (First published 1928 by The Recluse Press.)

Montalbano, Donna (2002). The house on Benefit Street. NY: Writer’s Showcase.

Benefit Street—at first called Back Street—was laid out as a lane winding amongst the graveyards of the first settlers, and straightened only when the removal of the bodies to the North Burial Ground made it decently possible to cut through the old family plots.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Shunned House, 1924