If Smithfield Had A “Black Book”

First published in the Smithfield Times magazine, April, 2015.  

IF SMITHFIELD HAD A “BLACK BOOK”

By Jim Ignasher

     Fellow Smithfield Times author Dick Martin got me thinking when I read his “Meanderings” column in the March issue; “Smithfield Needs a Black Book. In fact, every town should have one of these.”  In case you missed it, Dick’s article referred to The Black Book of Burrillville, a compendium of untimely deaths connected to the northwestern corner of our state.

     Such a book may seem morbid, yet a quick browse of Amazon.com reveals that there are enough non-fiction books on the subject of death to indicate that the public likes to read about it. The books must be selling, or publishers wouldn’t keep producing them. Some have catchy titles like, “What a Way To Go!” a book about weird ways people have met their end, and “Over Their Dead Bodies”, a collection of tombstone epitaphs. One publisher even has an entire “murder & mayhem” series!

     As a historian, I’m always looking for vintage newspaper articles about Smithfield which I keep in manila folders in a file cabinet. (Not very hi-tech, but it works.) I’ve discovered that no matter what the subject, sooner or later these articles come in handy.

   So I got to thinking, if Smithfield had such a “black book”, what would it contain?   I guess a more important question would be; do we really want to know?

     Take for example the old saying, “If walls could talk…” How old is the house you live in? Did anyone ever die there? Are you sure?   What about on the property?   And, do you really want to know?  

     There was a time before hospitals and nursing homes when the sick and elderly were cared for at home. If they died, their wake and funeral was likely held in the home’s “parlor”, what we today call the “living room”. Afterwards, they were usually buried in a “family plot” somewhere on the property.

     A perfect example is the Smith-Appleby House Museum. The hillside cemetery is filled with those who lived and died in the house. The museum’s “best parlor” was not only where funerals were held, but weddings as well. The last person to pass in the house was Maria Appleby, of heart trouble in 1959.  

     Some people won’t buy a home if they know someone died in it – peacefully or otherwise. In some states real estate agents and homeowners are required to disclose such things, but in Rhode Island it’s more or less up to the buyer to do their own research.

     Rental properties can have a sordid past too, and most landlords aren’t anxious to reveal it. I once lived in an apartment complex in a neighboring town where a man upstairs committed suicide. I’m not so sure the new tenants were informed of this, and with the passage of more than thirty years, I’m willing to bet the current occupants know nothing about it.

     Trying to discover if a particular piece of property has a dark past can be difficult. Older town death records don’t always list an address, leaving one to rely on newspaper accounts – if they can find them. A case in point occurred in Georgiaville on January 11, 1884, when a man abruptly left his job as a weaver at a nearby mill, and returned home to kill his wife. According to one newspaper article of the incident, “The weapon used was a razor, and with it (he) literally severed his wife’s head from her body.”

     There is another house in town which dates to the 1800s with a garage behind it that was once used as a carriage house. According to a (Woonsocket) Evening Call article dated July 27, 1910, a young man committed suicide in that carriage house with a shotgun.

   Learning such things about our home can be quite unnerving.  

   One has to wonder in the days before routine post mortem exams, just how many murders went undetected. One possible case involved Smithfield resident Colonel Tyler Mowry, who passed away in June of 1860, presumably of heart disease. According to an article which appeared a month later in the Woonsocket Patriot on July 6, 1860, it was alleged by one of his daughters that he may have been poisoned. The body was exhumed, an autopsy performed, and tissue samples were sent to Brown University for further analysis. The results of the study are not recorded, but forensic medicine at the time was nothing like we know it today.      

     Sometimes it’s not the dwelling which holds a dark secret, but the land that it sits on. Take for example the day in 1873 when Albert Barnes of Greenville ventured into the woods behind his home to look for a missing cow and stumbled upon the body of a man. The cause of death was determined to be Smallpox, a much feared disease for the time. Today a housing development occupies the place where the corpse was found.

     On November 16, 1919, skeletal remains were discovered on Wionkhiege Hill, and were thought to have been there two or three years.

     In the spring of 1920 the body of an elderly man was found in a field in Greenville. He was last seen in February walking in a driving snowstorm, and it was presumed he became disoriented and lost.  

     A body that was never identified was discovered in a wooded area in June of 1929. Death was thought to be of natural causes.    

     In 1977, a Putnam Pike man discovered the skull and bones of a young girl while excavating a tree stump to widen his driveway. The bones were at least fifty to seventy-five years old, and there are no known cemeteries in the area.  

     According to town records, virtually every body of water in the area has been the scene of at least one drowning, but certain locations such as Waterman’s Lake, Sprague Reservoir, and Georgiaville Pond for example, have borne witness to numerous tragedies. Before the days of automobiles and paved roadways which made getting to Rhode Island’s beaches an easy day trip, people swam in local ponds and lakes to beat the summer heat, and sometimes tragedies occurred. However, such incidents weren’t confined to the summer months. One of the earliest recorded drownings at Georgiaville Pond occurred in December of 1858 when a 32-year-old man fell through ice in the upper portion of the pond. The accident was witnessed by his brother who tried to save him.  

     In a sad twist of irony, there is the case of 17-year-old Frederick Kendricks who was aboard the steamship Metis when it sank just two miles off the coast of Watch Hill on August 30, 1872. Kendricks survived the disaster, but seventy others did not, including his father.   One year later, Frederick drowned within a few feet of shore while swimming in Georgiaville Pond.

     Even the roadways in front of our homes may have been the scene of a tragedy. On December 29, 1870, a 32-year-old man was killed instantly when he was thrown from his wagon in Spragueville.  

   Smithfield’s earliest known automobile related fatality involved a young man who fell from a moving truck on November 5, 1911, as it passed along Putnam Pike through Greenville.

     A strange accident occurred on Limerock Road in November of 1923 as a North Providence man and some friends were returning from a hunting trip. The truck they were riding in hit a bump in the road, which allegedly jarred the butt of a shotgun one of the men was holding. The gun discharged fatally injuring him.

   It doesn’t take long for an incident, no matter how horrible, to be forgotten with the passage of time. A “black book” would preserve these and other tales of forgotten misfortune thereby allowing us to research the place where we live. However, do we really want to know?

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