The Mysterious Snake Man

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October 2011

 THE MYSTERIOUS “SNAKE MAN”

AND OTHER FORGOTTEN TALES

By Jim Ignasher

     New England folklore is wrought with stories of lone travelers who have wandered the highways and bi-ways of the northeast leaving strange tales and mysteries in their wake. Perhaps the most famous case concerns the legend of Peter Rugg, a stubborn man who in 1770 was foolish enough to press on towards his home in Boston instead of wisely seeking shelter as a violent electrical storm approached. As he was about to resume his journey, he is said to have remarked, “Let the storm increase. I will see home tonight in spite of it, or may I never see home!” Rugg’s oath proved prophetic, and for more than a century later countless witnesses throughout New England claimed to have encountered his ghostly apparition riding hard before an approaching storm, always stopping just long enough to ask the way to Boston. Despite the tale being a work of fiction, some 19th century newspapers printed the alleged encounters as fact, thereby giving validity to the legend.

     Mysteries and legends can be fun to ponder, especially as Halloween approaches. While there are no written accounts of Mr. Rugg ever visiting Smithfield on his eternal journey to Boston, other ill-fated, yet very real travelers passed our way and left a few bizarre tales of their own.    

     A case in point is the story of a wanderer known only as the “Snake Man”. (Nobody knew his real name because he died before he could give it.) His story comes to us through an essay written by Miss Dorothy Whipple in 1929, which was presented by her father, Dr. Lucius A. Whipple, at a meeting of the Western Rhode Island Civic Historical Society on May 24, 1949.

     The date of the incident is not given, but the story goes that the “Snake Man” appeared at the famed Waterman Tavern one evening carrying a sack which contained his pet rattlesnake. After a few drinks, he announced to those present that his snake could do tricks, and pulled the reptile from its cloth confines and laid it on the bar. As one might guess, the snake bit him, and he died a painful death shortly afterwards. His body was reportedly buried somewhere, “in the wilds of the country”, the location of which has been lost to history, but was apparently still known to some longtime area residents at the time Miss Whipple penned her essay.

     A ghost story connected with the Waterman Tavern concerns a traveling peddler who mysteriously disappeared while sleeping in the basement because all the upstairs rooms were occupied. As with many ghostly legends the details are vague, but the story relates that it was presumed he had fallen down an open well and drowned. However, it seems odd that nobody would verify this presumption before taking another drink of water! Whether his demise was accidental or by design is not stated. In either case, his physical form was never seen again, but his ghost was said to haunt the place for years afterwards.  

   Then there is the legend of John Noforce, a Narragansett Indian said to have lived in a cave along a rocky cliff off Mann School Road sometime in the 1700s.  In 1929, local apple grower T.K. Winsor related the story to a Providence Journal reporter as it had been told to him by his father and grandfather.

     One day, so the story goes, John was found dead at the base of the cliff, but the circumstances surrounding his untimely demise were a mystery. Some speculated he jumped because of a Romeo and Juliet situation that existed between his tribe and another. A continuation of that story relates that the maiden he was in love with threw herself off the same cliff upon learning of his death. Another version went that John jumped while being pursued by an enemy, choosing death before capture, while others theorized his fall was purely accidental.

     The rocky precipice where the incident is said to have occurred later became known as “Noforce Rocks”, and was still called such at the time Mr. Winsor gave his interview. Although the exact date of the incident is not recorded, nor is the disposition of John’s remains, historical research conducted by Merrilla Steere in the 1960s, and further research by Laurence J. Sasso Jr. in the 1970s, indicates there is truth to the legend.  

    There was a time when tramps, vagabonds, and hobos routinely roamed the country setting camp wherever it suited them; usually out of the prying eyes of the authorities. Smithfield saw its share of these “kings of the road” as evidenced by the following tale which one newspaper headline termed, “an unfortunate occurrence”; which although accurate, definitely understated the entire affair.

     On March 31, 1873, 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.    

     Authorities were notified, but by the time they came to view the scene a heavy rain had begun to fall, so the remains were brought to a store in Greenville. Nobody recognized the man, who was described as being about forty years old, 5’ 10”, 160 lbs., with dark hair and beard. Nothing was found amidst his clothing that would help with identification, but once the clothes were removed, investigators quickly discovered that the man was infected with Smallpox; a highly contagious and often fatal disease of the day!

     The store was closed to prevent further exposure, and a local undertaker was quickly summoned to remove the body – forthwith – and bury it at town expense.

     The incident created quite a stir in the community, and before long, someone started the rumor that authorities knew the dead man had been infected with Smallpox prior to his removal from the woods, and thus deliberately risked infecting the entire village. Of course this was not true, and the reasons for initiating such a preposterous rumor can only be speculated at this late date, but perhaps a political enemy of one of the town officials involved with the investigation was the culprit responsible.

   All who had been exposed to the corpse were vaccinated at town expense, which apparently was enough to stem an outbreak. As to the dead man, he was never identified, and his place of internment also remains a mystery, for although the incident was recorded in the newspaper, there is no mention of the case to be found in town death records!    

     Another mystery was brought to the attention of authorities shortly before Thanksgiving in 1919 when the skeletal remains of an unknown man were found on Wionkhiege Hill about two miles from Farnum Pike. It was estimated the bones had lain there for two or three years. They were given a proper burial at town expense, but neither the man’s identity nor the circumstances surrounding his death were ever established.  

       The true identities of these unfortunate souls will likely forever remain a mystery. The once wooded hillsides where some of these wanderers met their untimely ends are now covered with homes whose occupants have no idea as to what occurred prior to modern development. And these aren’t the only tales that could be told.

     Now that you’re wondering about the land your home sits on…happy Halloween.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Jumping To a Conclusion

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October, 2009

Smithfield’s once famous “Suicide Bridge” was the last stop for those who wanted to cross into the great beyond.

Smithfield’s once famous “Suicide Bridge” was the last stop for those who wanted to cross into the great beyond.

It was just before Christmas in 1920.  As snow flurries blew about, a man stood atop a bridge on Farnum Pike contemplating his next move.  Hours of quiet desperation had all come down to this.  The dark water of the Woonasquatucket River mocked him as it swirled below, almost daring him to jump.  Others had occupied the same spot where he was standing, and for the same purpose, just waiting for the right moment. Then, almost without thinking, he leaped from the bridge and into eternity.  The following morning when police recovered his body, word spread quickly that the Suicide Bridge had claimed yet another victim.   

This is the story of Smithfield’s infamous “Suicide Bridge”, a wrought iron structure that once spanned the Woonasquatucket River connecting Georgiaville to Esmond.  Its ominous reputation was so well known that even newspapers and town death records referred to it by that name.  By all appearances it was no different from other bridges around the state, and hardly seemed like the type of structure to inspire myth and legends.  Long-time area residents will tell you that the bridge’s name came about due to the many suicides that occurred there; sometimes, they say, at the rate of once a month!  However, official town death records show those numbers to be much lower, thereby indicating that once a month is more myth than reality. Like many legends, the story of the bridge has grown with each re-telling. 

Looking down from the present-day bridge that spans the Woonasquatucket, one may find it hard to believe that it was even possible to end one’s life by jumping, but apparently it was.  At one time the Esmond Dam kept the water level higher and therefore deeper.  The old bridge sat at a higher elevation and the road went up to meet it.  One man who grew up in the area recalled how the wide open areas on either side of the bridge allowed for ample swimming in summer, and hockey games in winter.  Today, with the water level kept lower, these areas are choked with brush and weeds.    

 

The structure that later became known as the Suicide Bridge was built in 1890 to replace an earlier one that stood at the same location.  The old bridge was unsafe, and was dismantled after a horrible accident involving a horse and buggy had occurred there.  The new bridge was “state of the art” for its day.  The iron trusses allowed for flexibility and the even distribution of weight.  The anchor bolts holding fast to the massive granite stones on either shore ensured it could withstand just about anything Mother Nature could throw at it.  The only design flaw was that it was too narrow because it was built before the invention of the automobile, when traffic moved at a leisurely 3 to 5 miles-per-hour.  The early “horseless carriages” came into use about 1905 and puttered along with tiny engines. They weren’t much larger than a typical buggy, and didn’t take up much of the highway. However, as the Twentieth Century moved forward, larger and faster vehicles took to the road, and it became apparent just how narrow the bridge was. This fact made for some hair-raising experiences when two autos came to meet at the bridge.  Common sense dictated that one driver stop and wait for the other to cross first, but good sense and pride don’t always go together, and over the years numerous games of “chicken” ended badly.  

Exactly how many deaths occurred at the bridge is unknown as town death records don’t list locations until the early 1900s, but as near as can be determined, the first suicide occurred at the bridge on May 31, 1914, when a 54 year-old woman leapt into the water. Two years later, a middle-aged man followed suit in what was described as a “fit of insanity”.  Four more deaths occurred at the bridge in 1917, and yet another in May of 1918. 

Not every death connected to the bridge was a suicide; some were accidental drownings.  In the days before backyard swimming pools and easy transportation to the state’s beaches, people swam in local lakes and rivers. Drownings occurred in virtually every body of water throughout Smithfield, but when one occurred at the bridge, people took special notice.

With each death reported, the bridge’s reputation grew.  Some said the bridge was cursed, or somehow had a dark force connected to it that inspired people to jump. Teenagers told ghost stories of the bridge being haunted by the tormented souls of those who had died there.  Whether one believes in such things or not, there were those who avoided the bridge at night – just in case.   

After a man drowned himself at the bridge just before Thanksgiving in 1921, things seemed to quiet down, and no further suicides were reported there for the rest of the decade.  Some no doubt felt that the jinx had been broken, but it was only lying dormant. 

It was an accident that brought about the construction of the Suicide Bridge, and it was another accident that caused it to be dismantled.  In the early morning hours of January 20, 1932, a car carrying two young men crashed through a guardrail at the bridge and tumbled into the icy water. One man managed to free himself, but the other drowned.  Afterwards, plans were begun to replace the bridge. 

The last known death to occur at the bridge happened on February 20, 1933, when a man was struck and killed by a passing automobile. 

The new bridge was completed in 1934 and is still in use today.  Hundreds of motorists cross it daily, never realizing the dark past of its predecessor.   Since its completion, there have been no reported suicides at that location.

However, that’s not the end of this story, for the old Suicide Bridge is still in use today!  Once it was dismantled, it was brought to Harrisville and re-assembled over the Nipmuc River on Sherman Farm Road, and re-named the Shippee Bridge.  The bridge is open to two-way traffic and has a walkway for pedestrians.  Although the occasional car accident still occurs on the bridge, there have been no serious incidents, and no reported suicides.  A modern chain link fence runs along the walkway that prevents people from jumping. 

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