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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mysterious Skeleton of Putnam Pike

By Jim Ignasher

 Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – October 2010

Few things would be more unnerving to the average homeowner than to be digging in one’s own yard and happen upon human remains.  Fortunately such discoveries are rare, but at least one case occurred in Smithfield on the evening of April 11, 1977, when a man digging in his yard literally unearthed a mystery that has yet to be solved.

The man, who will remain anonymous to protect his privacy, had been removing a tree stump in order to widen his driveway when he uncovered a human skull.  Smithfield police were called to the scene, and Patrolman John Whitecross later recorded in his report, “The skull had a full set of teeth and appeared to be that of a human.  It was found approximately 3-4’ down in the ground and 20’ from the west corner of the garage.” 

It was apparent by the skull’s brown coloration that it was old. Of course the obvious questions were, who did it belong to, and how did it get there?  Had the homeowner uncovered an unmarked grave, or were the bones connected to something more sinister?

Smithfield police detectives Brian Burke and Joe Parenteau were assigned the case.  There were no known cemeteries in the area, and further examination of the site showed no evidence of wood fragments, screws, or any other indications that the bones had been buried in a coffin. 

The state Medical Examiner’s Office was contacted, but the detectives were informed that a forensic investigator could not respond to Smithfield until the following day.

The next morning Burke and Parenteau returned to the site, and began to carefully scrape away at the dirt where the skull had been found.  After a few minutes they had uncovered several more bones which led them to believe that an entire skeleton was buried there. The depth at which the bones had been found left no doubt that they had been deliberately buried, and not simply covered by erosion. 

Shortly before noon a forensic investigator arrived, and after examination of the bones, determined they were between 40 to 100 years old.  If the police were dealing with a murder, it was definitely an old one. The investigator said he would send two technicians to conduct a more through excavation.  In modern terminology, this would be known as a “forensic excavation”, where the dirt would be sifted through a screen to be sure that no evidence such as small bone fragments, jewelry, or even a bullet was missed.  However, this procedure was never carried out, for apparently the technicians felt further digging was unnecessary.  According to the official police report, the two technicians arrived at 1:30 p.m. and only wanted to collect the bones that had already been unearthed by the detectives.  The bones were taken to Providence for further examination and testing.    

In the meantime, Smithfield police continued with their investigation.  Town records made no mention of any cemeteries in the area, and research of birth and death records of all previous property owners going back more than one hundred years proved fruitless.  

Detective Burke interviewed long-time residents of the area. One man remembered hearing from his grandfather that a “sick house” had once been located near where the bones were found.  The sick house was where people with communicable diseases such as Small Pox were brought and kept in isolation during the 19th Century to prevent epidemics. Could the bones be that of someone who died at the so-called sick house?

Police interviewed two women in their 80s who had lived in Greenville all their lives, but neither could remember any un-solved murders or missing person cases.

One elderly gentleman recalled a legend about a Native American princess who had supposedly once lived in the area.  Details were hazy, but it seemed she had wandered off sometime in the mid 1800s and was never heard from again; but was it fact, or simply a folktale?

As one might expect, the case attracted the attention of the media, but there wasn’t much to report.  On April 13, 1977, The Evening Bulletin reported that the Medical Examiner’s preliminary findings showed the bones to be of a young woman, buried, “more than 40 years ago, but not longer than 75 years ago.”  It was also reported that investigators were still awaiting other test results.

Two days later, Detective Burke received a brief preliminary report from the Medical Examiner’s office that stated the bones appeared to belong to one person; “…buried for over 50 years with no evidence of foreign material (such as jewelry or bullets, etc.) and no evidence of ante mortem trauma.”  (“Ante mortem” means, before death.)  The report stated additional tests were in progress and could take several weeks.  

 On June 16, 1977, the Providence Journal reported that an orthopedic surgeon and anthropologist would study the remains for additional clues.  It was further stated that the bones, “were buried no more than 50 years ago”, but their exact age was unknown.  The article concluded with one of the investigators explaining that the case was “lagging because more recent deaths were given priority”.

Three days later, a small news item appeared in The Evening Bulletin, under the headline, “Bones May Have Been Teenager”, which stated that according to the chief medical examiner, the bones, “may have been those of a teenage girl who died of tuberculosis 50 to 100 years ago.”  (Discrepancies between the various news reports were never explained.)  

The medical examiner’s autopsy report does not offer much more in the way of clues.  The report stated  it was, “highly probable” the remains belonged to a white female, between 12 and 16 years old, who stood approximately 4’10” inches tall.  The report went on to state that the person was, “probably in good health”, and that x-rays didn’t show any signs of disease, or signs of  injury which would indicate foul play.  Unfortunately, the report does not narrow down the time of death or state a cause.   

 So, who was this young girl, and how did she come to be buried where her remains were found?  The autopsy report would seem to indicate that it’s unlikely she died at the “sick house”.  It also seems unlikely that she was a Native American since the autopsy report also states, “The teeth do not exhibit distinctive racial traits.”, and the race is classified as “Caucasoid”. (White)

The Native American princess legend may have its origins in an actual incident that occurred in the Tarklin section of Burrillville in 1831.  In that case, researched by former Smithfield resident Thomas D’Agostino, a woman named Hannah Frank, who was a Native American, but not a princess, was murdered by her two brothers who were opposed to her upcoming marriage to a Vermont peddler. 

Thus, the simple act of removing a tree stump uncovered a mystery that remains unsolved.  Although no evidence of a crime was discovered, that doesn’t prove one wasn’t committed because a forensic excavation was never conducted.  However, after all these years the question seems moot, for if a murder was committed, those responsible would surely have gone on to their final judgment by now.  

The story of this young girl may never be known.   Who was she?  How did she die?  Perhaps the answers still lie buried with the rest of her bones under a driveway on Putnam Pike.

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