A Place to Call Home

Among the forgotten tales connected to the former St. Aloysius Home in Greenville is the story behind these stone ruins.(L to R, Fran Luminello (Payette), Denise Howard, Joshua Howard.)

Originally Published in Your Smithfield Magazine – August, 2011.

By Jim Ignasher

Mater Ecclesiae College on Austin Avenue in Greenville occupies the former St. Aloysius Home and St. Peter’s School once owned and operated by the Catholic Diocese of Providence.  For over fifty years, St. Al’s, (as it was sometimes affectionately called) was a place of refuge and safe haven for parentless children and youngsters who found themselves in dire circumstances.

For some it was a merely a way-station; for others, it was the only home they knew.   

The origin of St. Aloysius Home dates back to 1858, when the Providence Diocese opened St. Aloysius Orphanage on Prairie Avenue in Providence.  By the 1930s their building had become obsolete, and Bishop Francis P. Keough began looking for another location to build anew; one away from the confines of the city which would allow room for expansion. Such a place was found in Smithfield on property owned by a Catholic Charities organization known as the St. Vincent de Paul Society.

Ground breaking ceremonies for the new building were held on October 23, 1939, and the event was well attended by church officials, politicians, and local dignitaries.  The shovel used for the occasion was later placed in the cornerstone of the main building at the dedication ceremony held about a year later.  (That shovel and other artifacts remain there to this day.)  

“There is no finer place in New England for such an orphanage development.”  Bishop Keough announced to those present.

The location was perfect for what the Bishop had in mind.  At that time Greenville was the heart of Apple Valley, and fruitful orchards lined both sides of Austin Avenue.  There was also a lake for swimming and skating, and room for gardens and athletic fields.

Brick construction was chosen for its fire-proof capabilities, for the dorms were designed to house two-hundred children and thirty-six nuns. Besides dormitories and classrooms, a beautiful chapel was erected with stained glass windows worthy of a magnificent cathedral. 

(Saint) Aloysius Gonzaga was born to a well-to-do Italian family in 1568.

Deciding at an early age to devote his life to God, he entered a Jesuit order where he took religious vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

 In 1590 he was visited by the Archangel Gabriel who told him he would die within a year.  A few months later he became ill with plague, and it was during this time he had another vision where he was told he would die on June 21, 1591, the feast of Corpus Christi.   He recovered from the plague, but died just as the angel had predicted at the age of 23.  He was beautified as a saint in 1605.   

St. Aloysius is known as the patron saint of young students and Christian youth.  Perhaps this is why his name was chosen for the institution.

Within a year after the new St. Aloysius Home opened, the United States found itself embroiled in World War II.  Not long afterward, the famous ocean liner, Queen Mary, was pressed into service as a troop carrier.  The ship was well known for its luxurious accommodations; however, with a war on, certain amenities needed to be scaled back, such as the fancy bed linens normally found in the liner’s staterooms.  This led to an unexpected windfall for the children at St. Aloysius, who received the richly appointed bed linens through a donation in October of 1942.

In addition to the linens, the home also received some fine wooden tables with matching leather upholstered chairs that had once graced the French Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. 

To help in the war effort, the children of St. Al’s planted a large “victory garden” on the property to grow their own food.  Mother Superior, Sister Mary Mark, felt working in the garden built character, and the children of St. Al’s continued to maintain the garden well after the war.

The population of the home varied, rising at one point to 224 children.  The Sisters of Mercy, the order of nuns who served as surrogate mothers, tried their best to create a home-like atmosphere rather than one of an institution.  When asked about runaway children, one sister remarked to a Providence Journal reporter, “We don’t have trouble with children running away,” and then went on to relate how one young man who had worked in the kitchen, graduated from St. Al’s to make his way in the world, only to return two years later to ask for his job back; for it was there he felt at home.

Besides a home, the Diocese also provided an education through St. Peter’s School located on the grounds.  However, enrollment at St. Peter’s wasn’t limited to those residing at St. Aloysius.  It included area children as well, as attested to by Fran (Payette) Luminello of Greenville, who graduated from St. Peter’s in 1961.  When asked to relate some of her memories, Fran recalled the clothing worn by the sisters.  “The nuns wore habits in those days, and it hid their hair and made them look older.  It wasn’t until I got a little older that I realized that nuns actually had hair!”  

The nuns taught school, and Fran remembered two that she was fond of: Sister Pious, and Sister Bernarda.  Sister Pious taught first grade and was much admired by the children. 

When speaking of Sister Bernarda, Fran recalled her “magic pocket”.  Sister Bernarda had a hidden pocket sewn under her robes from which she would “magically” produce things like candy, erasers, pencils, etc. and pass them out to children who committed acts of kindness.  On the other hand, children who misbehaved were told they might be put into the magic pocket.

“Nobody knew how deep the magic pocket was’, said Fran, ‘and as little kids, we thought it was entirely possible to hide a child under those robes!”

Another who stood out in Fran’s mind was Father Rene Guertin, the administrator of the home.  She recalled how Father Guertin was always getting tickets to things like hockey games, the circus, or the Ice Capades.  Unfortunately, the home only owned one bus, which Father Guertin often drove, but it wasn’t big enough to take all of the children at once. To remedy this, the priest would contact a St. Peter’s School organization known as the “Mother’s Club”, of which Fran’s mother, Anita Payette, was a member. 

“We had a big family, so we had a station wagon.”  Fran related.  “Sometimes we would take up to four or five kids from the home with us to see the circus, or the Ice Capades.”

The residents of St. Aloysius had a communal pet bulldog named Queenie.  How the snub-nosed canine came to be a resident of the home is not clear, but a newspaper account from 1947 relates that the dog was a great comfort to the children.

It seems that Queenie wasn’t the only pet to reside there.  At one point the property also had a small barn which housed two horses that the children could ride.  

St. Aloysius had its own Boy Scout troop that built a campsite and shrine in the woods about three quarters of a mile to the west of the school.  Remnants of this site can still be found today in what is now the Cascade Brook Conservation Area.  The ruins of what was once a fireplace on one side, and a grotto on the other, can still be seen, along with what once served as an altar and table.  The date, May 4, 1942, can still be seen etched in the concrete. 

On a recent trek to the site, Fran recalled seeing it while a student at St. Peter’s, and later as a young mother when she brought her children there for picnics. She remembered that a religious statue once stood in the grotto side facing the altar.  Sadly, that statue is long gone as the site has suffered considerable vandalism over the years.

One mystery of the site is a nearby boulder with the words “Let It Be” carved into it.  Is this a reference to the famous Beatles song, or does it have another meaning?  Who took the time to carve it, and why?

In 1949 the Scouts of St. Al’s took on a more ambitious project by constructing a beach on the shore of Oak Swamp Reservoir in Johnston, on property owned by the Providence Diocese.  The boys worked hard clearing trees, brush, and boulders before hauling in beach sand to create 114 feet of clear sandy shoreline.  They also built two floating platforms, a small shelter, and a stone fireplace.  When they had finished, Mother Superior Mary Mark commented that the beach would be a tremendous timesaver when it came to bathing the children.   

In May of 1962, six girls, aged nine through thirteen, arrived at St. Aloysius Home with a story to tell.  They were Cuban nationals who had been smuggled out of Cuba to escape the oppressive regime of Fidel Castro.  Newspapers only identified the girls by their first names to protect their families still trapped in Cuba.   

One can only imagine how difficult it was for the girls.  They spoke little English, and the nuns didn’t speak Spanish, but after awhile communication became easier for all concerned. It was stated in the Providence Journal that the girls might stay at St. Aloysius for as long as two years.  What became of them is not known, but one hopes they were one day re-united with their families.

In the 1950s and 60s, St. Aloysius would hold a Harvest Supper every October followed by a Casino night in the school gymnasium to raise extra funds.  Fran Luminello recalled how eighth grade girls were allowed to be servers at the supper, and would often receive tips. 

Although he didn’t attend St. Peter’s School, another who helped was Michael Cavanagh of Georgiaville, whose aunt was Sister Mary Alexine, the principal of St. Peters School at the time.  “They usually had me selling cokes at the game tables.” he remembered.

In 1971, St. Aloysius was able to boast the largest outdoor skating rink in Rhode Island.  Covering nearly a half-acre, the rink was built over a layer of asphalt that could be utilized as tennis or basketball courts in warm weather.  Construction was done by volunteers from Local 37 of the Iron Workers Union as a Christmas present to St. Al’s residents.  Martin Byrne of Local 37 related that the idea came about while planning a Christmas party for the children.  The Union had planned to give all St. Aloysius residents a new pair of ice skates for Christmas, and then took the idea a step further by deciding to build a rink too. 

In addition to the rink, an outdoor fireplace was built so skaters could enjoy a warm fire and hot chocolate.  Total cost of the project would have been about $50,000 had labor and materials not been provided for free.

By the 1970s, the population of St. Aloysius had dropped to less than seventy-five wards and twelve nuns.  Times had changed, but the mission of providing a safe-haven had not.  By the early 1990s St. Aloysius was forced to close for a variety of reasons, ending more than 130 years of service.  For awhile, the future of the old campus seemed uncertain until Mater Ecclesiae College acquired it and moved there in 1998. Thus began a new chapter in Smithfield’s history which continues to this day.

The Jinx Plane Revisited

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – April, 2010 

pilot

Jim Taglione of Providence

82 year-old Jim Taglione of Providence believes the ill fated airplane mentioned in the February issue of Your Smithfield Magazine was the same one that once belonged to his uncle, Joseph Taglione, before Ralph Wilkins came into possession of it.   

“My uncle cracked up a few airplanes.” said Jim as we sat sipping coffee in a local restaurant pouring over scrapbooks containing vintage photographs.  One photo in particular showed his smiling uncle sitting atop a wrecked airplane. 

Joseph Taglione was a fairly well known aviator in his time.  Born in Italy, he learned to fly in 1921, and in 1928 was honored by the Sons of Italy as the first Italian American flyer in Rhode Island.  It was during the 1920s that Taglione established Rhode Island Airways with $1,500 he borrowed form Jim’s father. On weekends he would offer plane rides, sometimes making as much as $800.

While reading the article about the jinxed airplane, Jim became convinced that it was the same aircraft once owned by his uncle, particularly when he read about the accident where the landing gear had snagged the roof of an automobile.  “How many of those could have happened?” he asked, for not only had his uncle experienced such an accident, he had done so with the same make of airplane. 

If he didn’t reveal his octogenarian status, Jim could easily be taken for a much younger man. Like his late uncle, he too loves to fly and has been doing so since he was sixteen.  Jim also shares a connection to Smithfield for it was at the old Smithfield Airport where he learned to fly in 1943.  The cost was six dollars for a half hour of instruction.  Each week he would take another lesson with his instructor Butch Boucher, who was also the airport manager.  The rules stated that one had to have a minimum of eight hours of instruction before they could fly solo, but Jim soloed after only four hours and twenty-five minutes. 

“After my solo I bought him (Boucher) a case of beer,’ Jim recalled, ‘and I was only sixteen!”

Butch took a liking to Jim and offered him a job patching holes in the airplanes.  Many aircraft of that era had canvas “skins” tightened by aviation “dope” which allowed for good aerodynamics and lighter aircraft weight. The “dope” was a glue/lacquer mix that shrank as it dried.  The first time he set out to make a repair he learned what a messy job it could be if not done right.  The “dope” was kept in a 55 gallon drum which lay on its side.  Not knowing he was supposed to tilt the drum before removing the plug, the dope came gushing out and quickly over-flowed his five gallon bucket. To make matters worse, he accidentally dropped the plug into the bucket during the process.  With the liquid flowing and no way to stop it, he was forced to put his whole arm into the bucket to fish for the plug. 

On another occasion a man who owned a J2 Cub told Jim that if he would polish his plane he would give him a ride.  Jim brought out a step ladder and began polishing the top of a wing and promptly pushed through the rotted canvas!  Jim repaired the damage, but soon discovered that the rot wasn’t contained to just the wing. “That plane had ripped fabric all over it that the owner just kept patching” Jim recalled.

Smithfield’s airport only had one hangar, built by John Emin, Sr., in 1932.  Jim recalled that in order to fit more aircraft inside, some of the airplanes could be tipped forward letting the nose rest atop a five gallon bucket.  However, this could only be accomplished with certain planes such as Piper Cubs or Aeroncas.   

During World War II, the U.S. Government mandated that the civilian aircraft at Smithfield’s Airport had to be taken inland, so one winter’s day Jim flew with a pilot who needed to take his plane to an airport in Palmer, Massachusetts. They left Smithfield with nothing more than a standard road map to guide them, and not surprisingly they got lost. The pilot set down in a field where he asked a farmer for directions.  The farmer pointed towards a large hill and said Palmer was “that way”.  They eventually reached their destination, and Jim remembers freezing all the way back because he was forced to ride in the rumble seat of the car that had met them there to take them home.

Jim’s mother Margaret Taglione, and his other uncle Gene, ran a small luncheonette at the Smithfield Airport that sold spaghetti and meatballs as well as different types of sandwiches.  The photographs belonging to Jim indicate it was a small establishment, but then how big did it have to be to service the tiny airport?

Although he never knew it at the time, the airplane that had once belonged to his uncle Joseph had crashed at the very airport where Jim learned to fly.  In fact he never even knew of the accident until reading about in the magazine. The only accident Jim remembered hearing about was the time another plane damaged its landing gear when it hit a gofer hole on the field.  

In December 1945, Jim enlisted in the U.S. Navy, but although he was a licensed pilot, he lacked the college credits to be a naval aviator so he was relegated to the ground working around aircraft he would never be able to fly.  

After his stint in the navy, he returned to Rhode Island and resumed flying.  In 1978 he purchased a Cessna 172M, an aircraft he still owns and keeps at North Central Airport.  Since taking his first flying lesson in 1943, Jim has logged over 4,000 hours of air time, some of which he has done with his dog Snickers, a small mixed breed that routinely accompanies him wherever he goes. 

As far as any jinx is concerned, Jim doesn’t believe in them.

The Yellow Day of 1881

By Jim Ignasher

Originally published in Your Smithfield Magazine – September, 2011

 endineigh    “The world to an end shall come,
      in eighteen hundred and eighty one.”
      Prophetic quote attributed to Mother Shipton

There have been times throughout history when people were convinced they “knew” something to be true, even though they were wrong.  For example, it was once accepted as an absolute certainty that the world was flat, and if one ventured too far, they could actually fall off.   It wasn’t until 1492 that Christopher Columbus proved this “fact” to be fallacy.   Such can be the case with end-of-the-world prophecies; of which there have been hundreds throughout recorded history.  Believers, convinced the world will end on an appointed date, are usually mystified when nothing happens. However, what is the average person to think when they see “proof” with their own eyes, such as the day the world literally changed colors before growing dark?

Mother Shipton is said to be a sixteenth century prophet who wrote predictions of the future in the form of poetic verse.  Her writings were published many years after her death, leading historians and scholars to debate whether or not all of the predictions attributed to her were her own.  In any case, the above mentioned quote was likely brought to mind on September 6, 1881, when a strange phenomenon occurred in the skies over New England that led some to wonder if the end of the world was at hand.

“The Yellow Day”, as it came to be called, began just like any other, but as the morning wore on, people began to notice that something wasn’t right.  The sun took on a pastel color normally only seen at sunset; and the atmosphere itself appeared to have a yellowish hue that gave one the impression of staring through a pair of tinted eye-glasses. The yellow hue grew stronger, and before long, everything in sight appeared to be painted various shades of yellow, orange, and gold.

The (Woonsocket) Evening Reporter described the yellow sky as being overcast with a dense fog, adding that, “Trees and foliage appeared as if under a powerful electric light.” 

The sight was both beautiful and frightening at the same time, for it was an era before radio and television, satellite weather forecasting, and instant communications. Nobody knew what was happening or why. 

As telegraph operators frantically ticked away at their handsets, they quickly discovered that the strange atmospheric conditions existed far beyond Smithfield; from the Canadian border to the New Jersey shore!

In New York, it was reported that gas jets and gas lights, which usually burned a yellowish color, glowed bright white as if they were electrified, and that the odd coloration of the environment made it hard to judge distances.

Besides the strange colors, odder still was the fact that as the peach-tinted sun rose higher in the sky, it seemed to be growing dimmer instead of brighter.  By 1 p.m. it was so dark that chickens began to roost, and school children became too frightened to learn, prompting teachers to stop classes for the day.  The darkness forced factories to close, allowing workers to head for home or the nearest tavern.  By mid-afternoon the streets were deserted and shops closed for lack of business. 

Some took the opportunity to go to church while others checked the family Bible scanning the chapter on Revelations, which predicts the end of the world.  Although many were understandably frightened, there were no reports of panic – not that it would have done any good to do so anyway.  Churches held late night vigils, and many went to bed that evening frightened of what the following day would bring. 

Thousands spent a fretful night tossing and turning in their beds, while others who chose to remain awake prayed for salvation.  When dawn finally arrived, those brave enough to look outside were thankful to discover that the landscape had returned to normal. Greens were green, blues were blue, and reds were red. Even the sun appeared as it should.  As New Englanders exhaled a collective sigh of relief, their thoughts turned from fear to wonder – what could cause such an event? 

Numerous scientific explanations were put forth ranging from the aurora borealis to the planet Uranus and its proximity to the sun.  However, of all the explanations, the most plausible was that smoke from massive forest fires burning in Michigan had been carried eastward by high-level wind currents over New England. In fact, it was reported two weeks later that more than seven thousand square miles of timber had been destroyed by the flames, with hundreds of lives lost.  Those who had survived the conflagration found themselves destitute and homeless amidst a barren landscape.  As scary as the Yellow Day had been for those in New England, it had been far worse in Michigan.    

Although exceptionally rare, strange occurrences like the Yellow Day were not unheard of in New England.  Slightly more that one-hundred years earlier, what became known as “The Dark Day” descended over the land on Friday, May 19, 1780, causing considerable alarm among the populace, and leading many to believe that the Judgment Day had arrived.    

“The darkness was so great’, a Boston newspaper reported, ‘that a sheet of white paper held within a few inches of the eyes was invisible.”       

Throughout the ages there have been those who have prophesized the end of the world, each convinced they were absolutely right.  Some thought the year 1000 A.D. would usher in the apocalypse; and just to be sure they were on the right side with God, in the year 999 A.D., many who owned property began to donate it to their local church – Terminimundi Apprepinguante – meaning, on the condition that it be returned to them if the end of the world should fail to take place.    

In 1179 one astrologer announced that the world would end in September of 1186.  Apparently his calculations were a little off. 

In 1524 John Stofiler of Germany predicted a second biblical flood would drown the world just as it had in Noah’s time.  When heavy rains began to fall the following February, many began to wonder if they shouldn’t have had an Ark handy.

Leonardo Aretina, another fourteenth century prophet, also predicted global flooding would end civilization, but placed the date more than three centuries in the future as November 15, 1881.     

Prophecies aside, 1881 was certainly a nervous year for those worried about the termination of mankind.  On April 23rd of that year, a rare celestial event took place where the planets Earth, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, all lined up together.  Months earlier, some scientists predicted a cataclysmic collision between the planets would result. Some farmers, believing the world would be gone before harvest time, decided not to bother planting crops that spring. 

Three months later a comet unexpectedly appeared in the sky, leading some to speculate about the disastrous effects which would befall the Earth as it passed through the tail.  And then the Yellow Day happened.       

The 20th century also saw its share of doomsday predictions.  In 1905, a self-proclaimed prophet predicted the world would end On May 2, 1929, or April 9, 1931; he wasn’t sure which.  In 1945, a retired missionary man living in California stated that according to his information, the world would end during the last week of September of that year.  A hoax, believed to have originated in Germany, predicted the world would end on St. Patrick’s Day, 1949. 

The examples mentioned here are but a tiny fraction of the apocalyptic predictions throughout history.  So far, all who have predicted the end of the world have been wrong, and hopefully, things will stay that way.  Just as those living in 1881 were conscious of Mother Shipton’s prediction, we of today are aware of the Mayan calendar date of December 21, 2012, which some fear marks the end of civilization.  However, a California radio evangelist believes the end will come much sooner than that, and points to the fast approaching date of October 21, 2011 as the Judgment Day.  Could he be right?  We’ll have to wait and see.  With that said, remember, if you look to the sky and notice something out of the ordinary, think of the Yellow Day, and don’t panic.  It won’t do any good anyway.      

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. 

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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