by Louise Lind

Has anyone seen a box of bones around?

Corner of Blackstone and Broad Streets, Cumberland

The following article originally appeared in Old Rhode Island magazine, October 1992. It is reprinted here with permission of the author.


Mysteries, mysteries, mysteries! Why did the Reverand William Blackstone (1595-1675), the first Englishman to settle in Rhode Island, come to North America? What were his thoughts and opinions as he observed the first fifty years of American history from his hilltop home on the Blackstone River? And where, by the way, are his bones today?

According to the nineteenth-century Attleboro historian, John Daggett, "quite a number of people gathered at his grave" on July 4, 1856. "The spot was then designated by two small boulders of semi-crystallized quartz rock." The crowd heard an oration, the singing of an ode and impromptu speeches about the "Sage of the Wilderness." The need for an appropriate monument was stressed, and the audience was reminded that anyone could become a member of the Blackstone Monument Association by donating ten cents.

Although considerable enthusiasm was manifested, nothing in the way of a monument was constructed. One wonders who kept the dimes.

For many years thereafter, Blackstone's grave was neglected and its precise location on Study Hill in the southern part of Cumberland was unknown to most people. Then, in the 1880s, the Lonsdale Company came along with its plans to level the hill in order to build the Ann and Hope Mill there.

One of the directors of the Lonsdale Company, William Gammell, happened also to be president of the Rhode Island Historical Society. His influence may be responsible for the care with which the Lonsdale Company's agents sought Blackstone's remains and removed them to a safer place while the gigantic textile mill was being built.

Minutes of a special meeting held July 26, 1886, tell us:

The Agents reported that on the sixth day of May the grave of William Blackstone was opened by Mssrs. Miles & Luther, well-known Undertakers from Providence, and that the human remains found therein consisted of a few small pieces of bone and a quantity of pulverized bone resembling lime dust, and that with these were also found a number of nails of ancient make such as might have been used in a coffin long ago. All these were carefully gathered and are now kept in charge of the Superintendent for burial at a future time.

By invitation of the Agents, the opening of the grave and the exhumation of its contents were witnessed by Mr. Lorenzo Blackstone of Norwich, Conn., and by Mr. William Gammell, President of the Rhode Island Historical Society.

Three years later, at the company's annual meeting on February 6, the agents voted to erect a monument to Blackstone's memory and place it in front of the Ann and Hope Mill. However, records of a special meeting held July 24, 1889, state that "the descendants of Rev. William Blackstone, through their representative, Mr. W.N. Blackstone, have expressed an earnest desire to bear the expense of erecting the monument to his memory." Needless to say, their wish was granted.

For a slightly different account of the re-interment of William Blackstone's bones and the erection of his monument, we turn again to John Daggett, and to his daughter, Amelia Daggett Sheffield, who edited her father's notes and brought them up to date (A Sketch of the History of Attleborough from Its Settlement to the Division, published in Boston in 1894). "These [the bones] were placed in an appropriate box and again buried under the building, in which there will be a monument to his name..." So the grave was under the mill and the monument was to be in it?

Marcia Green, writing in the March 5, 1985, issue of The Evening Times of Pawtucket, says the bones and nails were entrusted to Lonsdale Company Superintendent G.W. Pratt to keep until the mill could be completed and a monument constructed.

Mrs. Sheffield, who was probably working on her father's book even while the Ann and Hope Mill was being built, describes the monument thus:

The monument stands a very few yards from the grave and in line with it. The precise spot (of the original grave) is covered by Lonsdale Co's Ann and Hope Mill. The monument was erected by some of the descendants of William Blackstone, and the inscription was written by a member of the Lonsdale Co.

It is of granite about twelve feet high,—the base five or six feet square and the shaft a foot or more smaller, tapering slightly. It is within the enclosed grounds of the mill, surrounded by the vivid green of a beautiful green lawn, the only object on it.

On the front face of the monument, beneath a cross carved in the stone, is written: "The grave of the Reverend William Blackstone, founder of the town of Boston, and the first white settler in Rhode Island." On the left side is written: "Coming from Boston to this spot in 1635, he died May 26, 1675, aged over eighty years and was here buried." On the right face is: "A student of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, he took holy orders in the Church of England, in whose communion he lived and died." The rear panel reads: "Erected by the lineal descendants of William Blackstone A.D. 1889."

For many years, the bones of William Blackstone and a few rusty nails lay beneath this monument, in the box in which Superintendent Pratt had placed them... a wooden box fastened by bands of metal.

Commenting on the placement of Blackstone's monument in such an industrial environment, John Wilford Blackstone, author of a booklet about his ancestor in 1907, said:

The sculptured shaft rears itself not amid the giant trees beside his flowing river, but near the giant engine by whose almighty power the hum of whirring spindles is heard unceasingly. The spirit of the gentle sage could scarcely reconcile itself to such a change, and must have passed saddened away from its accustomed haunts forever.

The late John Mehard of Cumberland, in a 1980 letter to David Balfour of the Cumberland Historic District Commission, described the setting this way:

In the period of textile prosperity, the front of the mill (that facing the Blackstone River) and part of the northern and southern portions were encased by a high iron fence - about seven feet tall. Between the fence and the mill building - a distance of about 100 feet - there was a lawn with a walk. The Blackstone monument was located a short distance west of the mill building near where the two-story and four-story (sections) adjoined…

One had to get permission at the mill office to get close enough to the monument to read its inscriptions.

The remains of William Blackstone reposed in this lawn-covered plot from 1889 until the early 1940s, undisturbed except by noise. At that time, many New England textile leaders, lured by the promise of cheaper help, moved their operations to the South. Like so many other factory buildings, the Ann and Hope Mill became an empty shell. The grass grew wild around the Blackstone monument.

Then came World War II. The United States Navy transformed the Ann and Hope building into a repair depot for the accoutrements of war. A spur track from the railroad ran to the building. The monument stood ignored but in constant danger of being damaged amid the turmoil.

The First Presbyterian Church, then located at the corner of Broad and Cumberland Streets, overlooked the rear of the Ann and Hope complex. As a member of that church, Mehard suggested that Blackstone's monument be moved to a small plot of church property on the west side of Broad Street. In his previously quoted letter to David Balfour, he wrote:

After some very agreeable negotiations between the then owner of the property and the Navy Department, the monument was moved to its present location in 1944.

I do not know whether Blackstone's remains were removed at the same time. Neither do I know if they were buried near or under the monument when it was erected in the mill yard. The minutes of the Lonsdale Company do not seem to be clear on this point.

Since then, the town of Cumberland has maintained the tiny park around William Blackstone's monument on Broad Street. It is situated close to the sidewalk. The back of the monument overlooks the rear parking lot of what is today the Ann and Hope Discount Store, said to be the first discount store in the United States.

[Editor's note: In 1996 the monument was moved once more, a few feet north, to the corner of Broad and Blackstone Streets, where it now stands as the centerpiece of William Blackstone Memorial Park.]

The late Robert E. Furey, of El Cerrito, California, remembered seeing the box containing William Blackstone's remains. His father, the late James Furey, was the Ann and Hope building's plant engineer from 1943, when the Navy was using it, through the period when it was owned by the realty company that preceded the Ann and Hope Discount Store. The elder Furey died in January 1965 and his son passed away in August of 1992.

The younger Furey used to work for his father during school vacations. In a telephone conversation with this writer March 14, 1990, be brought the story of William Blackstone's wandering bones up to the 1960s.

It seems to me the box of William Blackstone's bones was dug up after World War II. The realty company bought the building from the Navy and was renting it out to several different kinds of businesses. It was constructing a separate cottage to be used as an office for the Alamadon Company, a weaving business owned by a mother and her two sons. They found it too noisy to have an office in their weave shed.

While digging to extend utilities to that cottage, a backhoe or shovel ran into a box. It was a wooden box sealed in lead... heavy lead foil. Its corners were soldered. It was about 12x12x16 inches in size. Inside, were a lot of handmade nails and a few fragments of bones. The shovel or backhoe damaged it a bit. It was opened because no one knew what it was at first.

The box had been buried just north of the north tower, the tower closest to Mill Street. It had been dug up by 1949.

The box sat for many years in the storeroom behind my father's office. His office was downstairs on the back of the building, the side nearest Broad Street.

It seems to me that, in the 1960s, when Ann and Hope was expanding, they moved my father's office. I'm not sure what happened to the box. My mother and I wanted my father to offer the box to the Rhode Island Historical Society or someone like that, but he didn't get around to it.

So, we are left with the question: Where is that lead-covered box, the second coffin of the Reverend William Blackstone?

Unrecognized, was it thrown out when the building was being transformed into a department store? Where did the remains of Rhode Island's first European settler finally end up? Has anyone seen a ghost, attired in a 17th-century clerical coat, hovering about one of the state's landfills?

Louise Lind (1922-2007) worked as a reporter and feature writer for the Woonsocket Call for twenty-two years and as an account executive for radio station WWON for fifteen years. She became a freelancer in 1987 and authored Southeast Asians in Rhode Island: The New Americans, William Blackstone: Sage of the Wilderness, and the historical novel Heritage of Peace: Land of Hope and Glory (with Corinne Rocheleau Rouleau).

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow five minutes.

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk

Finding it: From Route 295 take exit 11 to Route 114 south (Diamond Hill Road); turn right on Blackstone Street; William Blackstone Memorial Park will be on your left, at the corner of Blackstone and Broad Streets.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to water or rampaging fire ants. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited June 9, 2003

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