by Owen Hartnett

Bondage, whippings, and feminism in Tiverton.


The whipping post.
Photo from Images of America: Tiverton and Little Compton Volume II by Nancy Jensen Devin and Richard V. Simpson (1998).

In the best Rhode Island tradition, we'll give you directions to a monument that's no longer there.

The next time you're having that coffee chip ice cream cone at Gray's Ice Cream in Tiverton, sit on the stone wall and ponder the unlucky fate met by several local women at the very same corner of the intersection. That was the location of the town's whipping post, a rough-hewn thin granite obelisk dedicated to the moral reform of the area's female population. In colonial times women could be whipped or publicly shamed for the same crime for which a man might receive only a fine.

Don't be confused by a similar type of granite block located on the other side of Main Road; that may look like a good whipping post, but it isn't the one. According to Marilyn Dennis, the owner of Gray's, "If you know where the real whipping post is, I'd love to find out. I've been looking for that for twenty years."

When Almy House was razed in 1957 to make way for Gray's Ice Cream, the post was supposedly sold to a local landscaper. But the night before it was to be taken away, someone wrapped it in burlap, put it in the trunk of a car, and drove away with the back of the car dragging on the ground. The post was buried somewhere near Four Corners, and about a year afterwards, when word got around about who had taken it and where it was, someone dug it up and spirited it elsewhere.

"There was an excavation made a few years ago, at the supposed place, but there was no whipping post there," continued Dennis. "The whipping post itself was broken off from its base, which is still under the dirt at the original spot. It was made from a different kind of rock than the post. The person who allegedly stole it died a month afterwards." And there the trail runs cold.

So, who knows where the whipping post is? Everybody, and nobody. Apparently the identity of the person who took the post in 1957 is an open secret among many of the older residents of Tiverton, but no one's talking. One lead we had, that the post had been incorporated into the front stoop of a cottage on or near Bonniefield Lane, proved fruitless. So perhaps everyone does know where it is, but they're giving out misdirection. Most people will point you to the imposter stone across the street, but it's not the correct shape, nor in the right spot. Marilyn Dennis believes she knows who knows, and that the post is real close to Four Corners, but the stone's real location is still a mystery.

Marilyn believes that the secret continues to be kept so that the name of the deceased culprit will never be publicly connected with the theft. But Marilyn says she has no interest in publicly shaming anyone or instituting legal proceedings, she'd just like to return the whipping post to its rightful place, as much for its historical importance as for its potential interest to tourists. She's even gone so far as to try to locate a replacement post, but old-timers keep vetoing her selections as being "too dark" in color or "too light."

The only recorded evidence we have of this edifice are a couple of early postcard-like photographs and stories that appeared in a book about Tiverton history, A Patchwork History of Tiverton, published in 1976, which consists mostly of contributions by townsfolk. (The pictures are also reproduced in Images of America: Tiverton and Little Compton Volume II).

The photos show a placard over the whipping post apparently, indicating the years of its operation as being from 1719 to 1812. (Presumably, the War of 1812 made the availability of young males and opportunities for criminal trysts much more scarce.)

Two similar local legends are printed in the Patchwork book about the whipping post, both of them probably apocryphal and both probably the same story. In the first, young Governor Wilbour read the sentence in front of a mob of rebellious women: "The condemned prisoner shall be tied to an upright post and flogged according to the sentence of the Court." After hearing the outcries from the mob, he added "But ladies, if it happened that there should be no 'upright post,' then how could the law be carried out?" Supposedly, a hundred "willing hands" united in dislodging the offending stone and "since then no women have been publicly flogged in Rhode Island."

The other legend has the same plot, but with different details, Governor Wilbour just happens to be jogging homeward on horseback and passes the scene: "A woman, her back bared, was tied to the whipping post." Then, as in the other story, a mob of women convened on the spot, and set up weeping and wailing and wringing their hands. However, this version has men—men who were "idling around… more interested in the shapeliness of the victim's back than in the outrage about to be afflicted on it."

As before the governor was overpowered by the insistance of the female crowd, and uttered his "upright post" line, but this time around the women beat up the sheriff, untied the unfortunate, covered her up, and then took the stone down, "like angry bees" puffing and huffing until the post was no longer upright, never to rise again!

There's probably some element of truth to these stories—Isaac Wilbour of Little Compton was governor from 1806 to 1807, for instance—but either somebody put the post back up, or it never went down in the first place, because it was standing there in 1957, ready for further operations if the need arose.

According to the local rumors, the remedy of the whipping post was applied rather liberally to some of the best "old families" in town, some of whom may not wish to bring such sordid details back to light. Maybe this accounts for the stone's strange disappearance…

Owen Hartnett resides in Tiverton. Do you know where the whipping post really is? If so, please contact the author at owen@clipboardinc.com

This article last edited May 4, 2006

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