Time flies when you're in college. If you're not careful, you could enter a studio at RISD, a kitchen at Johnson & Wales, or a library at Brown, PC, URI, Salve, RIC, Roger Williams, or Bryant, and stumble out four years later without a clue about the stories in your midst. So before you disappear, here's a cheat sheet of Rhode Island tales that you probably didn't hear on your campus tour.Roger Williams
Roger Williams Park, Roger Williams Hospital, Roger Williams University, Roger Williams Avenue — they're all named for an ex-convict. We may celebrate him today, but in colonial times, ol' R.W. was the Guy Who Couldn't Keep His Mouth Shut. The preacher was so outspoken about separating church and state and negotiating peacefully with Native Americans that the Massachusetts Bay Colony convicted him of spreading "new and dangerous opinions" and banished him in the winter of 1635.
By springtime, Williams was 50 miles south of Boston and paddling his way up a river toward natives onshore who greeted him by shouting — in a scene that now adorns city seals on Providence trash bins — "What Cheer, Netop?" Today, the freshwater spring where Williams supposedly arrived is enshrined in a stone well at the Roger Williams National Memorial on South Main Street. Peer inside this holiest of civic sites and what do you see? Bottle caps, shoelaces, coins, twigs, and a few discarded food wrappers.The Gaspee
British customs officer Lieutenant William Dudingston didn't have many friends in Rhode Island in the summer of 1772. So when his schooner, the HMS Gaspee, ran aground on a sandbar in Narragansett Bay on June 9, folks on shore didn't rush to save him. Instead, they gathered in pubs and parlors to hash out a plan. When night fell, a horde of men hopped in rowboats and paddled Dudingston's way, shouting at him, shooting him in the groin, raiding his ship, tying up his crew, and torching the schooner. The ensuing British criminal inquiry yielded no convictions; instead, centuries later, we toast this act of arson as a pre-game bonfire before the American Revolution.Edgar Allan Poe
Think your last break-up was dramatic? Consider Edgar Allan Poe's tale from the fall of 1848. On a visit to Providence, the frenzied author of The Tell-Tale Heart fell hard for a local widow who wrote poetry and wore coffin-shaped pendants, Sarah Helen Whitman. He wrote breathless letters. ("Do you not perceive that it is my diviner nature . . . which burns and pants to commingle with your own?") He took her on dates to Swan Point Cemetery. He sent her locks of his hair. He showed up outside her house, screaming. He proposed marriage numerous times. And at one point, unhappy with the progress of his courtship, he took a massive dose of the tranquilizer laudanum and stumbled around, puking. "My reason was entirely gone," he would later write.
Somehow, Whitman agreed to marry him, but before they can make it official, Poe broke a key condition of the engagement: sobriety. When word of his tippling got around, the affair unraveled in a dramatic scene at Whitman's house where she clamped an ether-soaked handkerchief to her face and passed out on a couch. Poe was escorted from the premises and out of Whitman's life, never to marry her or anyone else. He died in Baltimore less than a year later, wearing another man's clothes. Ouch.