The quick and the dead: Underground in Providence

By PHILIP EIL  |  September 17, 2008

It’s been a rough year for cemetery buffs. From ransacked Confederate graves in Virginia (they’re looking for brass buttons to pawn, experts say) to Poe scholars squabbling over the Raven-Man’s remains, the news hasn’t been good.

And what about that trip to Pere Lachaise? Well, as long as airfare to Paris is $1000, Jim Morrison, Proust, and Piaf are going to have to wait. Yes, times are tough for grave-gawkers, but it’s not all bad news. There’s plenty of funerary fun to be had — free of charge — in Providence.

Unlike Paris, where big shots like Chopin and Oscar Wilde are interred in one place, Providence’s tombstone tour has three top stops. The first site, Prospect Terrace Park on Congdon Street, is where the man who started this whole Rhode Island “experiment,” Roger Williams, rests. 

Famous for quipping, “Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” Williams was initially buried on Prospect Hill in 1683. In 1860, however, his remains were moved to the North Burial Ground, only to be relocated once more (in 1939) to Prospect Park. “HERE REPOSES DUST FROM THE GRAVE OF ROGER WILLIAMS,” the monument reads, as Williams’s statue watches another condo mar his skyline.

The next stop on the headstone hike is Swan Point Cemetery, located on the city’s East Side, off the east side of Blackstone Boulevard, and it boasts an overwhelming number of important figures in local history.

Beneath its manicured lawns rest four recipients of the Congressional Medal of Honor, 23 former governors (including Theodore Francis Green, for whom the airport is named), and Helen Adelia Rose Metcalf, the founder of the RISD. Yes, you could spend all day roaming Swan Point (written walking guides are available at the office), but there are two headstones, in particular — George H. Corliss and H.P. Lovecraft — that shouldn’t be missed. 

Corliss was an engineer who found success manufacturing steam engines in Providence during the 19th century. His towering, 70-foot Corliss Steam Engine was the talk of the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, where the machine powered the entire Machinery Hall.  Lovecraft was an anxiety-addled horror writer, who, since his death in 1937, has risen to high literary esteem. He is also the owner — albeit posthumously — of the coolest epitaph in town. His headstone reads, “I Am Providence.”

Finally, anyone interested in Providence’s subterranean A-list must pay a visit to the North Burial Ground, off of North Main Street. Though it has big names of its own — celebrated education advocate, Horace Mann; governor, Revolutionary War vet, and signer of the Declaration of Independence, Stephen Hopkins — it’s best to simply browse the Old Section. Here, the names on headstones — Angell, Waterman, Jenckes — echo those found on the city’s streets. Tombstones tell of bygone sicknesses: small pox, consumption, and cholera. And then there’s the violence.

The Old Section’s inscriptions seem ripped from a Tarantino script. There’s Freelove Ball, the mother of nine who “died from stabs inflicted with a knife” and Captain Thomas Green Hull, who, “left New York for Baltimore 21 Dec. 1864 . . . was found lashed to the mast of his sunken and ill fated vessel.”

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