CUMBERLAND – Little is known about the Rev. William Blackstone’s life, and the location of his final resting place is even more of a mystery.
The topic of Blackstone, the first white settler in Rhode Island and founder of the town of Boston, has been a busy one of late, with the installation of a statue of him in Pawtucket stirring some controversy due to his presence during colonial times.
There is also plenty of chatter about future redevelopment plans for the Ann & Hope Mill property where Blackstone was once buried.
Sara Brelsford, chief of staff to Cumberland Mayor Jeff Mutter, and Sarah King, community outreach coordinator for the mayor, said they were surprised to hear recently from a resident who was stopping into Town Hall to pay her taxes and asking whether they knew where Blackstone was buried.
King said she thought at first that it might be some kind of test, but as it turns out, the riddle from resident Alice Ross was a legitimate question that many have struggled to answer. She said she’d assumed Blackstone was buried under the monument to him near the Blackstone River Theatre on Broad Street, but Ross responded that this isn’t the case.
Brelsford and King said they couldn’t believe they’d never heard the story of how Blackstone’s final resting place was lost to time, and they say they’d love to hear from anyone who might have more tips on where his remains might have ended up.
“We really want to know where William Blackstone is,” said King.
A synopsis at the monument site reads that Blackstone’s Study Hill home and gardens was leveled in 1886 by the Lonsdale Company so they could build the latest addition to their textile empire, the Ann & Hope Mill. Prior to construction, officials from the company decided to remove Blackstone’s remains from his traditional burial site and bury them again with a proper memorial.
On May 6, 1886, Blackstone’s remains (really, several bones and a few rusted nails from his coffin) were removed from their original site and placed in a new lead-lined coffin. In 1889, Blackstone was buried under a monument in front of the mill and alongside the river bearing his name.
“This was not Blackstone’s final move, however,” states the synopsis. “In 1944, while the mill was being used by the Navy as a repair facility, a new rail spur to the mill threatened the monument.”
Blackstone’s remains were again dug up, and the monument was moved to a William Blackstone Memorial Park site behind the mill along Broad Street.
“At some point during this move, the small lead coffin containing Blackstone’s remains were lost, and to this day no one is sure of the site of Blackstone’s final resting place,” states the very neat synopsis. “In December 1996, the monument was once again moved to the present site.”
Brelsford and King said Ross shared with them a story told to her by her mother, who was a child in the 1920s and lived nearby, and how she happened to walk past a small crowd of people wearing dress clothes one day. After approaching to see what they were doing, her mother saw that they were reburying a coffin in the general area of the current monument.
According to Ross, her mom saw a man with a large white hat, and Ross was able to confirm that story when she later did some research looking for a photo from that ceremony and found it in a Providence Journal archive.
King started doing some of her own research and came across a 1980s article by former Breeze editor and Pawtucket Evening Times reporter Marcia Green detailing how the body had been moved a couple of times and how the last known instance of someone having the remains in their possession was after a 1940s excavation by an Ann & Hope maintenance employee where workers didn’t know what they’d found until they were able to pry open the metal box and found a couple of bones and the nails from the original coffin.
According to the story, the bones and nails were entrusted to G.W. Pratt to keep until the mill could be completed and a monument constructed.
According to a story by Louise Lind in the Old Rhode Island magazine in 1992, the late Robert Furey, of California, remembered seeing the box containing Blackstone’s remains. His father, the late James Furey, who died in January 1965, was the Ann & Hope building’s plant engineer starting in 1943. The younger Furey was quoted as saying during a phone conversation with Lind in 1990 that a realty company had bought the building from the U.S. Navy and was renting it out to several kinds of businesses.
While digging to extend utilities to a cottage to be used as an office, equipment unearthed the wooden box measuring 12 inches by 12 inches by 16 inches, sealed in lead. Inside were handmade nails and a few fragments of bones.
The box sat for many years in the storeroom behind Furey’s father’s office, he told Lind.
“It seems to me that, in the 1960s, when Ann and Hope was expanding, they moved my father’s office,” he told Lind. “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.”
Jim Mills, a building superintendent and employee at Ann & Hope for nearly 40 years, confirmed to Brelsford and King that nothing resembling that box ever turned up at the property in the years since.
Blackstone is described in accounts as having lived as a recluse until 1659, when he wed Sarah Stevenson of Boston. They had one son together named Johnathon.
Sarah died in 1673 and Blackstone died two years later in 1675 at the age of 80. He was buried on Study Hill next to his faithful bull, which is part of the inspiration for the new Pawtucket monument.
“Shortly after, King Philip’s War broke out among the colonists and Indians, and the very natives he lived in harmony with, burned his estate to the ground,” stated a story from Thomas D’Agostino in the Yankee Express magazine last year.
It wasn’t until 1855 when the saga picks up again, D’Agostino wrote. A group of citizens gathered around the rough-shod grave to pay tribute to their founder and raise money to have a more modern monument installed in the place of an antiquated rock pile.
“Donations were taken but the monument never materialized,” he wrote. “Neither did any refunds to the charity givers.”
Many years would pass and time took its toll as the weeds grew high in hiding William Blackstone’s grave from sight, leaving it all but forgotten until The Lonsdale Company, owned by the firm of Brown and Ives, decided to expand their operations by building the mill. The plans included the leveling of Study Hill and moving Blackstone’s remains to another place.
“Luckily, a certain William Gammell was not only one of the directors of the Lonsdale Company, but the president of the Rhode Island Historical Society,” wrote D’Agostino. “When the Ann & Hope Mill was to take the place of Study Hill, it was he who saved the remains of William Blackstone from being totally dug up and lost. At least, for a while.”