At our September 2013 meeting, C. Morgan Grefe, Executive Director of Rhode Island Historical Society (RIHS) came to talk about history - and she brought us history!
What Grefe brought was awesome. She and her colleague Elyssa Tardif, Director of Education, entered through our front door toting a shrink-wrapped figure. Measuring 30 inches, this was the white convict, a robber and murderer. The actual, genuine wood carving was once part of our Old Jail way back in the 1700s and 1800s.
To behold such an old figure leaves one speechless. His hair is long and shaggy, his expression haggard. His brimmed hat, waistcoat and shiny shoes are black. His trousers with ragged holes in knees are brown. The shoe buckles and buttons on his waistcoat are copper-colored. His complexion darkened to the color of soot. One interesting thing is that the handcuffs are carved from wood, and not wrought iron. He does, indeed, portray a sinister character.
His age can be pinpointed from what we know. The Old Jail opened for business in 1796. Martha McPartland writes in 1960: “the jail at that time was painted yellow and the figures stood out plainly, even from the top of King Street, as there was no railroad bridge there to cut off the view.” The railroad bridge was completed in 1836.
The Rhode Island Historical Society acquired the figure in 1859. As the Historical Magazine and Notes and Queries Concerning the Antiquities, History and Biography of America, Vol. IV, 1860 notes: “Rhode Island Historical Society — Providence, Dec. 13, 1859 — A regular monthly meeting this evening in their cabinet… The cabinet keeper, Rev. E. M. Stone, announced donations… The Donation from Mr. Helme was a wooden image, which had, until recently, occupied a position over the door of the old Kent County Jail in East Greenwich, for a long term of years." The Mr. Helme mentioned as giving the figure to the RIHS was a Mr. William G. Helme. How he came to obtain the figure, which so long was associated with the Old Kent County Jail, is not known at this time.
Lamentably, the whereabouts of the original black convict has been lost.
Original sculpture from the Kent County Jail, now in the collection of the Rhode Island Historical Society.