September 2, 2014
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Then and Now
Rhode Island's first rouges and rascals
Terry D'Amato Spencer

In a 1991 episode of ABC's "Prime Time Live,” Rhode Island was repeatedly referred to as "Rogue’s Island" and was castigated with statements that described her as "a state where politics is often in the gutter" and as "the most corrupt state in the union.” Remarks such as those heard on this Nov. 7, 1991 show have been assailing Rhode Islanders' ears since the colony was founded. She has been called the "cesspool of creation,” the "sewer of New England,” a "receptacle of riff-raff,” an "asylum for evildoers" and a "hive or hornets.”

Unfortunately, too often the facts have borne out the truth of the accusations against Rhode Island. As a colony, Rhode Island was noted for its feuds and legalistic battles, and as time passed its politicians became notorious for bribery and corruption. The state became infamous for its long history of "bossism,” its open violation of the Prohibition Amendment, its fiscal chicanery, its permitting of almost unbelievable excesses of its rich and famous, and its seemingly apathetic views toward issues that tear other states apart.

While the small state admits to having had more than its share of knaves and scoundrels, it points out that it also has a great wealth of idealists, patriots and leading moralists as well. Rhode Island's land area may only be 1,214 square miles, but its history looms large with both bizarre and beautiful episodes. In her long history, Rhode Island has played host to some of the world's most despicable pirates and confidence men, as well as to sensitive poets, artists and musicians. At times, the state has been more hospitable to the privateer-man than the poet and has showered praise on the rogue while ignoring the hero.

While Rhode Island's more audacious antics cannot be denied, we should not lose sight of the fact that she was the earliest champion of religious freedom. She led the way with a plethora of firsts in helping to create an independent country and has often been in the forefront for political, economic and moral reform.

Controversy has dogged Rhode Island's history from Verrazano to Von Bulow. Even Roger Williams, considered by some a saint today, was severely criticized by his contemporaries, both within and outside of the colony he founded. His puritanical enemies in Massachusetts banished him from that colony saying he had "windmills in his head.” Governor John Winthrop of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that Williams "divulged new and dangerous opinions" and his Salem contemporaries charged him with having "contempt of authority.”

Within a very short time after Williams founded the colony, Governor Winthrop noted, "At Providence, also, the devil was not idle. For whereas...Mr. Williams and the rest did make an order, that no man should be molested for his conscience, now men's wives, and children, and servants, claimed liberty to go to all religious meetings..." The first case of disenfranchisement in Rhode Island occurred because of this ruling and concerned Joshua Verin, who lived next door to Roger Williams.

Mrs. Verin, described by most as a very devout lady, spent a considerable amount of time attending the sermons of Roger Williams. Her husband claimed that she was taking up time that should have been devoted to the care of the household. When Mrs. Verin continued to attend Williams' sermons, Verin is alleged to have beaten her so badly that her screams could be heard by the neighbors. Soon after, Verin was brought before the Town Council, which voted to disenfranchise Verin. It was decided that his crime was not in beating his wife, but in interfering with her right to worship. Verin left the colony in protest.

The council action gave rise to much criticism from Williams' enemies within the colony, especially William Arnold and William Harris. Arnold and Harris concocted a scheme that, if successful, would have given them nearly 70 percent of the present territory of Rhode Island. They attempted to do this with a “forged deed” for the original purchase of the colony. The audacity of this attempt to defraud would cause a monumental scandal in the modern world, but the perpetrators Arnold and Harris were never arrested or punished for their actions. William Harris, the chief investigator, intensely disliked Roger Williams, and in turn Williams vented his outrage on Harris in scathing condemnation and refused to even acknowledge Harris by his full name.

During the long colonial period, Rhode Island became noted for both its religious and political accomplishments but also for its privateers and scoundrels.

The story of Rhode Island's rogues, rascals, villains, patriots and statesmen will be continued.


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