Walking Through Providence in the Footsteps of Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft
Providence, Rhode Island,
is well known for its association with its native son
H. P. Lovecraft.
Not as well known is its association with Lovecraft's idol,
Edgar Allan Poe.
Both wrote weird fiction, fantasy, and horror. And, both died young, Poe at 40 and Lovecraft at 46.
Here is a virtual tour of sites associated with Poe's time in Providence in 1848, a year before his death, and Lovecraft's time there from his birth in 1890 to his death in 1937. Providence has the most coffee and doughnut shops per capita of any city in the U.S. Fully caffeinated after a stop at a coffee shop near where I was staying on the edge of the Brown University campus, and having read some of the essays in a rather academic book on Lovecraft, I was ready to go.
Rhode Island Was Not the Typical Colony
Unlike the rest of the thirteen British colonies in North America, Rhode Island was founded by a refugee from religious persecution within the colonies. Roger Williams fled persecution in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founding Providence as a haven for religious liberty in 1636. He purchased the land from local tribes and set up the first settlement in North America with an explicitly secular government.
The Puritans had a harsh and narrow view of what Christianity should be like, and if you weren't just like them, you were in trouble. A faction of them who came to be called the Pilgrims had left England for the Netherlands and then quickly managed to make themselves unwelcome there. If you can't get along with the famously open-minded and tolerant Dutch, then you must be awfully hard to get along with. It wasn't so much that they were fleeing persecution, but instead fleeing the outcome of their trying to persecute everyone else. From the Netherlands they had gone to the New World in 1620, establishing Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts.
Ten years later, Roger Williams arrived in Massachusetts. He was a strong advocate for religious freedom, the separation of church and state, and fair dealings with the Native Americans.
Williams believed that civil government had no business meddling in matters of religious belief, and declared that the state should concern itself only with matters of civil order. He rejected any attempt by civil authorities to enforce "the first Table" of the Ten Commandments, those dealing with an individual's relationship with and belief in God, saying that the state must confine itself to the remaining Commandments dealing with relations between people: murder, theft, adultery, lying, and failing to honor parents. He considered the state's involvement in religious beliefs or practices to be "forced worship", saying that "Forced worship stinks in God's nostrils."
In 1635 the General Court in the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that Williams was spreading "diverse, new, and dangerous opinions". They convicted him of sedition and heresy, and ordered that he be banished.
Williams traveled southwest and crossed the Seekonk River. The local Narragansett people greeted him with "What cheer, netop", a mix of English and Narragansett meaning "Hello, friend" that eventually became the state motto. Along what is now called the Providence River he found a cove with a freshwater spring, and purchased it from the local tribal leaders. That's right, he paid for it. That sort of behavior would get you kicked right out of Massachusetts.
Williams founded the first Baptist church in North America, what is now called the First Baptist Church of Providence and is quite literally that. Here it is, as seen along my way from Providence's Amtrak train station as I began to climb up College Hill:
The other New England colonies began to fear the Narragansetts and came to regard the Rhode Island colony as an enemy. Williams traveled to England to secure a charter for his colony. He arrived in London in the middle of its Civil War. His first published book, A Key into the Language of America, was crucial to his getting the charter. Published in London in 1643, it contained a phrasebook along with observations about the culture of the Native Americans of New England. It was the first English-language book-length study of a native North American language.
In 1647 Williams unified the settlements into the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. Freedom of conscience was proclaimed, and it was a safe haven for people who were persecuted for their beliefs, such as the Baptists, Quakers, and Jews.
Critics called the Rhode Island colony "Rogue's Island". Cotton Mather referred to it as "the sewer of New England" because of its willingness to accept people who had been banished from Massachusetts Bay. The New England Puritans soon banished other prominent figures, including Anne Hutchinson, Thomas Hooker, John Wheelwright, and many others. John Smith was banished in 1636 for "divers dangerous opinions which he holdeth and hath divulged." He set up and operated a large mill along the river in Providence.
Roger Williams died in early 1683 and was buried on his own property. Fifty years later, the house collapsed into the cellar and the location of his grave was forgotten.
Meanwhile, colonial Massachusetts had been hanging a few people in 1659–1661 for the heinous crime of being Quakers. Then in 1692–1693 they launched the Salem Witch Trials, in which nineteen people were executed by hanging, one was executed by being crushed to death, and at least five others died in jail. It was the deadliest, but not the only, witch hunt in colonial North America.
Now on to Edgar Allan Poe's time in Providence.