The "Dinner Stories" -- An Introduction
Original January 19, 2013 / Revised June 5, 2013
© RIMAP 2013
One of the fun things RIMAP teams do when we engage in our historical studies and archaeological fieldwork is to decide who should play each of us if ever a movie (or long-running PBS special) were to be made about our activities. In the absence of a call from Hollywood (or London), we originally offered a series of "Dinner Stories" on the previous version of the www.rimap.org website.
We set this up as a series of "movie scenes" to present various historical events in Rhode Island in a venus more exciting than our usual technical reports and professional publications. Each scene was organized to show RIMAP staff sitting around a meal at special locations in Rhode Island. Over dinner, the Principal Investigator tells a bit of local history and then the group discusses it. Most of the stories have a local focus, but from the time of Rhode Island's beginning as a colony, we have had many international trade connections. That means that some of the stories take place in exotic locations around the world.
The "Dinner Stories" characters in the "movie" were to be played by modern stars portraying the RIMAP staff as they discuss these dramatic Rhode Island events, and with re-enactments of exploits by the daring and glamorous characters of the stores.
RIMAP members slected various actors to play themselves in this "movie," including Sigourney Weaver for D. K. (Kathy) Abbass, Jodie Foster for Kerry Lynch, Meryl Streep for Elliott Caldwell, Judi Dench for Debby Dwyer, and Denzel Washington for Joh Hoagland.
Miss Weaver in "Alien"
For this edition of the RIMAP website, we again offer these "Dinner Stories" in a different format. We hope you can imagine yourself as a guest at the table, perhaps played by your favorite actor. Please share Rhode Island's exciting history with us.
Note: Printed pamphlets of these "Dinner Stories" will also be available, so check our Publications list under the "Sales" button.
DINNER STORY #1:
Spies in the American Revolution: Metcalf Bowler -- Double Agent
Original January 19, 2013 / Revised June 5-7, 2013
The Vernon House at 56 Clarke Street is in the Colonial section of Newport, Rhode Island. Wealthy Boston merchant Charles Bowler bought this house in 1748 and sold it to his son, Metcalf, in 1759. Both father and son were prominent local citizens, but Metcalf Bowler was one of the cleverest spies in the American Revolution.
In 1760 Metcalf also bought 70 acres in south Portsmouth near Wapping Road for his country estate, and there he established one of the most magnificent Colonial gardens in North America. He also made additions to his Clarke Street property, creating the structure we see today. In 1773 he sold the house to William Vernon and retired to his Portsmouth estate.
Bowler had been a member of Newport's Committee of Safety, and while living in Portsmouth he was a Rhode Island Justice. In 1775 he was on a Rhode Island General Assembly committee that hired two armed vessels to protect the Colony. These were the Katy and the Washington. The Katy became the Sloop Providence, the first vessel in the Continental Navy. On May 4, 1776, Metcalf Bowler signed the Rhode Island Renunciation of Allegiance to King George III. This was two months before the Declaration of Independence, making Rhode Island the first colony to begin formal separation from England.
In December of 1776, During the American Revolution, British troops occupied Newport and William Vernon moved from his house on Clarke Street to Boston. There he served as president of the Eastern Board of the Continental Navy, similar to the modern Secretary of the Navy. In 1782, close to the end of the war, William Vernon returned to Newport and repaired his house. Ninety years later the property passed from the Vernon family, and in the 20th century it was partially restored, discovering Colonial Chinese-style wall paintings. This property is still called the "Vernon House" for its later owners, and now belongs to the Newport Restoration Foundation.
When the British arrived in 1776, they took over many Newport properties owned by the Patriots who had left the city, including the Vernon House that once had belonged to Bowler. Therefore, to protect his Portsmouth estate from such unwanted British attention, Metcalf Bowler secretly put himself under the King's protection. Then, using the name "Rusticus," he sent information to General Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York.
All the while he was spying for the British, Metcalf Bowler was careful to appear active in the American cause. For instance, when the French troops and ships under Admiral d'Estaing came to the aid of the Continental Army in the 1778 campaign against the British, the division under the command of Lafayette was quartered at Bowler's property in Portsmouth.
The British left Rhode Island in 1779. When the French allies returned in 1780, Metcalf Bowler was among the local dignitaries who sponsored the welcoming diplomatic ceremonies, and the French commander, General Rochambeau, used the Vernon House in Newport that had once belonged to Bowler as his headquarters. George Washington stayed there with Rochambeau in March of 1781, where they discussed the plan that led to Yorktown. Rochambeau also hosted a dinner and a ball at the Vernon House to honor Washington, and this may be the origin of the tradition that Metcalf Bowler gave Washington a dinner party at his Portsmouth country estate.
After the Revolution Bowler moved to Providence and operated a shop and boarding house diagonally across from the Old State House at 150 Benefit Street. The State House is now the office of the Rhode Island Historical Preservation and Heritage Commission, and the location of the Bowler property is now a parking lot.
During the Revolution, other local British supporters in Rhode Island openly provided information to the British, but Metcalf Bowler died in 1789 without his duplicity being discovered. It was not until 1926 that evidence was found to show that he had been a British spy, and that he had played both sides in the Revolution in order to protect his Portsmouth property.
Modern fictional stories and movies about spies can be thrilling, but they could learn a lesson from the wily Metcalf Bowler -- and it's all true.
Many other Colonial residences are still to be seen on Clarke Street near the Vernon House. Rochambeau’s aide, Swedish Count Axel de Fersen occupied Number 31. He became a Newport favorite and local lore reports that he was enamored of Eliza Hunter, the 18-year-old daughter of a prominent Newport family. Although de Fersen’s journal gives no details to support this story, Eliza supposedly refused his offer of marriage.
De Fersen never married, but he had the reputation of having been Marie Antoinette's lover. He certainly helped the French Royal family in their failed escape attempt during the French Revolution. After many years of later diplomatic service, de Fersen died in Sweden in 1810 when a mob beat him with sticks and umbrellas, and a seaman jumped on his chest.
The late 18th century was a period of political and social unrest in which many other aristocrats lost their lives in Europe, and the same unsettled processes led to the American Revolution. In the years leading up to that war, Newport was a center of Tory support for the British, but there was also a strong sentiment against them, including mob actions that burned government representatives in effigy and destroyed their properties. During the war, these pre-existing feuds turned ugly and there were a number of instances in which Rhode Islanders took the opportunity to kill, rape, and steal from other Rhode Islanders. However, familes sometimes managed to span both sides by splitting their loyalties. Such was the case of Mary Almy, who stayed in Newport with her children during the British occupation. She supported the British while her husband served with the Patriots, and only after the war were they reunited.
The swtiches from local to British and back to local control disrupted many Rhode Island families. In 1776 many Patriots abandoned Newport in fear of the British occupiers. Some went to family members elsewhere in the colony, but many had to rely on government support. Then when the British departed in 1779, many of their sympathizers left in fear of reprisals by the returning Patriots. In addition to the tragedy of these personal displacements and their economic consequences, the physical damage to the city's infrastructure during the British occupation was a major cause of Newport's decline following the Revolution. But these are stories for another time.