Rhode Island

Fire, Fury, Murder and More – Tales from the Roger Mowry Tavern

Roger Mowry started life in England and came to Boston in 1631 at about the age of 20. He moved around a bit, spending several years in Salem, Mass. While in Salem he undoubtedly knew about the rabble-rousing Roger Williams, and by 1649, Mowry had relocated to Providence, R.I. where he held the privileges of a freeman.

mowry tavern

Mowry Tavern (The Descendants of John Mowry of Rhode Island)

In 1653 he built the house that he turned into the Mowry Tavern at the corner of Abbot and North Main Streets. It stood there for almost 250 years. The tavern was known as a 'stone ender' house because one wall of the structure was made of stone and contained a massive (10-foot wide) fireplace that served as a heat source.

Tales From the Mowry Tavern

Over the years, many stories and legends sprang up around the Mowry Tavern.

For example, one of the earliest murders in Rhode Island took place at the Mowry Tavern. John Clauson, a Dutch carpenter, spent an evening at the tavern in the winter of 1660. The next morning he was found, beaten with an ax, in a patch of barberry bushes near the tavern.

Clauson, clinging to life, accused a neighbor, the querulous Benjamin Herndon, of the crime.  The men may have argued over a property boundary.

Then Clauson succumbed to his injuries, but Herndon was cleared.  The good people of Providence, however, decided guilt lay with an Indian named Waumanitt. He pleaded guilty and went off to jail in Newport to await trial.

Clauson, however, had placed a curse on Herndon, wishing that his children all have split chins and that barberry bushes inundate his land.

Another legend has it that a near riot broke out at the tavern in response to a Massachusetts constable arriving in town to arrest a Rhode Islander. The constable held the man at the nearby Pray's Tavern. In response, a group of residents hastily assembled at the Mowry Tavern. The group sent an emissary to the other tavern to inquire under what authority the Massachusetts constable claimed to operate.

The upshot: the prisoner went free and the constable returned to the neighboring colony empty handed.

Doubling as a Jail

In addition to serving as a tavern keeper, licensed to operate a 'house of entertainment,' Providence records also show Roger Mowry served as a town constable. When necessary, the tavern doubled as a jail, so rowdy patrons didn't have far to go if the properietor arrested them.

In 1676 during King Philip's War, Indians destroyed nearly every building in Providence. Roger Williams' own house was destroyed by fire. A handful of buildings survived, either by luck or design. Most histories suggest Indians and fire spared only five buildings, among them the Mowry Tavern.

According to legend, Indians may have left the tavern untouched because their friend Roger Williams held religious services in the building.

Roger Mowry died in 1666, and his tavern died with him. The Mowry Tavern sold many times. The new owners renamed it the Olney House and eventually the Abbott House. It survived until 1900, when wreckers tore it down to make way for a triple-decker tenement building.

This story was updated in 2019.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. susan Luck

    January 16, 2018 at 1:51 pm

    I thought that name looked familiar so I looked it up in my tree. He was my 8th great grandfather on my mom’s side. It was nice to see the home he lived in and what stories that came with it!

    • B. F. Sullivan

      February 6, 2018 at 7:40 pm

      I’ve been an amateur genealogist for a number of years and about 7 years ago I discovered that Roger Mowry was my 12th generation great-grandfather. I had located a drawing of his home but was not familiar with the stories surrounding his tavern until today. Fascinating!

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