The Last Gibbet Cage
A South County ghost story.
by Susan Taryn McVicar
Note: This article is a combination of facts, as reported in the historical public record, the author's personal recollections of what she perceived to be a supernatural experience, and a touch of artistic license. It's up to each reader's own judgment to decide how much weight to assign each of these elements.
The following is a copy of the writ issued in the year 1751, for the execution of Thomas Carter:
Rhode Island, Kings County, Sc.
George the Second, by the Grace of God King of Great Britain, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc. To Our Sheriff of our County of Kings County, or to his Deputy: Greeting:
Whereas, at our superior court of Judicature Court of Assize and General Jail Delivery; Began and held at South Kingstown in and for our County of Kings County, on the first Tuesday of April, in the twenty-fourth year of our reign, A.D. 1751, Thomas Carter late of Newport in our County of Newport mariner; was legally convicted of murdering William Jackson late of Virginia, Trader; and was also convicted of robbing the said William Jackson and feloniously taking and carrying away from him his money to the value of one thousand and eighty pounds of the old tenor, and,
Whereas, Our aforesaid Court held as aforesaid Did Pass and pronounce Sentence against the Said Thomas Carter in the words following, viz.: You Thomas Carter being legally convicted of murdering William Jackson late of Virginia, trader, and also convicted of robbing him of a horse, leather and money to the value of one thousand and eighty pounds, wherefore tis the Sentence of this Court that you be carried to the jail from whence you came and closely confined till Friday the 10th of May, A.D., 1751, and then be drawn to the place of execution and there Between the hours of Eleven o'clock forenoon, and two in the afternoon to be hung by the Neck till you are Dead and then your body to be cut down and Hanged in Chains near the place of Execution till consumed, of which Execution Remains to be done,
We therefore strictly Charge and Command you to Prepare and Provide a Suitable Gallows to be erected in South Kingstown in or near the place called the Training Field and in some Convenient Time before the day of Execution appointed in the above Said Sentence being the Tenth Day of May, A.D., 1751; and also to provide suitable and proper materials in order to hang the body of aforesaid Criminal in Chains according to the aforesaid Sentence and on the aforesaid Tenth Day of May You are hereby Commanded to take proper and sufficient aid, and then You are to Proceed and Execute Said Sentence at the time therein appointed for the Same to be Done, And for so doing This Shall be your Sufficient Warrant.
Given under the Hands and Seals of three Justices of said Court at South Kingstown aforesaid the Sixth Day of April, in the Twenty-fourth year of our Reign, A.D., 1751.
The year was 2009. I had just returned to Rhode Island after having spent two years in Indiana, and was staying with a friend in a lovely little neighborhood known as Middlebridge. Many years earlier, I'd owned a small cottage just down the road. Middlebridge sits nestled in a valley, along a natural fjord that surrounds the Narrow River. The river flows into the Narragansett Bay, then empties into the Atlantic Ocean. On the East side of the river, just across the bay, lies the island city of Newport.
It was wonderful to be back in Rhode Island. I'd missed it terribly. The waves of grain were nothing compared to the real thing. Being a tobacco user, I would use that as an excuse to step outside and enjoy the fresh air and sweet surroundings. Just to hear the ripples of the river lapping the banks, and knowing the ocean was so close by, smelling the salt air... ahhh... home. The front porch was a nice place to sit on the railing and enjoy the stars, the sound of the owls and the crickets, and the occasional sound of someone tapping on metal. At first, I assumed it was one of the neighbors working on an outdoor project of some sort, and I paid it no mind. It was an older neighborhood; most of the houses were built in the post-WWII era by Navy retirees. Everyone had their backyard projects. But this tapping sound would alter now and then. Sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right, sometimes far, sometimes very near. I assumed it must be the wind carrying the sound of it. It was a very distinct sound, like the sound a blacksmith would make. The rhythm was steady, loud at first and then it would lessen. TAP TAP TAP, tap tap tap...
I began to pay more attention to it. It was a regular pattern, and sometimes I'd go out very late and just stand there and wait for it. And it would always come. TAP TAP TAP, tap tap tap... And the longer I'd listen, the more it would seem to move around me and toward me. Okay, self, I said, you're losing your cotton picking mind.
And then, one night, I saw him. He was standing quite a distance away from me in the yard across the street. He was very tall and had very long, tangled red hair. He was wearing some sort of apron; an old leather apron of some kind. He just stood there, eyes cast down. He looked horribly sad and pathetic. My first reaction was one of fear, and I quietly backed my way towards the door. Crazy neighbor? Escapee? I was afraid to go out on that porch for a few nights.
Well, at least I was back home in Rhode Island. I spent my time planning my future endeavors now that I was back on sandy ground. Whatever was happening outside I chalked up to my imagination.
It didn't take long before I decided that I had nothing to worry about, but I wouldn't stray beyond the porch at nighttime until I really knew what was going on. The tapping continued, just as it had before. And it would move around me, just as it had before. I had heard tales about this neighborhood in the past. Eerie folktales from a long, long time ago about a man that had been hung in a cage not far from where I was standing. The old pre-American Revolutionary-era Proving Ground was just a block away. Someone had built a new house adjacent to it, but that land was still empty, and word has it it always will be. The legend was that there had been a murder committed back in the 1700s not far from there, and that the accused had been hung by the neck at those Proving Grounds and placed in a gibbet cage for all to see. Some sort of warning to others must have been the idea back then, but in such a horrible, medieval fashion. It was the last gibbet cage hung in Rhode Island. Being a member of the local historical society, and wondering if perhaps I was experiencing the rumored hauntings that the locals had described, I decided to check into this legend.
I contacted the curator of the Pettaquamscutt Historical Society in Kingston and was told, yes, this did happen and that there was a marker on Tower Hill Road (Route 1) at the top of old Torrey Road, just up the hill from me. This murder memorial was placed in the exact spot where the murder had taken place. The alleged murderer was an unfortunate sea captain, one Thomas Carter. The man he allegedly murdered was a man named William Jackson, a tanner by trade. The curator told me that the marker was not easy to find because it was hidden well in between hedges, in plain sight, as it was just off of the major Route 1 highway. People race past it every day! This marker is a very rare "murder memorial," an obelisk that contains the history of a murder, etched in stone. Supposedly, there are only two murder stones like this one in the USA, the other one being in Vermont.
Well now, I began thinking that I was being contacted by the accused, Thomas Carter. Was that him standing off in the distance, looking for justice? Whoever it was, he wasn't from this day and age. My curiosity was piquing.
My fear began to subside for the sake of curiosity. I needed to know more. I read as much material as I could find, online and otherwise. I took out books from the library on the subject. I spoke more with the locals. I visited the murder stone. This is what it says:
This pillar is erected to the memory of William Jackson of Virginia, who was murdered upon this spot by ship captain Thomas Carter of Newport, Rhode Island, who, having been ship-wrecked, and rendered penniless thereby, and being overtaken by Mr. Jackson, who, also being on his way north, furnished him with money and use of a horse on the way; having arrived at the point that is indicated by this pillar, Carter there robbed and murdered his kind and confiding benefactor with a dagger, about the hour of midnight of Jan. first, 1751, was tried and convicted of his crime at the village of Tower Hill on April 4th, 1751, and was hung in chains upon a gibbet May 10th, 1751, at the eastern foot of the public highway where the shrieking—as it were—of its chains, 'c., during boisterous winds at night, were the terror of many persons who lived thereto, or passed thereby, one of these being the late Governor George Brown of Boston Neck, who told this writer that such had been his case when a youth, while on his way to the residence of College Tom Hazard that he visited every week. It appears that Carter threw Jackson in the "Narrow River" at the time he committed this murder, and that a negro found him therein, and near the above-mentioned gibbet. A wayside inn-keeper, Mrs. Nash, who lived about ten miles westward from Tower Hill, happening to be at this village at the time this body was found, she recognized it as being that of Jackson, by means of a button she had sewn upon his vest only a few hours before he left her house, and that Captain Carter was with him. Carter was therefore arrested, tried, and condemned, and executed accordingly. Joseph Peace Hazard. 1889.
Did Thomas Carter commit this murder? Why would he have murdered his benefactor, and within such a short distance from his home in Newport? What's the sense in that? My thoughts were racing as fast as Secretariat in the Run for the Roses. Meanwhile, the tapping continued, and I decided to speak to it, silently. I asked if it was Thomas Carter who was attempting to contact me. What happened next was inevitable. Be careful what you ask for; you may get it.
The tapping continued, and in earnest. It seemed to draw closer each night as I stood out on the porch. I would silently call to him, "Thomas, is that you? Make no step closer to me, but I need more information."
Meanwhile, I had found further accounts of the history behind this ancient murder. There seemed to be discrepancies in the stories, which made it all the more interesting. But before I'd had the opportunity to finish my research, I had one very telling minute that I will never forget. On one particular night, as I was standing on the porch, the tapping started, and then suddenly it stopped. All became quiet; too quiet. And then, I tell no lie, I saw with my own two eyes two people riding slowly but with purpose on horseback, carrying lanterns. They rode along Middlebridge Road, heading toward the old Proving Grounds. And after they had passed they just as quickly disappeared. I looked back toward where they'd been just a few seconds before, and saw the shadow of a woman, hiding and dodging beneath the pines. She was wearing a long cloak and a sort of cover over her head. She was following the riders, but deftly trying not to be seen. All of this vanished from my view within less than a minutes' time. There was no sound of horses' hooves when they'd ridden by; only the dark figures of men on horseback and the lights of the lanterns, and the woman hiding in the pines. It was then that I knew that it wasn't Thomas Carter that I was being visited by. I couldn't explain why, but I knew there was something more to this story. Who could it be that was haunting me, I wondered. The past was unfolding before my very eyes. What was I missing?
Upon reading excerpts about this very old and almost forgotten story, I discovered this, from the logs of the History of Kent and Washington Counties:
In the year 1751 Thomas Carter had his trial for the murder of Jackson, and was sentenced to be hung in gibbets; which took place on the training lot [proving grounds] at the foot of Tower Hill near the Pettaquamscutt River [Narrow River]. The body of Carter swung there many years by the winds; but finally the gallows rotted down, and the irons, with the bones attached to them, were carried to the blacksmith shop of Joseph Hull, the man who made the irons, and they were removed from the bones. One of the scholars who attended the school of Master Ridge kept one of the bones under his seat in the school house to crack walnuts with.
I suddenly remembered having seen the apparition dressed in a blacksmith's apron.
As much as I had seen and read thus far, I needed more information. Who were these guys? Back to the history books:
Jackson was not a dealer in furs as has been sometimes stated. He sold buckskin leather, and carried it on horseback behind him. He belonged to Pennsylvania, and in his peregrinations about the country had been in the habit of passing this place for several years in the latter part of autumn on his way to and from Newport. The leather was made up into overalls, which were worn by many of the inhabitants, more especially when they were engaged in wall making; it was also made into mittens.
Carter was a seafaring man, and overtook Jackson on his way and pretended to be sick; Jackson sympathized with him on account of his unfortunate condition, rendered him assistance, and suffered him to ride his horse most of the way, whilst he himself traveled on foot. Many times Carter pretended to be very sick in order to delay the time of their arrival, and they stopped many times on their way. They stopped at a Mrs. Combs', who was called upon at the trial. This woman was the first who recognized Jackson when he was found, by a button that she had noticed on his vest and by a gray spot on his head.
The widow Nash lived in a house on the east side of the old Post road, about one mile from Dockray's corner. Sometime during the winter of 1751, two travelers stopped late in the afternoon at the house. That night Mrs. Nash had the kindness to dress their hair, and playfully remarked to the smaller of the two, whilst so engaged, that if he was murdered she could identify his person by a round block of his hair that marked his head.
About sunset the two men proceeded on their way, being desirous of reaching Franklin Ferry and passing over to Newport that night. The smaller of the two men before mentioned, whose name was Jackson, had started from Virginia with a horse load of deer skins which he intended to convey to Boston, and he was joined on the way by Captain Thomas Carter, an old privateersman of Newport, Rhode Island, who had been shipwrecked somewhere on the seacoast south of Chesapeake, and was making his way home on foot. After these two men left the house of Mrs. Nash, it appears they passed over the southern portion of Tower Hill in the evening, at which place and time Carter knocked Jackson from his horse by hitting him with a stone. Jackson, however, recovered himself and ran to an old uninhabited house near by which was the only semblance of a habitation within a mile and more of the spot, where he was pursued and beaten to death by Carter. After the murder Carter then proceeded on his way with Jackson's horse and pack, having previously dragged his victim down the hill to an estuary called Pettaquamscutt Cove and shoved the corpse under the ice. A few days after this transaction, a man while spearing for eels fished up the body, which was afterward identified by Mrs. Nash as the stranger with the black spot on his head and to whom she had spoken so ominously before.
Especially after having read this, I remained unsure as to who was haunting me. Carter? Jackson? And was it Carter who murdered Jackson? Or someone else? One thing I knew: the spirit who was haunting me was very tall, red-haired, unkempt, and wore a buckskin apron and contacted me by tapping on metal. Would Carter or Jackson be wearing a buckskin apron? Unlikely. Would either of them be at rest? Unlikely as well.
On one particular night, I began throwing questions into the air from the porch. "Who are you? What do you want? What do you want from me?" The tapping had gotten much closer and then suddenly, like before, it stopped. Once again I waited, silently, not knowing what would happen next. And then, he was there. Much closer this time. Now he was only ten feet away from me, walking past the porch. He was very tall, taller than I'd even imagined. I saw him more clearly. He was dressed in long woolen clothes, like old-fashioned long johns, without an apron this time. His long, golden-red straggly hair fell below his shoulders. He was looking downward toward his feet and walked very slowly. Something I clearly recall as being odd was that the sound of his footsteps did not match his steps. It was as though I was in a time warp (or was he?). When he walked past me, he towered over my car and I watched him walk right through it in a straight line, heading towards the river. He never turned or made eye contact with me. And then, he was gone. I considered his turning his gaze away from me a sign of respect. But I felt the sadness run through me just the same. A sadness I'd never known before, and never hope to feel again. My eyes welled up with tears. I'd had enough.
That night, I had a dream. It was a dream about a man who lived a happy life. He had a family, and loved his work. He was a blacksmith, and he wore heavy cotton clothes covered with a buckskin apron. In the dream, he turned and looked at me with a longing look. It was the only time I saw his eyes; strong yet sad, and filled with tears. "Help me, help me," he said in a deep, yet soft, voice, "I cannot forgive my self." Now I knew what I needed to communicate to this spirit. I could only hope and pray that I was right. If I was wrong, I had no idea what to expect.
For several weeks I spent very little time outside on the porch. Instead, I went for walks and rambles around the local parks and beaches. But I couldn't stop thinking about the sadness that had enveloped me, and of that pitiful spirit that was attempting to communicate. I had to admit, I was terribly intrigued and I couldn't deny the fact that I was experiencing this contact. Rather than avoid the situation, I knew I had to confront it. I put on the armor of protection, i.e. prayer, and decided to step out. This time, I was going to be in charge. I made it clear that I would draw the line (and I actually drew a line) that no spirit at any time would cross. Whatever happened on the other side of the porch stayed on the other side of the porch.
I read more on the subject at hand, and was alarmed at how unfair the entire process of the murder trial had been; there were three judges, less than three in the jury, and no witnesses. Nor was there any proof shown that Thomas Carter committed the murder.
Thomas Robinson Hazard in his 1888 Jonny-Cake Letters:
The Reverend Dr. James MacSparran attended the trial and took the opportunity to offer a lengthy sermon upon the subject of Thou shalt not kill.
Carl R. Woodward's Plantation in Yankeeland:
After outlining the circumstances under which it is lawful to kill, the earnest divine discoursed upon the heinous crime of murder, condemning the flagrant evils of covetousness, anger, malice, revenge, reveling and drunkenness, which so often lead to the taking of human life. To the condemned man, despite the foul character of his crime, he held out hope for the salvation of the transgressor's soul, but only if he would repent and make a full confession and restitution. Then followed a long and eloquent prayer for pardon at the Divine Seat of Judgment. Apparently the prisoner was moved by the pastor's appeal, for Carter's written confession, with Dr. MacSparran's interlinings, is a matter of record.
Having learned as much as I possibly could, and wanting so much to resolve this situation, I began asking questions that made sense to me. I asked for specific responses in the form of a series of taps. Since this spirit was contacting me via tapping on metal, why not ask for specific numbers of taps? The blinding light of the obvious! One for no, two for yes:
Are you the spirit of Thomas Carter, the man who was unfairly tried and hung in the gibbet cage?
Are you the spirit of William Jackson, the tanner by trade, who was murdered not far from here at Tower Hill?
Are you the spirit of Joseph Hull, the blacksmith?
Two taps, and much closer this time.
Are you stuck here and not able to leave?
Is it because you built the gibbet cage?
Is it because you built the cage and then you were called back to take it apart?
Is that why you are so sad and aren't at rest?
I began feeling warmth surrounding me; a growing glow. I felt humble, empowered and inspired all at the same time. The tears flowed down my cheeks. I said a prayer, and asked that Joseph Hull forgive himself in his own heart and soul. I spoke silently to Joseph and told him that it wasn't his fault; he'd only done the job he was told to do. He was a good man, a blacksmith by trade, and the fact that he'd suffered so much for having to take part in not only building but then dismantling that gruesome gibbet cage, picking the bones and rotted flesh off of the frame, how horrible that must have been for him. I asked him to rest. And I promised him I would tell his story. This is the inspiration that caused me to write this story and share it with you.
Silence. I never heard the tapping again. The haunting was over. Joseph Hull was at rest.
Given the extreme circumstances of the medieval-style torture that occurred and the unfairness of the trial, I don't think that this is the end of the dark cloud that hangs over the old Proving Ground in Middlebridge. Word has it that the land will never be built upon; that it's cursed by the blood of that horrid hanging of Thomas Carter. As for the murder, no one will ever know what really happened, but the stories remain; a local legend, written in stone.
The South County History Center, Kingston, Rhode Island.
History of Washington and Kent Counties, by J. R. Cole, 1889.
The Jonny-Cake Letters, by Thomas Robinson Hazard, 1888.
Plantation in Yankeeland, by Carl R. Woodward, 1971.
Joseph Hull of South Kingstown, Rhode Island, blacksmith (1706-1771).
Formerly a Rhode Island resident for thirty years, Susan McVicar currently resides in New York's Hudson Valley. Her fascination with Rhode Island history and folklore continues to inspire her.