Rhode Island's Outlaw Governor
Thomas Wilson Dorr (1805-'54) was most famous for having been, however briefly, Rhode Island's outlaw governor.
Dorr was elected to the state legislature in 1834, where he fought for the liberalization of the state's suffrage laws. The laws of the time stated, for one thing, that only a landowner was allowed to vote, which placed the responsibility for electing officials solely in the hands of a wealthy minority. When the state would not listen to demands of the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, a "People's party" was formed. During the winter and spring of 1841-'42, the new party held a convention, adopted a constitution, and elected an entire state ticket, with Dorr as governor. The fun ended when legal governor Samuel Ward King declared martial law.
The Dorr Rebellion was quickly and bloodlessly suppressed (unless you count the cow that was accidentally shot). A legal constitutional convention, held later in 1842, approved many of Dorr's voting reforms as part of a new state constitution. Even so, Dorr was tried and convicted of treason in 1844—one of only two such successful prosecutions at a state level in U.S. history (the other was that of John Brown in Virginia). The legislature voided his life sentence the next year, and his civil rights were restored in 1851. Still, when he died two days after Christmas, 1854, he was a broken man.
Perhaps indicative of the State's feelings toward him a decade after the rebellion was put down, the minutia-laden Rhode Island Register for 1853 makes no mention of Dorr's "governorship," the rebellion named for him, or his contributions to Rhode Island's constitution.
Thomas Wilson Dorr is buried in Swan Point Cemetery, along with members of his family. Today we recognize his contribution with a bronze medallion, much like those that decorate the graves of other former Rhode Island governors, including Samuel Ward King, (whom Dorr outlived by three years).
Thomas Wilson Dorr.
Sullivan and Lydia Dorr.
Born in Providence,
Nov. 5, 1805.
Died Dec. 27, 1854.
He died in the faith.
Directions: From the front gates of the cemetery drive straight ahead; at the Barnaby monument, turn right onto Junction Avenue, then take the first left (pass a monument marked Atwood on your right); go down the hill and follow the curve to the right; go straight across at the intersection of Forest and Willow; this road splits off left and right at the apex of a triangle of grass and trees; Thomas W. Dorr is on the far side of the triangle—look for the flags.
Hours: Swan Point Cemetery is open daily, 8am-7pm, April 1-September 30; 8am-5pm, October 1-March 31.