Tree Root That Ate Roger Williams
Providence, Rhode Island
Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and did so as a refuge of religious freedom. That's important now, but it was apparently so unimportant back then that when Williams died in 1683 he was shoveled into an unmarked grave. Nearly 200 years passed before someone decided to dig him up and give him a proper burial. That was in 1860, and that's when the problems started.
"Roger Williams was supposedly buried in a corner of a yard over on Benefit Street," said Kirsten Hammerstrom, curator of the Rhode Island Historical Society. "They did some digging, and found 'greasy earth'" (a hint that a body had been there) and they also found something else. An apple tree root. "And because of its shape," Kirsten continued, "they assumed that, 'This is Roger.'"
The root had entered the coffin. It curved where Roger's head should have been and entered the chest cavity, growing down the spine. It branched at the two legs, and then upturned into feet!
Kirsten fixes us with skeptical eyes. "Do you really think that an apple tree could eat someone?" Her answer is obviously no, but ours is a rousing "Yes!" And generations of New Englanders have felt the same way. We believe in the tree root that ate Roger Williams.
Such enthusiastic public support presents philosophical and practical problems for the Rhode Island Historical Society. How do you display something that you don't believe in, and where do you put it?
The root stays in one of the Society's historic buildings in Providence, the John Brown House (the Brown University John Brown, not the abolitionist John Brown). But the Society feels that the House should tell John Brown's story, not a tale of some corpse-eating root. This has meant that it has been relegated to the basement in recent decades -- although visitors who asked could usually get it hauled upstairs for a peek.
That changed in 2007, thanks to Kirsten. "Maybe I'm a fool for getting it out," she says. "But people ask! You know? I don't want to say no. And people enjoy it. You meet the need."
A Solomon-like compromise was reached: the root would be displayed in the old carriage house behind the John Brown House, not in the House itself. It's mounted on a wall, secure behind a wire grid, a padlock, and throw bolts. This is one root that won't have any more human snacks. It's also inside a coffin-shaped frame as a visual aid, so that visitors can see which part of the root swallowed Roger's feet, which part ate his head, etc. "That was done by some previous curator," Kirsten tells us. "People who have this kind of job frequently have an odd sense of humor."
It isn't a perfect arrangement, of course. The root is next to the TV that shows the John Brown family video history -- a comparison in style and substance that the Rhode Island Historical Society would probably rather avoid. But we notice that whenever Kirsten mentions Roger Williams, she gestures toward the root. And sometimes she slips and calls it "Roger." Maybe her skepticism is more professional than personal?
Not a chance.
"Some Baptists came from Texas and I scheduled a tour of the House -- but all they wanted to see was the root!" she says, exasperated. "I personally don't understand it. But people seem enthused and thrilled -- so, all right."
(Note: The RoadsideAmerica.com search engine, Roger, was inspired by the post-mortem founder of Rhode Island, as both are wooden and tend to get into things.)