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Podcast 172 – Slave Traders and Grave Robbers


In Episode 172, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger hike through a Bristol, Rhode Island, cemetery searching for a burial mound and crime scene. In the woods behind this small cemetery sits a mound of dirt containing the robbed crypt of Captain James DeWolf, a former slave trader who whose grave was desecrated in 1842.

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In Episode 172, Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger hike through a Bristol, Rhode Island, cemetery searching for a burial mound and crime scene. In the woods behind this small cemetery sits a mound of dirt containing the robbed crypt of Captain James DeWolf, a former slave trader who whose grave was desecrated in 1842. Today this crypt is a once-prominent family’s dirty secret.

Read the episode transcript.

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Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The burial mound and crypt of Captain James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island.

The burial mound and crypt of Captain James DeWolf of Bristol, Rhode Island.

EPISODE TRANSCRIPT:
*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

[DRIVING / TURN SIGNAL]

JEFF: So we’ll make a right here onto Woodlawn Avenue. (PAUSE) Okay, and we’re looking for a small cemetery on the left.

RAY: I see a colonial stone wall in front of some woods. (BEAT) Yup, there’s a gate… and I see some headstones.

[CAR STOPS]

JEFF: Welcome to Bristol, Rhode Island, Ray. This place is officially known as Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Bristol Number 5, but those in the know, call it the DeWolf Family Plot.

RAY: It’s not a very big cemetery. Maybe 40 or 50 headstones surrounded by a stone wall in an otherwise developed neighborhood. I’m guessing we’re looking for someone in the DeWolf Family, Jeff?

JEFF: We are, but we’re also on the trail of a crime, because there’s a burial mound back there somewhere that was once the target of a grave robber.

RAY: Grave robber! How awful! Of all the low-down dirty deeds…

JEFF: But what if the grave you robbed was the final resting place of not such a great guy?

RAY: Then I guess we have a moral dilemma.

JEFF: That we do. We’re in Bristol searching for the robbed grave of a slave trader named Captain James DeWolf.

[INTRO]

JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger

RAY: And I’m Ray Auger, and welcome to Episode 172 of the New England Legends podcast. If you give us about ten minutes, we’ll give you something strange to talk about today.

JEFF: Bristol, Rhode Island, is the next stop on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time…

RAY: Ok, let’s just take a beat here before we head into this cemetery. I need a Nuwati moment.

JEFF: What’s wrong? We’ve travelled to plenty of cemeteries over the past three years. Now you’re nervous?

RAY: True and yes. We’re dealing with grave robbers and slave traders and dirty deeds… I’m assuming. Can you grab that white jar out of my backpack?

JEFF: Pickles?

RAY: No… the white jar.

JEFF: Grade school paste? Why do you…

RAY: No, wait… let me.

JEFF: What you got there?

RAY: Nuwati Herbals Cloud Walking Cream. You just apply this moisturizing cream to pulse points, the neck, inner wrists, chest, arms, and feet prior to slumber or during the day when you feel over-stressed. Nuwati Herbals makes amazing Native American inspired products that are great for the mind, body and spirit.

JEFF: Why are you taking off your shoes?

RAY: I’m feeling just a bit over stressed out this one. I’m not taking any chances… I’m hitting every pressure point.

JEFF: Hit me with a little bit of that creamy white magic.

RAY: Here you go.

JEFF: Ohhh… goes on smooth… and, yes… it’s definitely relaxing! Wait, what are you looking for in your backpack now?

RAY: My Thermos… there’s a Cloud Walking Tea with the same ingredients. I’m going to double up on my efforts.

JEFF: Hold off on that for now… I don’t want you falling asleep before the end of this story. Don’t forget folks, our legendary listeners get 20% off your order when you use the promo code LEGENDS20 at checkout. Visit Nuwati Herbals dot com. That’s N-U-W-A-T-I Herbals with an S dot com. Are you good now?

RAY: I’m good

JEFF: Good. Okay, Ray, something happened during the November 2020 election that was completely overshadowed by the presidential circus. Something significant changed in New England because the voters spoke.

RAY: So we’re not talking about electing someone?

JEFF: Nope, this changed because of a ballot question.

RAY: Okay.

JEFF: Do you know the longest named state in all of America? I’m talking about the number of letters in the name.

RAY: Actually I do! And ironically, it’s also the smallest state. We’re standing in that state right now. Coming in at 42 letters its: the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation.

JEFF: That’s correct! At least it was correct until November 3rd 2020. Because on the Rhode Island ballot, residents were asked to vote if the state should remove “And Providence Plantation” from the official name. It barely passed with 52.9% saying, yes, drop that part of the name.

RAY: When talking about plantations and the slavery, our minds typically go to the southern United States, but Rhode Island once had a thriving slave trade.

JEFF: It did, and some argue that dropping “plantation” from the state name is another way to move on and officially put that horrible atrocity behind us, while others believe it’s hiding from America’s original sin. No matter your position, there was slavery and slave traders here in Rhode Island. And some people, like Captain James DeWolf, grew wealthy off of enslaved people.

RAY: And someone robbed his grave?

JEFF: They did. Let’s head down this path at the back of this little cemetery.

[WALKING IN WOODS]

JEFF: Okay, up ahead is the burial mound and final resting place of James DeWolf.

RAY: That’s really strange. I see a hill maybe 15 feet tall at its highest point. There’s several large trees growing out of the hill, so it’s clear no one has tended to this place in maybe a century. And I see a dilapidated entrance into the mound half filled with dirt. It would be easy to walk right by this hill if not for the square entrance.

JEFF: This is also the scene of the crime, and all that’s left to attest to the rise and fall of one of early America’s wealthiest families. Let’s head back to December of 1837, and set this up.

[TRANSITION]

JEFF: It’s December 21, 1837, and Captain James DeWolf…

[GASP/THUMP]

JEFF: Has just died.

RAY: He was 73 years old and was one of the wealthiest men in the United States by the time of his death. Though he died in New York City, DeWolf’s body will be sent back to his hometown of Bristol, Rhode Island, for burial in the land he loved so much.

[HORSE WAGON]

JEFF: CAPTAIN James DeWolf earned that rank running a ship during the American Revolution. When the war ended, life at sea seemed to suit him, so he became captain of a commercial ship – he was only in his twenties at the time, which is young for a captain, but he was also ambitious. He quickly figured out that the slave trade was where the money was.

RAY: We should point out that Rhode Island outlawed slavery in 1787, but that didn’t stop the DeWolf family from financing the business in other states.

JEFF: James DeWolf would take his ship to Cuba and other islands in the West Indies, then sell those human beings into the slave markets in the southern states. In a few short years, DeWolf and his family are getting more wealthy by the voyage. They’re buying more ships and expanding their enterprise.

RAY: Then, in 1791, trouble comes in the form of a Newport, Rhode Island, grand jury murder charge against Captain James DeWolf.

[JUDGE GAVEL]

RAY: The crime took place two years earlier aboard a ship called Polly. James DeWolf believed one of his female slaves had contracted smallpox. So he ordered her tied to a chair and thrown overboard, sinking her to the bottom of the ocean. One of his crewmen would testify that Captain DeWolf regretted the loss of such a good chair.

JEFF: That’s awful! What a monster!

RAY: Because a person with smallpox is a threat to everyone on board, the case isn’t pursued by the prosecutor. And DeWolf continues to operate and finance slave trading voyages. It’s estimated that over the years, the DeWolf family were responsible for bringing over 11,000 enslaved people to the United States.

JEFF: In 1798, DeWolf begins his political career as a member of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. He’d later move on to national politics as a U.S. senator from Rhode Island. During the War of 1812, he served as a privateer and made millions capturing British ships. By the time he reaches his golden years in the 1830s, he’s a very rich man with property here in Bristol, Rhode Island, but also New York, Maryland, Kentucky, and Ohio. He’s loaded.

RAY: But you can’t take it with you, right?!

JEFF: Funny you say that. By 1830, DeWolf had bought up this land around us here in Bristol as a deer park where he could hunt. He liked it so much, he had his crypt and burial mound constructed right here surrounded by acres of untouched land. And this is where the story starts to get weird. You’re right, Ray. You can’t take it with you. But James DeWolf had some bling. He had gold teeth, and lots of folks knew it. And who knows what other jewelry and finery was buried with him in that earthen mound here in December of 1837.

RAY: Five years go by. It’s now May 11, 1842, and a local man named John Dickinson has heard enough stories about DeWolf’s wealth and crypt to get curious. And he knows enough about DeWolf’s past no to care too much for the man. The thing is… there’s a lot of open land around here in 1842. Just this small boneyard and a burial crypt. That’s when Dickinson figures on an easy payday.

[WALKING IN WOODS]

RAY: Dickinson approaches DeWolf’s crypt door.

[THUD]

RAY: He sets down a barrel of gunpowder.

[LIT FUSE]

RAY: And then…

[BOOM!]

RAY: Dickinson blows the door off of DeWolf’s crypt.

[CREEEK DOOR]

RAY: He opens DeWolf’s coffin, and though he doesn’t find much bling… he does see those gold teeth.

[PULLING SOUND]

RAY: Dickinson leaves the crypt with enough gold to get him $6.32 on the black market.

JEFF: Seems like a lot of trouble for a few dollars.

RAY: That it is.

JEFF: This crypt will see action one more time in 1925 when George DeWolf uses it to hide out from creditors who are hunting him down. By this time, the DeWolf name was losing a lot of its weight and wealth in the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantation. And that brings us back to today.

[TRANSITION]

RAY: So James DeWolf’s grave is robbed for what would be about $200 in today’s money. It’s also worth noting that John Dickinson faced the hangman’s noose 13 years later, so his life of crime didn’t end with robbing DeWolf’s grave.

JEFF: Over time, the DeWolf Family fell into ruin and then rose up again through more legitimate businesses thanks to Pomeroy Colt, the son of Theodora DeWolf Colt, who founded United States Rubber, the company that would go on to become Uniroyal. The former DeWolf Family Mansion is located just about a mile from here. It’s called Linden Place on Hope Street in Bristol. They do offer tours.

RAY: It’s interesting that the DeWolf graves near the front of this cemetery are in good shape and well-maintained. It’s also worth noting that all of these folks died after James DeWolf.

JEFF: It’s almost like James DeWolf is this family’s hidden, dirty secret in the woods behind this more respectable cemetery. It’s a reflection of the whole country, really. How do we come to grips with the sins of our past? We’re still struggling with living in a land where all people are said to be created equal in the land of the free, but it hasn’t always been that way for everyone.

RAY: And somewhere in that mound of dirt lies the desecrated and disturbed remains of a man who built an empire off the backs of enslaved people. (BEAT) It’s tough to feel sorry about the grove robbing.

[OUTTRO]

JEFF: This story forces us to explore dilemmas and ask some of the difficult questions. I wish we had the answers, but we don’t. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep asking the questions.

RAY: So Jeff, I just looked this up. Since Rhode Island is no longer the longest named state in the country, do you know what state just took the number one spot?
JEFF: I don’t.

RAY: We’re keeping the title in New England. The longest named state is now The Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

JEFF: Nice. Congrats to the Bay State. Hey, if you’d like to become an even bigger part of the movement, please become one of our patreon patrons! For just $3 bucks per month you’ll get early access to new episodes, plus bonus episodes and content that no one else gets to hear. Just head over to patreon.com/newenglandlegends to sign up.

RAY: And please tell a friend or two about our podcast, post your favorite episode on social media, and considering posting a review. It all helps us a lot.

JEFF: We’d like to thank our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals, and of course our theme music is by John Judd.

VOICEMAIL: Hi, this is Gary Middleton from Middletown Connecticut. No relation until next time remember the bizarre is closer than you think.

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