Podcast 289 – Rhode Island’s Spite Tower

In 1905 a three-story tower was built in Little Compton, Rhode Island, to spite a neighbor and block his view.

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In Episode 289 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger head to Little Compton, Rhode Island, to drive by the Spite Tower. Built in 1905, it’s a three-story, odd-looking tower located at the edge of the former Hathaway property. They say it was built out of spite — to intentionally block the view of a neighbor Hathaway didn’t like. But what’s inside?

Read the episode transcript.


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

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Little Compton, Rhode Island's Spite Tower circa 1929.

Little Compton, Rhode Island’s Spite Tower circa 1929.

Little Compton, Rhode Island's Spite Tower on Old Harbor Road.

Little Compton, Rhode Island’s Spite Tower on Old Harbor Road.

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

JEFF: Okay, we’re passing through downtown Little Compton.
RAY: Yup, we’re in southern Rhode Island and just a stone’s throw from the Massachusetts border.
JEFF: So we’ll bare to the right up here onto Old Harbor Road.
RAY: Got it.
JEFF: And our destination is right up there on the left. We can pull over here.
RAY: Huh. That looks almost like a three-story lighthouse, but we’re nowhere near the shore.
JEFF: Yup, that’s the antique oddity we’re here to see. It’s been here for over a century now. Locals call it… the Spite Tower.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to episode 289 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re glad you’re riding with us as we explore roadside oddities, ghosts, monsters, UFOs, and all the odd history that makes New England like no other place. Most of our story leads come from you, so please reach out to us anytime through our web site.
JEFF: Before we figure out who built the spite tower and why, we want to take just a minute to tell you about our sponsor, Nuwati Herbals!
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RAY: Okay, Jeff. This tower does stand out. It’s three stories tall. The base is maybe 12 feet by 12 feet, and it tapers as it goes up. There are windows on each story of the tower and on each side of the building. It’s painted white, and the roof comes to a peak with a spire sticking out of the top. It looks almost like it could have been a church steeple, but with windows. I guess if a church steeple and lighthouse had a baby, it would look like this.
JEFF: That’s fair.
RAY: The tower is located right at the edge of Old Harbor Road. There’s a small stone wall and just a few feet of grass between the tower and the street. Then there’s a long driveway to a home built by Samuel Church in the late 1700s at the back of the property. We should mention this is private property, but you can see everything related to the tower easily from street.
JEFF: Right, that sums up the tower that’s stood here since 1905.
RAY: And they call it the Spite Tower?
JEFF: Yes. Ray, have you ever done some grand gesture out of spite?
RAY: I once made out with my girlfriend big time in front of Anthony Michael Hall because he was hitting on her.
JEFF: Anthony Michael Hall, the actor?
RAY: That guy.
JEFF: Weird Science, Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Anthony Michael Hall?
RAY: Yup. He was living on Cape Cod at the time. I was out with a group of friends from the radio station where I was working, and my buddy was friends with him. So when we all went back to my buddy’s house I found out Anthony had been hitting on my girlfriend at the nightclub, so I had to make my move in front of him.
JEFF: Anthony Michael Hall is probably still wondering what could have been between him and your old girlfriend.
RAY: I’m sure he is.
JEFF: Okay, marking your territory in front of an 80s movie icon is one thing. But building a three-story structure in your front yard is quite another.
RAY: Yeah, this must have cost some money. Why is it here?
JEFF: To figure that out, let’s head back to 1905.
RAY: It’s the spring of 1905 here in the Adamsville section of Little Compton, Rhode Island. The population is just over 1000 people which is what it’s been for pretty much the last century-plus.
JEFF: And it was just over a century ago when Samuel, Ebenezer, and Nathaniel Church came to Adamsville to open a store and saltworks in town. The businesses thrived, and the Church family prospered. Generational wealth is what we’re talking about.
RAY: Sure, those Church brothers leave their property and business to their children, who grow the businesses and leave it to their children and so on.
JEFF: Right. So recently Thaddeus Church willed Samuel Church’s eighteenth-century home to his great niece Claudia and her husband, Dr. John Hathaway.
RAY: The house sits in a good spot near the center of town too. The only bummer is that John Hathaway’s longtime FORMER friend, Abraham Manchester, has a house nearby as well as a store that Manchester owns and operates. So these two have to see each other a lot.
JEFF: Yea, so John and Abraham have had a bit of a falling out.
RAY: What happened between them?
JEFF: Though it’s difficult to say for sure when it comes to these things, there was a big legal case that made the news here just last year. The April 12, 1904 Fall River Globe summed up the story. Go ahead, check out the article.
RAY: Okay… I’m skimming the story now. Okay… wow, it reads like a soap opera.
JEFF: Right?! So here’s the gist. A local man named Edward W. Howland died. His estate was worth about $100,000 dollars. No small amount. And he had a will that left $1000 dollars to his housekeeper, and the rest to his church group.
RAY: We should point out that his housekeeper claims that though she wasn’t FORMALLY married to her employer, they took an oath before God, so she’s his wife.
JEFF: Right. And the probate court kind of doesn’t care. A person can do what they want in their will. So now Howland’s family members are contesting the will saying he was NOT of sound mind and body when he drew it up. In fact, he couldn’t even sign the will because he could no longer write, so he left his X on the document.
RAY: Character witnesses were brought before the court basically tearing down Mr. Howland as a nut who didn’t pay his taxes, didn’t care about laws, and so on.
JEFF: But one character witness on the rebuttal side was Dr. John Hathaway.
RAY: Right… We’re back to John Hathaway.
JEFF: Hathaway was the tending physician to Howland at the end of his life. Dr. Hathaway claimed Howland’s mind was sound when he made this new will.
RAY: The probate court, made up of Little Compton town officers, ultimately decided to claim the will was not sustained, which meant the legal fight between Howland’s family and his church would continue. The people of Little Compton are furious because to many it looks like the courts are throwing out a person’s last will and testament, and if that’s the case, that what can you believe in?!
JEFF: Ultimately, the court appoints Abraham Manchester as custodian of the Howland property.
RAY: So the plot thickens! Everyone involved in the case lost at this point, except Abraham Manchester, John Hathaway’s very good friend.
JEFF: Right. We have to assume the courts will work things out and the Howland estate will go to someone, either the church, his housekeeper/wife, or his next of kin. But for now, everyone in Little Compton is pretty bitter about the whole affair. And while we can’t say for certain this is the root cause of the falling out between John Hathaway and Abraham Manchester, it could have been a big factor that caused from friction.
RAY: Got it. So just to recap, all of that went down about a year ago, and now John Hathaway and his wife Claudia live in Samuel Church’s former home. And Abraham Manchester lives and works nearby too.
JEFF: Abraham Manchester often sleeps in his store to protect it from theft. He’ll leave for a bit to go home and take his supper in the early evening, then head back to his store for the night.
RAY: So Hathaway observes this nightly walk of his former friend between Manchester’s store and his house. The times of the walk vary each day. Sometimes it could be 5:00 o’clock, sometimes it might be 6:30. But Manchester is never gone very long before eating his dinner and walking back to his store.
JEFF: But then one day, Hathaway notices something. Look over there at the Manchester house, Ray.
RAY: Okay… I see the house.
JEFF: Look in the upstairs window.
RAY: Oh yeah! There’s a white handkerchief hanging in the window.
RAY: And there goes Abraham walking home to get his dinner. I guess the handkerchief is the sign that dinner’s ready.
JEFF: Exactly. John Hathaway figured out the dinner signal. He also figured out something else.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: The line of sight between Manchester’s store and house pass right through the Hathaway property. So…
JEFF: Hathaway constructs this three-story tower right at the edge of his property by the street. And when it’s finished…
RAY: Wow… the line of sight between Manchester’s store and Manchester’s house is now blocked! There’s no way to signal for dinner.
JEFF: Exactly. And the tower sticks out. I mean nothing else looks like this anywhere in the region.
RAY: Why would Hathaway build something like this except…
JEFF: Except out of spite… and that brings us back to today.
RAY: And the Spite Tower was born.
JEFF: Still here since 1905, still looking out of place. But there’s a but…
RAY: There’s always a but.
JEFF: So it turns out that this tower was placed directly over the property’s well. And in this case, they had to drill deep to get to the water. The deeper you have to drill, the more you need gravity and hydraulics to get the water out. So in this case, the water tower had to be tall. Inside this tower is the well house, a water tank, and living quarters for the Hathaway’s chauffer.
RAY: So this is just a well house and water tower?
JEFF: Right.
RAY: Okayyyy… but, there’s an uncountable number of other wells in the region, and none of them look like this.
JEFF: That’s true. This tower sticks out in almost every way that a piece of architecture can stick out. Which is why it’s lent itself to so many stories and speculations. I think a lot of us have neighbors who have built fences, or some other feature on their property that we didn’t like. Something that stuck out and we’d rather they remove it…
RAY: And if we don’t get along with that neighbor… they may just keep that thing up… out of spite.
JEFF: Which is why we raise an eyebrow every time we pass this tower in Little Compton, Rhode Island. Spite can be a powerful force. Whether it’s making out with a girlfriend in front of Anthony Michael Hall, or building a tower on your property.
RAY: And that brings us to After the Legend where we drill deeper on a story and sometimes veer off course.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.

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