In Episode 325 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger stroll down Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island, searching for a magical and enchanted fountain built in 1873 they say has the ability to transport you. But how did it get here? And does it really work? Jeff and Ray put this legend to the test!
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[CITY STREET NOISES]
RAY: Jeff, I see we’re back on Benefit Street in Providence, Rhode Island.
JEFF: We are. We’ve been here twice before. We visited the Shunned House just up the street. And we looked for Edgar Allan Poe’s broken-hearted ghost nearby too.
RAY: That’s right!
JEFF: This time we’re looking for something more tangible than just a story. This time we’re looking for a legendary landmark.
[WALKING ON STREET]
JEFF: Okay, our destination is just up there by the Providence Athenaeum.
RAY: The Athenaeum is gorgeous building.
JEFF: It is.
RAY: Nestled here in College Hill, the library was built in 1838, it looks almost like it would fit in Washington D.C. with its stone columns.
JEFF: What we’re here to see is something right in front of the Athenaeum. It’s a magical and enchanted structure they say has the ability to transport you. We’re back on Benefit Street in Providence, searching for Rhode Island’s first water fountain.
JEFF: I’m Jeff Belanger and welcome to Episode 325 of the New England Legends podcast.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. We’re glad you’re with us as we explore all the weirdness that makes New England like no other place. From haunts and UFOs, to monster and true crime, roadside oddities, and all other things bizarre, we love when you tell us about your own local stories.
JEFF: If you’ve got a lead for us, please reach out to us anytime through our Web site where you can also find dates for my story tour, to see Ray’s band the Pub Kings, and a link to buy my new book, The Fright Before Christmas. It’s out now and available in hardcover, ebook, or audiobook narrated by yours truly wherever books and audio books are sold.
RAY: We’ll go looking for this magical fountain in Providence right after this word from our sponsors.
RAY: Okay, so we’re in front of the Providence Athenaeum. There’s a black, wrought iron fence along the sidewalk, a small landscaped hill behind that, then some stone steps that lead up to the front door of the building.
JEFF: And right here on the brick sidewalk is what we came to see.
RAY: There’s a large stone fountain directly in front of the Athenaeum with the wrought iron fence coming up to it on either side. So it basically abuts the sidewalk. It’s maybe 10 feet tall and about six feet wide, and there’s a steady stream of water coming out of the middle into a bowl below.
JEFF: At the top embossed in the stone it reads A.D. 1873, and embossed in a stone arc over the fountain it reads: Come Hither Every One That Thirsteth.
RAY: And they say this fountain is enchanted and magical?
JEFF: They DO say that. I hope you’re thirty, Ray, because we’re going to test this legend and see if we too are magically transported. But first, let’s head back to 1873 and see how this fountain got here.
RAY: It’s July of 1873 here in Providence, Rhode Island. And it’s a scorcher. People are still putting the nation back together since the Civil War ended eight years ago. It’s hard work. Even though it’s not quite noon yet, folks are walking down Benefit Street with sweat dripping from their brows already.
JEFF: This weather can be dangerous too. People can overheat, get sun stroke, get dehydrated. The summer heat can be dangerous.
RAY: One neighbor who is taking notice of those struggling through her neighborhood, is Anna Richmond.
JEFF: Anna Eddy Richmond is a unique woman. She comes from a wealthy New England family. When her industrialist husband died young, he gave her complete control of his family money. Most widows aren’t so lucky.
RAY: Anna Richmond is a Unitarian. She and her family do all they can to further the cause of freedom of religious belief, access to education, science, and justice. And also… temperance.
JEFF: Temperance?! She’s against alcohol?
RAY: That she is. Nobody’s perfect, right? Anyway, Anna uses her wealth and influence to fund causes she believes in.
JEFF: She’s sponsoring professors at colleges, she’s funding public works, and doing what she can to make the world a better place.
RAY: And what could be better than offering a thirsty person a drink?
JEFF: It’s the little things, isn’t it?
RAY: Sometimes it is.
JEFF: So the Providence Athenaeum was established back in 1836. It’s a subscription library that formed after the merger of the Providence Library Company that was founded in 1753 and the Providence Athenaeum which was founded in 1831. Anna Richmond is a member, of course.
RAY: It’s during one of these scorching hot days that Anna gets the idea to build the first water fountain in Providence.
JEFF: Come onnnn… there are other public fountains in town already.
RAY: Right, but those aren’t drinking fountains. They’re more decorative. This fountain is designed for anyone walking by to fill their cup with free, clean water.
JEFF: That IS a new idea. I like it!
RAY: So Anna Richmond fronts the money—the handsome sum of $600 dollars. Some fancy architects from Ware and Van Brunt in Boston are hired, and soon ground is broken on this new fountain.
[CHISELING ON STONE]
RAY: It doesn’t take long for the city’s first public drinking fountain to takee shape.
JEFF: The fountain is a Gothic Revival style, carved across the arch is: Come hither every one that thirsteth. Anna loves the idea that the Athenaeum can quench your intellectual thirst, while this fountain can quench your body’s physical thirst.
RAY: Anna also points out that maybe if people drank more water, they’d drink less beer.
JEFF: (SIGH) I’m not saying water is bad… but can’t we have both?
RAY: Anna would prefer not. Still, her heart is in the right place. Oh check it out… they’re getting ready to turn on the fountain for the first time.
JEFF: There’s a small group gathered here to witness it. Oooo I think it’s starting.
JEFF: And there you go. A steady stream of water spilling into a small bowl below that slowly drains back into the ground.
RAY: And now anyone walking by can help themselves to a drink, fill up a container, or just splash some fresh water on their faces.
JEFF: Not bad at all. The line across the top is of course from Scripture. Isaiah Chapter 55 verse 1: The Lord says come hither, every one that thirsteth. Come, thou who hath no money to buy grain, eat. (BEAT) Anna takes it to heart to help others.
RAY: And now Benefit Street has a new landmark. A legend is born. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: Okay, what about the magical enchantments?
JEFF: Right. Those. First, a few more facts about the fountain. In the early 1900s someone placed two bronze cups by the fountain, but they kept getting stolen. And when they weren’t stolen, they were spreading illness as countless lips were placed on the cups.
JEFF: Right?! Okay, so somewhere along the way, rumors of the fountain having magical qualities emerged. Some suggested that Edgar Allan Poe cursed the fountain.
RAY: That’s right! We covered the story of Edgar Allan Poe’s broken-hearted ghost haunting the Athenaeum way back in episode 78 of our podcast.
JEFF: We did!
RAY: But Poe died in 1849. That’s decades before the fountain was built… so that doesn’t… uhhhm… hold water.
JEFF: Ha! No it doesn’t. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t some people out there who don’t believe it’s cursed. The fountain broke back in 2008 and remained in that state for a decade before some people raised funds to get it working again. In 2018 when the fountain was turned back on, it made headlines around the country. One local man insisted in 1986 when he was walking to Brown University just up the street for his admissions interview he took a drink from the fountain. He later heard about the curse that those who drink from it never leave Providence. He said after graduating he was in a motorcycle accident and couldn’t take the job in Alaska he wanted. So he went to grad school at Brown and never left Providence.
RAY: Okay, but that’s just one story. How many tens of thousands of people drank from this fountain and DID leave Providence?
JEFF: I’m sure there were many. Which brings us to the other version of the legend. The story that says those who drink from the fountain are destined to find themselves transported back to Providence.
JEFF: Come on… let’s try it.
JEFF: I brought us two red solo cups.
[FILLING CUPS WITH WATER]
JEFF: Woah! It worked!
JEFF: Ray! We’re in Providence!
RAY: Dude, we WERE in Providence already.
JEFF: Good point. Either way, we’ve been magically transported to After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and sometimes veer off course.
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If you’ve got a story you’d like to hear on a future episode, please reach out to us anytime through our Web site. Don’t assume we’ve heard it before! Most of our story leads come from you. Our Web site is also the place to find out about all things Jeff and Ray. Jeff’s books, dates to see his story tour, dates to see my band the Pub Kings, plus video clips from the New England Legends television series that you can watch right now on Amazon Prime.
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Until next time remember… the bizarre is closer than you think.