GaspeeVirtual Archives
An Address by Edward Field entitled "A Night at Sabin's Tavern"
Webmaster Note:  Edward Field was a noted historian and editor of the three volume set of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations at the End of the Century: A History, Mason Publishing Company, Boston, 1902. He delivered this speech at an annual gathering of the Rhode Island chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution.  Field's presentation that the lawyers involved had no foreknowledge of the attack on the Gaspee can be soundly debated.

In the year 1772 there was a tavern in Providence, which was located at what is now the corner of South Main and Planet Streets. This hostelry was known as Sabin's Tavern, and was presided over by James Sabin, a regularly licensed innkeeper. It was a famous place of resort in those days for merchants and professional men, for the landlord was esteemed by all who knew him, and his house was distinguished for its excellence and its hospitality.

Were it not the events which transpired within this house on the evening of the ninth of June, 1772, Sabin's tavern would never have attracted much attention, and would have been remembered only as a favorite resort of by-gone days. Its location on the Main street and opposite Fenner's Wharf, from which a regular packet sailed to Newport and New York, lent some prominence, but its selection as the rendezvous for the daring party that burnt the 'Gaspee,' made the place historic.

Sabin's tavern was the former home of Captain Woodbury Morris, mariner, he having purchased the estate, 13 Jun 1757, and built the house soon after. Seven years later Captain Morris, while on a voyage to sea, died on the coast of Africa. On the second day of December, 1765, Mary Morris, the captain's widow, wrote in a little memorandum book, wherein her husband had formerly kept his accounts, and which she had continued to use: "Then Mr. Sabin moved into my house." From this time until December, 1773, James Sabin lived here, and catered to the wants of man and beast, but on this date he purchased a tract of land on the west side of the river, near the Great Bridge, about where the Merchants Bank Building now stands, and left the tavern.

The house was then purchased by Welcome Arnold, a distinguished merchant of Providence, who made many additions to the structure, and occupied it as his residence until his death in 1798. It remained in the Arnold family for more than a hundred years, finally coming into possession of Samuel G. Arnold, the historian. During his occupancy of the house, the room wherein the 'Gaspee' party met was used as a dining room, and there, on the wall, hung, for many years, an account of the affair, prepared by Colonel Ephraim Bowen, the last survivor of the party, and engrossed by the hand of his daughter. The old house was demolished some years ago.

It was a custom, in Colonial days in Rhode Island, for the lawyers, at the concluding of filing pleas at the different terms of the courts, to meet at some popular resort, and together, spend the evening. These gatherings were usually held at some tavern in the town, where, with good things to eat, good wine to drink, and the companionship of good friends, they passed the time until well into the night.

One Tuesday evening, in the month of June, 1772, in one of the spacious rooms at Mr. Sabin's tavern, there was a small, but select, party, consisting of John Andrews, Judge of the Court of Vice Admiralty, and John Cole, Daniel Hitchcock, and George Brown, gentlemen of the bar . They had attended to the legal duties which had brought them to the town, and now sought the comfort and cheer of Sabin's tavern. Early in the evening, after supper, between seven and eight o'clock, and before darkness had settled down, for the days are long in early June, these gentlemen were disturbed by a loud noise in the streeet near the house, attended by the beating of a drum. Such sounds were not unusual, but its long continuation attracted their attention; and Mr Cole, going to the window, pulled back the shutters and saw several people collected together in the street. Turning to his companions, he inquired if they knew the occasion of all this excitement. No direct reply was made to Mr Cole's question, but one of the party remarked that he hoped they were up to no mischief; to which Cole replied: "I believe not; if they were on such a design they would not be so public." Several times during the evening, up to ten oclock. the beating of the drum, and the voices in the street, aroused some curiosity in the minds of these men, and, from time to time, one or another of the party crossed the room to the window, looked out, and inquired the cause of so much commotion . But each time the reply was to the effect that it was some boys beating a drum; that it had been training day, and the people were breaking up their frolic.

During all this time landlord Sabin was flitting busily about the tavern, attending to their wants, and now and then, stopping with them for a moment to enjoy their stories and conversation. Thus the evening passed, until long after midnight, when this little party broke up, and all left the tavern, passed out into the still, dark night, repaired to their lodgings and went to bed.

While these gentlemen are enjoying themselves in this room, in another room of the tavern, the south-east room it is called, there is another, much larger, party and it has a strange and unusual appearance. From time to time the door opens, and new-comers appear upon the scene. They are all armed with guns, and have powder horns and cartridge-boxes slung over their shoulders.

Before nine o'clock the room is full of people, and by the dim light of the lamp on the mantel-piece the faces of many of the ship-masters, merchants, and other substantial men of the town can be distinguished. Around the fireplace are men melting lead and running bullets, others are making cartridges and looking over the locks of their guns. There is no loud conversation, each man is busy preparing for some unusual undertaking, and the sound of the drum outside in the street does not disturb them, nor does it awaken any curiosity in their minds as to its significance.

The kitchen clock indicates the hour of ten, and with a few whispered orders from one of the party, the men in the south-east room quietly file out of the tavern, cross the street to Fenners wharf, and drop, one by one, into some longboats there in waiting. Around the wharf are a number of men and boys watching eagerly these strange proceedings; one youth, more venturesome than the rest, clambers down into one of the boats, only to be pulled back by one of his elders, with the admonition that it is no place for boys.

There is a low command, and then the boats push off and are soon lost in the darkness. Sabin's tavern, at the head of the wharf, stands dark and gloomy save where a streak of light shines through the shutters in the room where these four erudite gentlemen sit, totally unconscious of the strange maneuvers going on about them.

Next morning Judge Andrews arose early, the sun was an half-hour high. While putting on his clothes, he was surprised beyond measure to hear someone in the street near his window say to another that the schooner was burned. Upon which he opened the window, and saw on the other side of the street, two black fellows and one white man talking together. From them, for the first time he learned the story of the night's work.

It was not long before all of his companions had heard the thrilling news, and then there came floating back upon their memories the crowd, and noise in the street, the disturbing, discordant rattle of the drum, and the meaning of all this was now plain enough. Doubtless they congratulated themselves on being ignorant of what was going on within the house that night; they had no hand in these proceedings, and whatever befell those who had been engaged, they surely would not suffer. But
it is the unexpected that always happens. The 'Gaspee' had been destroyed, but that was not the end of the troubles by any means. Posters were stuck up in conspicuous places, and circulated freely throughout the Colony, offering a reward for information which would bring those engaged in the affair to justice. Then came the King's Commissioners to inquire into the whole matter, and, in due time, landlord Sabin and the four gentlemen comprising the little dinner party on that June evening, were summoned to Newport, to give their testimony of what they knew about the burning of the 'Gaspee;' and they went, all but Mr Sabin, who sent, instead, the following letter:

Providence, January 19, 1773.
To the honorable the commissioners appointed to inquire into the circumstances relative to the destroying of the schooner Gaspee.

Gentlemen:-- I now address you on account of a summons I received from you requiring my attendance at the council chamber, in Newport on Wednesday, 20th instant.

Now gentlemen I beg leave to acquaint you what renders me incapable of attending. In the first place I am an insolvent debtor; and therefore, my person would be subject to arrest by some one or another of my creditors; and my health has been on decline these two months past, and it would be dangerous should I leave my house. And further, were I to attend, I could give no information relative to the assembling, arming, training, and leading on the people concerned in destroying the schooner Gaspee.

On the 9th day of June last as night, I was employed at my house attending company; who were John Andrew Esq. judge of the court of vice admiralty, John Cole, Esq., Mr Hitchcock, and George Brown, who supped at my house and stayed there until two of the clock, in the morning following; I have not any knowledge relative to the matter on which I am summoned which I am ready to make oath to, before any justice of the peace.

I am gentlemen, most respectfully, Your most humble servant

James Sabin.
To the Honorable Commissioners

The names of every person composing this dinner party were known to the King's Commissioners, and each of them had to give a strict account of his whereabouts and actions that evening, but not one of the crowd in the south-east room, fully cognizant of the affair from beginning to end, was ever summoned or ever testified before the Court of Inquiry. So resolutely was the injunction of secrecy maintained that the names of only a dozen or so of this 'crowd' were ever known, and who knows but what this little dinner party was a part of the whole scheme...[some poetry follows...Most likely, the Gaspee Song-ed]...

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Originally Posted to Gaspee Virtual Archives 4/2003    Last Revised: 5/2009   Field'sAddress.htm