Sunday, March 9, 2008

Mysterious Disappearances-- Thomas Littleton


The 1823 disappearance of Thomas Littleton, the speaker of the house for the Rhode Island General Assembly, was not witnessed directly. But two witnesses did observe him enter a Capitol Building water closet in his private office from which he never returned. The water closet was disassembled after the disappearance. There was nothing unusual to explain how a man, six foot two, 280 pounds, could enter a small private water closet, and then disappear off the face of the earth.

At the time of the disappearance, Littleton was entertaining two visitors. One was George Thurston, a skeletal state representative with a perpetually beet-red face topped with a mane of tight grey curls. Due to his temper, he was nicknamed the Mad Grey Lion. The other visitor was the squat, fat state senator Dimitri Brown, whose sole distinction was that he claimed a distant connection to the founders of Brown University, a connection which the Brown family strenuously denied and which claim made Brown the subject of a defamation lawsuit by both the university and its founders. Brown was nicknamed "No Town" Brown due to his failed attempt to incorporate a town named to honor his family name.

On the day of the occurrence, the distinguished visitors were meeting with Littleton to discuss his proposal to empower cities and towns to annually increase real property taxes without any state-imposed ceiling. Both visitors had a personal stake in the proposal: each owned extensive tracts of farmland likely subject to any new taxes. More upsetting to Brown, the City of Providence intended to substantially increase the tax on commercially developed property. Through a will contest settlement involving his cousin Robert, Brown had just obtained a sizeable parcel in Providence’s emerging financial district. Brown intended to secure the financing to erect on the spot Rhode Island’s first five story hotel. The hotel was to have such novel amenities as running water, fire exits, and coiled spring mattresses. Any new taxation would spoil Brown’s plan and financial ruin certainly would follow. In light of the visitors’ concerns, the meeting was expected to be an acrimonious one. Each visitor intended to air their grievances bluntly. Expecting possible trouble, Littleton had the General Assembly’s sergeant at arms posted just outside his office, secretly armed with a blackjack.

According to both witnesses, however, the meeting was cordial. While the visitors vigorously differed with Littleton, the meeting was conducted gentlemanly. Indeed, according to the visitors, just before Littleton excused himself, Littleton seemed ready to drop his taxation plan and adopt the "Brown Plan". This plan had been promoted by Brown for the past few weeks in ads placed in the Providence Journal. Indeed, Brown had even sent numerous letters to the editor arguing zealously in favor of the plan, claiming the plan was based on "rock bed Christian principles". To give the letters persuasive weigh, Brown had signed these letters using the name of a popular local clergyman who, oblivious to the appropriation of his good name, was on extended vacation in the Carolinas. Under Brown’s plan the need for more taxes would be eliminated by two easy steps: first, by closing all public supported poor houses and second, by offering small bonuses to poor persons willing to permanently re-locate to Massachusetts.

Whatever the mood and status of the discussion between the three, after a light lunch of quahogs and jonnycakes consumed in Littleton’s spacious office, Littleton began to complain of stomach pains. He excused himself from the visitors and in their full view stepped inside the water closet. The water closet was about thirty feet from where the visitors sat in armchairs. With a brief smile and nod, Littleton closed the water closet door. He was never seen again.

The visitors stated to investigators that initially they heard Littleton’s "presence" in the water closet. No doubt this was a discrete term, hidden within which delicacy forbids speculation. After an extended period of silence, both men called out to Littleton, asking if he were ill. There was no response. The visitors became fearful that Littleton may have had an attack. Littleton had suffered a mild heart attack a few months before and, though he recovered quickly, the health in his family’s male line was notoriously bad. Brown finally went to the water closet and called out Littleton’s name from just outside the oak door. There was no response. He jiggled the pearl knob. It was locked. Soon Thurston was at his side pounding on the door. With still no response, both called for assistance while they began battling through the door. An axe was obtained, the door’s lock was battered open, and the witnesses–now including the sergeant at arms and two constables–peered in. There was vomit indicating recent illness. But there was no sign of Littleton.

A thorough search was made of the diminutive water closet. It took little time to see no means for Littleton to have vanished. Soon, the local police, state police, and even the state militia became involved due to Littleton’s high public office. The witnesses were questioned closely with no deference to their political standing. They maintained their stories. Each witness was certain that Littleton did not exit the water closet.
Ultimately, the authorities had no choice but to accept their stories.

The Providence Journal, unsatisfied, editorialized over the authorities failure to follow through on all possibilities. Chagrined, the authorities performed a rudimentary search of the surrounding area including lakes, rivers and streams. Strangely, they did find one item of interest: one of Littleton’s wig pieces was discovered muddied, and wet in the Providence River, just one mile south from the Capitol building. There was no explanation for how it got there. With no further leads, the authorities closed their investigation.

The Littleton family lobbied over the years for a re-opening of the investigation. But it was not to be. Ultimately the Littleton family erected a memorial marker in the large Littleton family grave site. It was placed next to the pink granite marker for Littleton’s wife, Melinda. Two years before, she had died three months pregnant from a head wound suffered during the autumn hunting season. She had been outdoors when she spied hunting in the nearby woods her partially blind cousin, Theodore Doore, the son of the State’s first secretary of state. Her vigorous wave of hello was done at a distance and while wearing cotton-tail white mittens. The white blur of movement drew her quick-acting cousin’s bead and then his fire. Littleton was never the same man. When it came time to erect his marker, unlike his wife’s grand marker with ornate carvings of angels, sun bursts, and trumpets, Littleton’s family choose a marker that was small and plain. It was simply engraved with Littleton’s name, his dates of birth and death, and a single word: Murdered. The stone stood but two months. At the insistence of the prominent political families, the Littletons replaced the stone without this inflammatory word.

Over the years, the Mad Grey Lion went actually insane, and died in a poor house in the City of Warwick. He was delusional in the end, thinking himself in turn the persecuted Christ, then a caged, aging, raging lion, and lastly, a meek, mild rabbit named Barney. "No Town" Brown had a better end. Brown became one of the area’s most successfully developers. He was the chief financial backer for the Providence Wharf, a successful venture which made Brown a millionaire many times over. Once flushed with wealth, his temper eased and he concentrated on building a reputation for caring for the common welfare. He established the state’s first and only opera house, founded two hospitals, and purchased over thirty miles of coastline which he tuned over to the state for public use. While he never was able to incorporate a town with his family name, he did have a street named after his family. The street ran through what was then an exclusive residential neighborhood where only the powerful political families lived. It has since become a slum. His descendants have continued to flourish, however. Thanks to large donations over the years to Brown University’s endowment fund, two of Brown’s descendants currently sit on the university’s governing board.

And for Littleton, the missing speaker of the house? There remains an outstanding reward for any information on his whereabouts. The reward, accumulating interest these past hundred fifty plus years, remains on deposit in one of Providence’s oldest banks. It awaits collection.