Roger Mowry started life in England and came to Boston in 1631 at about the age of 20. He moved around a bit, spending several years in Salem, Mass. While in Salem he undoubtedly knew about the rabble-rousing Roger Williams, and by 1649, Mowry had relocated to Providence, R.I. where he held the privileges of a freeman.
In 1653 he built the house that he turned into the Mowry Tavern at the corner of Abbot and North Main Streets. It stood there for almost 250 years. The tavern was known as a ‘stone ender’ house because one wall of the structure was made of stone and contained a massive (10-foot wide) fireplace that served as a heat source.
Tales From the Mowry Tavern
Over the years, many stories and legends sprang up around the Mowry Tavern.
For example, one of the earliest murders in Rhode Island took place there. John Clauson, a Dutch carpenter, spent an evening at the tavern in the winter of 1660. The next morning he was found, beaten with an ax, in a patch of barberry bushes near the tavern.
Clauson, clinging to life, accused a neighbor, the querulous Benjamin Herndon, of the crime. The men may have argued over a property boundary.
Then Clauson succumbed to his injuries, but Herndon was cleared. The good people of Providence, however, decided guilt lay with an Indian named Waumanitt. He pleaded guilty and went off to jail in Newport to await trial.
Clauson, however, had placed a curse on Herndon, wishing that his children all have split chins and that barberry bushes inundate his land.
Another legend has it that a near riot broke out at the tavern in response to a Massachusetts constable arriving in town to arrest a Rhode Islander. The constable held the man at the nearby Pray’s Tavern. In response, a group of residents hastily assembled at the Mowry Tavern. The group sent an emissary to the other tavern to inquire under what authority the Massachusetts constable claimed to operate.
The upshot: the prisoner went free and the constable returned to the neighboring colony empty handed.
Doubling as a Jail
In addition to serving as a tavern keeper, licensed to operate a ‘house of entertainment,’ Providence records also show Roger Mowry served as a town constable. When necessary, the tavern doubled as a jail, so rowdy patrons didn’t have far to go if the proprietor arrested them.
In 1676 during King Philip’s War, Indians destroyed nearly every building in Providence. Roger Williams’ own house was destroyed by fire. A handful of buildings survived, either by luck or design. Most histories suggest Indians and fire spared only five buildings, among them the Mowry Tavern.
According to legend, Indians may have left the tavern untouched because their friend Roger Williams held religious services in the building.
Roger Mowry died in 1666, and his tavern died with him. The Mowry Tavern sold many times. The new owners renamed it the Olney House and eventually the Abbott House. It survived until 1900, when wreckers tore it down to make way for a triple-decker tenement building.
This story was updated in 2023. Diagram of the Mowry house by PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20238494. Drawing of the Mowry Tavern, By Norman Isham, Rhode Island Photo Engraving Company – Early Rhode Island Houses: An Historical and Architectural Study , Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=99171567.