The Rev. Henry Wight is the unlikely inventor of today’s raucous Independence Day celebrations and the famous Bristol Fourth of July parade.
A quiet, pious and amiable man, he passed 43 years of his life ministering to the same church in Bristol, R.I. The town remembered him for his decency and devotion to its people — and still celebrates the Fourth in the style he originated.
Wight probably couldn’t have been more different than another prominent Rhode Islander associated with the famous Bristol parade: Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci. The city’s longest serving mayor liked to crash the parade in spectacular fashion — when he wasn’t in prison.
Henry Wight was born in Medfield, Mass., on May 26, 1752, and graduated from Harvard. He also served as a soldier in the American Revolution.
Buddy Cianci was born in Cranston, R.I., on April 30, 1941, graduated from Fairfield University and earned a law degree from Marquette. He served as a second lieutenant in the Army’s military police corps.
In January of 1785, the First Congregational Church of Bristol, R.I. hired Henry Wight as its new pastor. Only five ministers had led the church previously. With just 36 people in the congregation, Wight was handed the keys to a newly built church building and encouraged to get on with building it up.
In his first year at the First Congregational Church, Wight determined the town of Bristol should observe Patriotic Exercises on the Fourth of July. He led the ceremonies in 1785 with a speech and call for reflection on the veterans who won the war and celebration of the new nation’s freedoms.
Cianci first won election as mayor of Providence in 1974, but he had to resign 10 years later after pleading no contest to a felony charge. He had kidnapped a Bristol contractor, Raymond DeLeo, and tortured him with a lighted cigarette because he thought the man had an affair with his wife.
The Bristol Fourth of July Parade
Bristol had already celebrated the Fourth in an informal way. In 1777, a British officer heard sounds from across Narragansett Bay.
This being the first anniversary of the Declaration of Independence of the Rebel Colonies, they ushered in the morning by firing 13 cannons, one for each colony, we suppose. At sunset, the rebel frigates fired another round of 13 guns, each one after the other. As the evening was very still and fine the echo of the guns down the Bay had a grand effect.
But since Wight initiated the first formal patriotic exercises, it gave Bristol, R.I, its claim as birthplace of the Fourth of July celebration. For 40 years, Henry Wight would continue leading these ceremonies, which soon included the Bristol Fourth of July parade.
As mayor, Cianci brought the Bruins hockey team to Providence and created an Arts and Entertainment District. He also started the annual WaterFire celebration in downtown Providence. And year after year he marched in the Bristol parade, though the town explicitly told him not to.
The Congregational Church, under Wight’s leadership, became a place where the poor visited for food and medicine. Others sought Wight’s advice on practical matters. He was a lifelong reader with a good knowledge of Greek, Latin, mathematics and science. He served for 40 years on Brown University’s governing body, its Board of Fellows.
Wight did not shy from bringing political discussions into the pulpit, even when his opinions cost him members of the congregation. He practiced medicine as well as religion. He routinely called on sick members of his congregation and provided them with remedies as well as spiritual counsel.
Cianci won re-election in 1991, seven years after his resignation. He worked as a talk-show radio host in the interim. During his second term, which lasted until 2002, he was credited with revitalizing downtown Providence. But he had to resign again following his conviction on racketeering charges. He served four years in federal prison, returning to the airwaves after his release. He hosted a television show called The World According to Buddy and wrote a book called Politics and Pasta.
Cianci also launched a brand of pasta sauce, called Mayor’s Own Marinara Sauce. He said proceeds would go to scholarships for Providence schoolchildren. They didn’t.
Henry Wight died in 1838, 10 years after his retirement from full-time ministry. He had married twice and fathered seven children along with the Fourth of July celebration we all know today.
Buddy Cianci died of colon cancer in 2014 after serving as Providence mayor for two decades. He married and divorced once, fathered one daughter and had quite a few girlfriends.
Buddy Crashes The Bristol Fourth of July Parade
Sometime in the early 1800s the now-2.5-mile Military, Civic and Firemen’s Parade began.
In 1975, Providence’s new mayor, Buddy Cianci, started fighting with parade organizers. Under the rules, only federal, state and Bristol town officials could participate. He came anyway, usually riding a horse.
The Bristol Town Council banned him from the 1980 parade and the police threatened to arrest him. But when Cianci arrived in a helicopter, Miss Rhode Island greeted him. Paradegoers, who numbered 300,000, cheered, giving him hugs, kisses, handshakes and cold drinks. The police had to let him march.
He missed some parades because of his legal troubles. In 1984, after his first felony conviction, he didn’t march. Instead, a clown dressed in a prison uniform carried a ball and chain to ridicule him. Then in 1997 Cianci brought along an entourage of law enforcement officers squirting the crowd with water rifles.
Buddy Cianci marched in his last Bristol Fourth of July parade in 2002, after his conviction for RICO conspiracy. The parade passed the home of the contractor he’d tortured, where a large party was held every year. As Cianci walked past, partygoers began singing to the tune of For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.
For he’s a RICO felon…which nobody can deny.
Today Bristol’s Fourth of July celebration officially starts on June 14th, Flag Day, and ends with the parade on July 4th. In between are concerts, fireworks, a drum corps show, a firefighters muster and a Fourth of July ball.
This story updated in 2022.
Images: Bristol Fourth of July parade By Kenneth C. Zirkel – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=49912345. Bristol parade with center line By TwoSheds (talk) (Uploads) – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=109547000. Buddy Cianci By Sharperimage0 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=89148498.