RHODYLIFE

A professor and poet disappears

Posted 11/26/20

By KELLY SULLIVAN "May we, as prisoners in a life, of flesh and sense, in durance dim, enlisted in daily strife, have patience to contend like him ." Timothy Whiting Bancroft was a talented poet who often sent his works in to the local newspapers for

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RHODYLIFE

A professor and poet disappears

Posted

“May we, as prisoners in a life, of flesh and sense, in durance dim, enlisted in daily strife, have patience to contend like him …”

Timothy Whiting Bancroft was a talented poet who often sent his works in to the local newspapers for publication. A deeply religious man, he conducted spiritual lectures at the First Baptist Church in Providence and supervised the Sabbath School there. A devoted husband to Sarah (Rathbone), who he married in February of 1870, and a loving father to his daughter and two sons, his personal life appeared enviable.

He lived comfortably with a handful of servants on Greene Street, not far from his job as a professor of English Literature at Brown University, which he had graduated from in 1859. He was respected, esteemed and well liked.

But life had a darker side for Professor Bancroft. Overworking himself had led to insomnia and depression. In 1883, he suffered a breakdown, telling his family that he had an overwhelming urge to drown himself. After taking some time off, he felt better and life went back to normal.

But, in 1889, those feelings of deep despair came back. He began seeking the help of a Christian Science physician and a woman who promised cures through the art of mesmerism, a desperate act he kept secret from his Baptist friends.

Toward the end of that year, on the morning of Dec. 8, he arose from bed and told his family that he was feeling very ill and probably in great need of rest. He asked his 17-year-old daughter Esther if she would go for a walk with him. She explained that she had tasks to do that day and declined.

Sarah suggested that he skip work and go to see a doctor. It was assumed when he left at 8:10 that he would either head toward the college or the doctor’s office. But he arrived at neither place. No one ever saw the 53-year-old man again.

Massive search efforts were undertaken with staff and students from Brown University turning out in droves to assist the authorities. Flyers were sent out across the United States containing a photograph, a description and the promise of a monetary reward to anyone who located him. He weighed about 175 pounds and stood 5 feet, 10 inches tall. He was bald-headed with long, thick white whiskers hanging down from the sides of his mouth.

Four days after he disappeared, a local farmer came forward to describe how he had seen a man standing beside an open space in the iced-over pond near his property. When he looked that way a few moments later, the man was gone.

This greatly worried the professor’s family. About five days before the disappearance, he had confided to them that his urge to jump into water had again become so strong that he worried each time he left the house that the compulsion would become uncontrollable. It was now assumed that Bancroft had committed suicide. Yet no trace of him could be found.

On Feb. 23, 1891, 11 weeks after he vanished, Leander Ouimette and his brother, both working as carpenters at Perry’s Ice House, became thirsty. They went to the edge of nearby Dyer’s Pond in Cranston and broke a small hole in the ice from which to scoop water. About 25 feet from the shore, they noticed a derby hat sitting atop the frozen surface.

The ice was thick enough that it allowed them to walk across it to retrieve the hat. However the derby was frozen in place. Below the ice, they could see that it was attached to a man’s head. The carpenters rushed to inform the town sergeant who returned with them to the pond. The trio extricated the frozen body which was neatly clad in a beaver coat, the hands fitted with gloves.

The autopsy revealed that Professor Bancroft had been suffering from a softening of the brain and had probably succumbed to suicidal mania. His funeral was held at the church he had so elegantly presided over and his earthly remains laid to rest in Swan Point Cemetery.

“May we, as prisoners in a life, of flesh and sense, in durance dim …”

Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.

professor, poet

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