The image of Julia Lippitt in death is quaint and serene. Her remains were carried to the family cemetery in an old two-wheeled farm vehicle, encased in a simple coffin put together by a neighbor. In …
The image of Julia Lippitt in death is quaint and serene. Her remains were carried to the family cemetery in an old two-wheeled farm vehicle, encased in a simple coffin put together by a neighbor. In life, lawsuits and alleged abuse colored the picture.
Julia was born in Providence on June 25, 1860 to John and Sarah (Mauran) Lippitt. The family was well-to-do and resided on the Cranston farm which her grandfather Christopher Lippitt settled in 1720. Julia grew to become very proficient in the art of woodworking and eventually became a teacher at the Froebel School in Providence, instructing students on the finer points of carving, carpentry, drawing, weaving and basketry. One of her beautifully carved oak chests is now housed at RI School of Design.
Julia later inherited the farm and its 20-room house on Hope Road. There, she kept a collection of antique gowns which her female ancestors had worn during the eras of the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. She also maintained a collection of firearms hung upon the wall, used by her male ancestors during the American Revolution.
While she chose to take on such tasks as churning her own butter and chopping her own wood, the unmarried lady employed a host of servants to handle the many other chores on the property, which contained two farmhouses, long stretches of stone walls and several outbuildings such as barns, stables, sheds and a cider house. Known as the “faithful maid” of Julia Lippitt, Sarah Sills had been a longtime employee when she died at Rhode Island Hospital on Dec. 26, l927. But most of Julia’s employees didn’t stick around that long and some even faced off against her in court.
In 1935, 23-year-old former maid Jane Waller of Boston claimed that on Sept. 5, 1934, Julia struck her several violent blows with an antique shovel causing injuries to her head and back which had to be treated by a physician. Jane, who had only been working for Julia for four days when the alleged attack occurred, asked for $10,000 in damages.
Two years later, Adolph Boettger charged Julia with neglect when he was injured on a set of steps at the farm, on April 24, 1937, damaging his spine. He also asked for $10,000 in damages. After deliberating for five hours, the jury awarded him $4,500. When Julia asked for a new trial, the request was denied.
Other employees and neighbors accused Julia of threatening them with guns, assaulting them with horsewhips and generally being a very violent and unfriendly person. Strangely, she was extremely charitable and deeply involved in social organizations. In 1904, she and nine other women started a ladies club in Providence devoted to handicrafts.
As founder and president of the state’s first garden club, the Providence County Garden Club, she led the organization in undertaking the beautification of Mary Craig Clarke Park in Phenix. She donated a bronze tablet and numerous decorative shrubs to the project, entertaining all the volunteers at her farm when the project was completed.
She served as treasurer of the Gaspee Chapter, Daughter of the American Revolution. She took part in numerous fundraisers and graciously donated her time and money to important causes. In 1942, she donated a 100-year-old piece of wood for the Girl Scouts to create a sign from and, over the course of her life, donated thousands of trees for landscaping projects.
Occasionally Julia had reason to feel a legitimate dislike for people. Fires were set to her property, the electric motor that was used to operate her water supply was stolen, as were several of her turkeys and carpentry tools.
At the time of her death, on May 21, 1949, her estate was valued at a little over $65,000. She was believed to be the first woman in the state to obtain a driver’s license and her original car, a 1910 Ford, was still in the garage. Her exquisite collections were strewn throughout the spacious home and very specific directions concerning her funeral had been placed in the proper hands.
According to her wishes, she was buried in the Christopher Lippitt cemetery which lay in a field across from her home. The casket had been made there on the farm by a neighbor and was conveyed to its final resting place by six bearers guiding an antique ox-drawn farm vehicle. As she had directed, the reverend read Bible passages she had picked out along with two of her favorite poems. The inscription on her gravestone was from her own pen. The last line of the eight-line poem reads, “…a little trust that when we die, we reap our sowing and so goodbye.”
Later in 1949, Julia’s nephew William L. Mauran Jr. inherited the farm from her. That inheritance included all of her papers which are now housed at the Rhode Island Historical Society. William had no desire to operate a farm and the property eventually fell into disrepair. Through an agreement between William and Cranston High School in 1953, students brought the property back to life.
Julia rests within a heart. Prior to death, she had arranged for her 50-by-100 foot family cemetery to be planted with pine trees, arranged in a heart-shape. There, the eccentricities rest and the accusations are silenced. Like the natural world she loved; wild and unapologetic, all of her storms finally ended in calm.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.