Tall tale

Current owner vows to restore, protect Big Shang Bailey’s Hotel in Johnston

By RORY SCHULER
Posted 6/23/21

Big Shang the Prussian Giant, a former circus freak, was a Johnston pimp and booze peddler until he heard the word of God.

He sold women and rum to travelers who passed by his 2737 Hartford Ave. …

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Tall tale

Current owner vows to restore, protect Big Shang Bailey’s Hotel in Johnston

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Big Shang the Prussian Giant, a former circus freak, was a Johnston pimp and booze peddler until he heard the word of God.

He sold women and rum to travelers who passed by his 2737 Hartford Ave. home, until consumption claimed his health and he caught his first glimpse of mortality.

Johnston resident Anthony Ursillo lives there now, and, as a history-lover, he has pledged to restore the home and keep developers from razing the 225-year-old structure.

“He made this house into a brothel,” Ursillo said while standing on the huge front porch of the spacious home his parents purchased in 1975. “And then, God talked to him.”

“Sailor. Soldier. Circus-man. Saloonkeeper.” The subtitle of Frederick A. “Big Shang” Bailey’s autobiography gives just a glimpse into the legendary man’s sorted adventures.

The Johnston brothel owner found salvation in Christianity, according to his autobiography. But the road to salvation was long and twisted.

     

Autobiography

“Shang’s Own Story,” a small 10-cent turn-of-the-century paperback, tells Bailey’s story in his own words, and explains how the man “changed from sin to righteousness by God’s grace and power.”

The teenage whaler, Civil War infantryman, prisoner of war, rumseller and eventual sideshow attraction was a giant of a man, standing more than 6 feet, 7 inches tall.

“He was so big he got a job in the circus working for P.T. Barnum as the Prussian Giant,” Ursillo said while paging through an amazingly thick binder of research. “He died at age 71 in 1913.”

Born in June 1842 in Burrillville, in a factory village called Gazzaville, Bailey was a mischievous child.

“But it was a fact that I was a bad boy,” he wrote in his book. “I was the ring-leader among the other boys of the village and led them on into all kinds of wickedness and what I didn’t think of the others did.”

The boys would steal eggs for weekend feasts held during marathon card games in an old woodchopper’s cabin, until they got caught and whipped.

Bailey recalled getting caught stealing under-ripe melons by “a doctor and dentist and farmer” who tended a bursting melon patch nearby.

“They were not very ripe, but of course a boy doesn’t mind anything like that,” he wrote. “In the midst of our feast who should break in upon us but the doctor himself, with a whip in his hand.”

     

Off to Sea & War

When Bailey was 16 years old, his father died, and the boy, nearly a man, went to sea, working on whaling boats sailing out of New Bedford, Massachusetts.

“I was in the West Indies when the news arrived of the firing upon Fort Sumpter (sic) [Fort Sumter],” Bailey wrote. “I came back to the United States and enlisted in the Second Rhode Island, Company I, for three years.”

His first stretch of battlefield fighting didn’t last long.

“I was taken prisoner at the first battle of Bull Run and was sent to Richmond where we were kept imprisoned for several months,” he wrote.

Bailey became a big man among his fellow soldier prisoners. While confined in a tobacco warehouse, he discovered a valuable treasure.

“In one part of the room was a great hogshead containing all kinds of spices over which rum was poured, and after leaching through the spices and becoming saturated with them it was then drawn off and used for flavoring the tobacco,” he wrote.

He sold the tobacco and rum to his fellow soldiers, but told everyone he outran the guards to procure the goods, so the trove would not be discovered and raided.

From Virginia, the prisoners were moved to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. His treatment in custody became torturous.

“During the first few weeks after we were imprisoned in this place, about 150 out of the 350 men died of diarrhea.”

From Alabama, the prisoners were moved again to Salisbury, North Carolina.

He sold clothing to rebel guards to buy food, staving off hunger imposed by insufficient rations.

Bailey procured dried peach pies and shared them with the other prisoners.

     

Journey Back Home

After several months, the men were paroled and sent on a long journey home. In Newberne, North Carolina, while aboard a ship anchored in the bay, Bailey started searching for fellow Ocean State soldiers.

“I asked a boatman who was in a small boat along-side the vessel, if the Second Rhode Island was there and he said he thought it was,” Bailey wrote. “So I waited until it was dark, went into the wheel-room (the vessel being a side-wheeler) and swam out to one of these boats which was to take me ashore.”

When he arrived in the city, he discovered that his former battalion was nowhere to be found. Instead, he found a Rhode Island Battery unit.

     

Free Pass

Unable to travel without papers, Bailey tracked down Gen. Ambrose Burnside at his headquarters in the United States Hotel, and talked his way into securing a pass signed by the legendary general.

“Guards and patrols will pass the bearer until further orders. (Signed) Gen. Burnside.”

Bailey wrote that the pass should have read: “Guards and patrols will pass the bearer in Newberne until further orders.” The omission of two words allowed Bailey to travel anywhere in the United States he wished.

He traveled home to Rhode Island, then to New Hampshire, and eventually traveled south to rejoin the fight. He followed Gen. Burnside into defeat near Fredericksburg, then on to Chancellorsville, Virginia, and eventually Bailey joined a long march into Pennsylvania.

“After the Chancellorsville fight in which my regiment fought at Salem Heights, we went back into our old camp and stayed there until the call to Gettysburg,” Bailey wrote. “The march from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg is one of the most remarkable forced marches ever made in war, for testing the courage and endurance of an army.”

After days of fighting, Bailey fell ill and went to a hospital in Portsmouth Grove. From there he was discharged, after three years in the Union army.

He celebrated Independence Day, and then realized his fighting was not finished.

“On the fifth day of July, 1864, I re-enlisted and joined the navy for three years and served till three months after the war was over,” he wrote.

     

The Big Top

In 1870, Bailey went into the circus business, as an assistant and boss canvasman.

He traveled with wagon shows until 1875, when he joined Barnum’s World Fair on Wheels, and eventually became part of the sideshow.

“It was while I was in the circus that the name ‘Shang’ became attached to me,” Bailey wrote. “At that time the Shanghi fowls [a large breed of chicken imported through Shanghi] were introduced into this country and attracted much attention by their great size and awkwardness; and so everything that was large or overgrown was called a Shanghi. Considering my extreme height the name easily applied to me and was quickly abbreviated to ‘Shang,’ a name which has clung to me ever since.”

     

The Rumseller

Soon, after his run with the circus, Bailey found himself in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he opened his first dancehall saloon.

Eventually, an exhausted bribery scheme and the strict moral code of the Quakers, led to his forced removal.

“After being in Philadelphia for nearly 12 years, the Law and Order people got into power and I could get no license; so I abandoned the City of Brotherly Love and returned to my native state in which there was no prohibitory law, and which was therefore an inviting field for my operations,” Bailey wrote.

He opened a brothel and bar in Burrillville at a place called Round Top.

“Here I sold liquor for about 12 years without a license; yet this could not go on always, and after I had been unmolested for 12 years, the town authorities notified us that we must get out of business,” Bailey wrote in his autobiography.

Luckily for the unsinkable entrepreneur, he had seen the writing on the wall.

     

Move to Johnston

“I had for some time expected this change and had bought, two or three years previous to this, the property in the town of Johnston, known and the Cornell estate, eight miles from Providence,” Bailey wrote. “I moved to Johnston where I did business for five or six years.”

Ursillo said Bailey bought the Hartford Avenue home in 1896 and moved in by 1899.

On a now-razed barn next to the huge white home, the proprietor wrote in huge block letters: “THIS IS BIG SHANG BAILEY’S HOTEL.”

The second floor of the home is split into approximately nine small bedrooms.

“There are a lot of bedrooms,” Ursillo said as he led a tour through the home. “They make a big circle. All the hanky panky happened up there.”

     

God Spoke

After selling liquor and the company of women to men along the trolley line running from Providence into Connecticut, Bailey had a religious epiphany.

“It was at Johnston that the spirit of the Lord came to me,” he wrote. “My life had been full of excitement and wickedness; I had never been where the word of God was taught; my associates had been among the sinful and vile and my thoughts, all my life, had been turned away from God.”

On Feb. 27, 1905, Bailey went behind the bar to count his receipts for the final time.

“The next day I sent my hostler to Providence to put this notice in one of the Providence newspapers: ‘Shang Bailey’s Place of Business is Closed.’ There was no man nor his place better known in Rhode Island than Shang Bailey and his hotel and of course this notice made a great hubbub, but it did its work and stopped people from coming,” Bailey wrote. “The report went out that ‘Old Shang’ had gone crazy, as his actions had led people to think so.”

     

Bibles & Camp Meetings

For the remaining eight years of his life, Bailey hosted tent revival Christian camp meetings and spread the word of the Gospel to anyone who would listen.

He was eventually baptized on Easter Sunday, 1909, at the Emmanuel Church in Providence.

Bailey did countless interviews with every willing newspaper and journal in the state. He wrote his autobiography.

“I have been asked frequently by ministers and others to tell the story of my conversion, and in response to these requests which I believe came in answer to my prayers, I have told the story of God’s wonderful saving grace and power as manifested in my heart and life about 150 times,” Bailey wrote to conclude his life story. “I have spoken in churches of nearly all denominations, seeking only to honor my Saviour.”

     

Log Gift Shoppe

On Dec. 27, 1975, Ursillo’s parents, Beatrice and Anthony, bought the dilapidated property at 2737 Hartford Ave. from the bank for about $16,000. They turned it into a unique retail operation called the Log Gift Shoppe.

“The entire store, up and down, was a very big shop,” Ursillo recalled from his office in an addition built onto the home by his parents. “We sold curtains and bedspreads. We hung a different curtain on every window. Upstairs, we had mainly accent furniture. Corner hutches, dry sinks, end tables, things of that nature. Oh my God, we had so much. We were pretty well known.”

The shop operated in the Federal style home from 1976 to 2009, several years after the elder Anthony Ursillo died. Beatrice is now 86 years old.

     

Restoration

Ursillo lives in the home with his partner of 18 years, Timothy Kee, and their dog, a Bedlington Terrier named Katie.

“Some people in Johnston probably don’t realize there is a famous landmark here in town,” Ursillo said.

Following an arduous application process, the home was finally added to the National Register of Historic Places several years ago.

Over the past two years, the couple has been restoring sections of the home to its original details.

The porch has been extended to cover the entire front of the long home.

Ursillo and Kee have removed the shutters, and have been recreating the interior moldings.

“I’d be tempted to sell if somebody came with some ridiculous amount of money, and promised not to tear it down,” Ursillo said. “But I can afford to stay here. I love the building, even if it’s kind of huge for the two of us and a dog.”

Ursillo spends much of his free time researching Bailey’s life and the home where he found God and spent most of his final years.

“We often wonder if Shang Bailey really became a humble, God-loving man, or was he just a con artist?” Ursillo asked.

That question may never have a definitive answer.

“I think Shang Bailey would be proud of me,” Ursillo said as he moved knickknacks around on the mantle of one of the home’s many fireplaces. “If there are ghosts in this house, and I don’t believe there are, I think they’re probably happy ghosts.”

He bent down to show off the home’s original wooden plank flooring.

“You can never replace an old house like this,” Ursillo said. “You need to educate the next generation on the importance of history before its forgotten.”

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