RHODY LIFE

The tragic life of Lydia Harris

Posted 3/25/21

By KELLY SULLIVAN Her aged body hunched over as she scuffed across the floor of the Rhode Island Insane Asylum in Cranston. Her youth long gone, her gift of life long extinguished, her human rights ripped away from her decades earlier. Suddenly, the

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RHODY LIFE

The tragic life of Lydia Harris

Posted

Her aged body hunched over as she scuffed across the floor of the Rhode Island Insane Asylum in Cranston. Her youth long gone, her gift of life long extinguished, her human rights ripped away from her decades earlier. Suddenly, the fragile, gray-haired woman dropped to the floor, dead.

Lydia Harris had spent her life suffering. She was born in Burrillville in 1814. Her family lived in a small house within the woods near Herring Pond, and one day her father, James, was discovered deceased there under mysterious circumstances.

James left behind Lydia and her three siblings, George, Stephen and Louis. George was later killed on the railroad in Providence. Stephen fell into a coal pit where injuries to his legs crippled him for life. Then, in 1845, Louis went into the woods in Glendale, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.

Lydia had married Stephen Tourtelott in 1835. Two years later, one summer day he went into a neighbor’s barn and hanged himself with the cord of a whip. He was discovered before life had escaped him and cut down. However, he went directly to another nearby barn and hanged himself again with a chain. This time he was successful in his fatal endeavor.

The following year, Lydia married Ziba Phetteplace. The 22-year-old man had a liking for strong drink and a tendency to become violent when he imbibed. Lydia endured the abuse for 22 years before deciding she couldn’t take anymore. On Sept. 22, 1860, he returned home to their little shack beside the road after a drinking spree and severely beat her. He then laid down on the kitchen floor to sleep off his drunkeness.

Lydia went and got the axe. Her first blow sunk the blade into his neck, the second blow into his collarbone. The couple’s 14-year-old son, Harris, stood watching.

Harris immediately ran to his sister’s house to relay what had just occurred. It was two hours before authorities arrived at the Phetteplace home. By that time, Lydia had dragged her bloodied and nearly beheaded husband through the kitchen and out the door, down the steps and across the yard, depositing him into the orchard. She then went back inside and scrubbed the bloodstains out of the floor. When police arrived, she was calmly waiting to be arrested.

Lydia pleaded guilty to a charge of murder, and on April 15, 1861, she was sentenced to life in prison. In later years, she was transferred to the state insane asylum.

On Aug. 22, 1886, her son Harris told his wife he was going hunting. He never returned. A search party walked the woods for several days before he was found with a fatal bullet wound to the head, not far from where his uncle Louis had taken his own life decades before. Five weeks later, Lydia expired on the floor of the insane asylum at the age of 66, having spent 25 years locked away.

The tragic blood of the Harris family had passed down through the generations, all victims of nightmarish fates. Now they sleep among their own in ancient family burial grounds. All except for Lydia. She lies virtually forgotten in the State Farm Cemetery.

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

history, Harris