The Life of Thomas Whipple

From the August 2019 Hinterlander

by Mark Gardner, WRICHS Archivist


Thomas Whipple is a significant person in Paine House lore. He purchased the Paine House, then known as the Holden Tavern, in 1849. This was the same year that Thomas Whipple, along with another Coventry politician, Henry B. Anthony, was elected Rhode Island’s lieutenant-governor and governor, respectively. The Holden Tavern became Whipple’s private residence for the next ten years, until his death in 1859.

Thomas Whipple was born June 18, 1787 in Warwick, Rhode Island, the second of five sons. It is not recorded what year the Whipple family moved from Warwick, but both of his parents, Joseph and Alice Whipple, are buried in Coventry. During his very earliest years, the United States ratified the Constitution (1788) and elected George Washington president (1789).

Young Thomas Whipple was probably unaware of George Washington’s visit to Rhode Island in August of 1790, the same year that Samuel Slater opened the first textile mill in America in Pawtucket. In 1806 manufacturing had come to Coventry when brothers William and Richard Anthony established the Coventry
Manufacturing Company, in the village they named after themselves. By 1810 their mill, standing at six stories, was the largest in Rhode Island at the time.

After coming of age, Thomas Whipple would also enter Coventry’s textile manufacturing business. In 1829 he became part owner of a textile mill in Washington Village with Peleg Wilbur. Their business operated under the firm name of Wilbur and Whipple, and their mill was known as the Blue Mill. It was a modest operation, 50 feet long by 26 feet wide, one and one half stories high. Wilbur and Whipple leased their mill out to a number of different operators over the next thirty years. Peleg Wilbur and Thomas Whipple also opened and operated a store in Washington Village that served the mill workers and other locals for a number of years.

According to J.R, Cole’s History of Washington and Kent counties Thomas Whipple was also part of a group of ten men that, beginning in 1846 “was especially active, indefatigable, and self-denying in educational affairs” to gain passage of “a new school law” in Coventry providing for new school buildings and renovations to older ones, a school committee, and better pay for teachers.

Thomas Whipple was also elected to the Rhode Island Senate several times, representing the town of Coventry. He was also appointed one of the town’s judges on the court of common pleas. According to RI Public Laws of 1822, as a justice of the peace, Whipple was empowered to adjudicate monetary disputes of less than $20, to take cognizance of all assaults and batteries and investigate a number of other crimes — treason, murder, homicide, and other felonies, among other duties.  It was not recorded which political party Thomas Whipple belonged to, but given his association with Henry B. Anthony — who was a leader of the “Law and Order” party during the Dorr Rebellion of 1843, and in 1849 was elected Governor as a Whig — it is likely Thomas Whipple also had been a Law and Order man and a Whig as well. He was lieutenant-governor from 1849 to 1851. But while his colleague Henry B. Anthony went on to have a lengthy career in state and national politics, Thomas Whipple appears to have left state politics after his term as lieutenant-governor came to an end, though Coventry town records may reveal he continued to play a role in local politics. Henry Whipple was 64 years old when he stepped down as lieutenant-governor. Two of his sons however, Henry C. Whipple and Cromwell Whipple, carried on their father’s footsteps to become prominent men and politicians in their own right.

Henry Whipple died on June 7, 1859 at age 71. That year the Blue Mill in Washington Village was sold to Benjamin Moon, who renamed it Moon Mill and promptly built a new mill on the same site.

Thomas Whipple was buried in Coventry Historical Cemetery #67, also known as the Bissell-Whipple-Stone Lot. This cemetery is not far from the Paine House, on the other side of the Pawtuxet River on Bank Street.  His wife Sally is also buried there, as well as four of their children: Cromwell Whipple, Daniel Webster Whipple, Sarah Whipple Stone, and Abbie A. Whipple. The Whipple family owned the Paine House from 1849 until 1866, when it was sold to Phebe Paine and Mary Mathewson. It may not be a coincidence that the house was sold in 1866, the same year that Thomas Whipple’s daughter Sarah Whipple Stone died — but that is just speculation.

Thomas Whipple — mill owner, shopkeeper, justice of the peace, state senator and lieutenant-governor — was the most prominent owner of the building that eventually became the Paine House Museum. He was, according to J.R. Cole, “an able man, a shrewd politician and a good statesman; a gentleman of great integrity and of noble principle. As a man of sound judgment he had few superiors in the state.”