The unfortunate Hannah Robinson
By Thomas D’Agostino
The story of Hannah Robinson is one of love, tragedy and a haunting. It is one of New England’s most famous and endearing legends. To this day a small park, tower, ledge and rock bear the name of the young unfortunate Hannah Robinson.
Rowland Robinson, born in 1719, was the oldest son of Governor William Robinson. A wealthy farmer and member of the local government. Robinson, though portly, stood tall and erect, with a clear blonde complexion and light hair. He was known to be fair in temper and manners, having the disposition of an old country gentleman.
On December 3, 1741, Rowland married Anstis Gardiner. They had three children: Hannah, born in 1746; Mary, born in 1752; and William R., born in 1759. Mary and Hannah grew to be exceedingly beautiful, especially Hannah, who stood above medium height possessing a clear complexion, with a delicate tint of rose that only served to complement her dark hazel eyes. Her auburn hair fell in ringlets about her, and her speech, manner and carriage made her all the more irresistible to the gentry both near and far.
In her youth, Hannah found a place where she could sit and contemplate, or just enjoy the scenery of the Narragansett Bay. The area, known as McSparran Hill, was steep and bore forth a rock ledge that admitted a clear view of the bay. Hannah spent many hours looking out over the beautiful scenery the ledge afforded her.
The Robinson family spared no cost in the education of their children. Hannah was placed in the care of her aunt in Newport, where she attended the finishing school of Madame Osborne, a well-respected and widely known instructor of politeness and grace for young ladies. It was during her studies with Madame Osborne that Hannah met M. Pierre (Peter) Simons, a young tutor under the employ of Osborne. From the moment they met, a certain affection ripened between them and before long, they were in love.
Both were well aware that a person of his station in life would certainly not meet the expectations of her father as a proper suitor. Two books—Recollections of Olden Times, by Thomas Robinson Hazard and Willis Pope Hazard from 1879, and The Robinsons and Their Kin Folk, by the Robinson Family Genealogical Association, written in 1906—tell the tale with very little variance. The 1906 version reads:
“Fortune seemed to favor the young people. Hannah’s uncle, Col. William Gardiner, educated his children at home, and in looking about for a private tutor, engaged Pierre Simons to go with him to his Narragansett home and occupy that position in his family. The lovers enjoyed many opportunities of seeing each other, especially as Col. Gardiner, who was of a kind and easy disposition, on becoming aware of the love which existed between his beautiful niece and her former tutor, sought rather to promote opportunities for interviews between the lovers than otherwise.
The mother’s suspicions were aroused, and Hannah confided to her the secret of her love.
After trying for months, in vain, to persuade her child to discourage her affianced lover, and finding that nothing would induce her to dismiss him, Mrs. Robinson forbore further opposition.
Thus encouraged by the mother’s tacit consent, if not approval of his suit, it was mutually arranged by the lovers that Pierre should occasionally walk over from Col. Gardiner’s of an evening, and upon the appearance of a signal light in Hannah’s window approach the house and secrete himself in a large lilac bush which grew beneath it, where love messages might be easily passed. In fact, so emboldened did the lovers become by the unbroken success that attended their stratagem, that they finally arranged for occasional meetings in Hannah’s room; her mother lending her presence and countenance to the dangerous adventure, rendered all the more critical because of its being the undeviating practice of Hannah’s father to bid her “good night” before he retired, even if it required his going to her own room or elsewhere. It was necessary to have a convenient place in which Hannah’s lover might retreat on untoward occasions such a place—a cupboard—was in the room.”
One evening, Rowland happened to step outside the home and saw Hannah reaching out her window to the young Simons. He recognized the man right away as the music teacher employed by his brother-in-law, William Gardiner. He gave chase to Simons, flailing his cane at him, but was unable to catch the fleet-footed young wooer. From that moment on, Hannah’s every move was watched—if she walked, she walked with spying eyes. When she rode, a servant accompanied her. Her father became obsessive in keeping her under his watch at every waking moment. It became the whisper around town that many would like to see the young woman be with her love and began to prepare for an elopement, especially her mother and aunt, Mrs. Ludowick Updike, sister of Rowland.
A great ball was planned at the Updike home, now known as Smith’s Castle. It was arranged that the two sisters, Mary and Hannah, would attend the ball and stay overnight with the Updikes. Rowland had no idea it was a plot to bring his daughter into the arms of Simons. Hannah went about her way in a composed manner until it was time to leave for the ball. The Robinsons and their Kin Folk notes:
“On Ridge Hill, a thickly wooded spot, Hannah and her companions encountered the lover with a closed carriage, into which the affianced bride hastily stepped and was driven rapidly away, on the road to Providence, in spite of the frantic appeals of Prince, the attendant. Miss Simons—Pierre’s sister—assisted Hannah with a necessary wardrobe, and with the aid of the pastoral services of a minister of the Episcopal Church, the lovers were married.”
When Mr. Robinson learned of his daughter’s elopement, he became angry beyond comprehension. He offered a reward to anyone who would come forth with any information on those who assisted in her escapade. Much to his disappointment, no one ever came forth.
Simons and his bride moved to Providence. From that point, the story takes on two separate lives. One version paints Simons as a greedy money grabber. As time passed, Simons began to realize that Hannah would never see a penny of her family’s fortune. This caused him to become passionless to his wife’s affections. He began to have affairs, became reckless in his habit and eventually turned a complete cold shoulder to her.
Hannah, already unstable in spirit, took a turn for the worst. She became gaunt, pale and her beauty began to fade.
Her father, upon hearing of her rapid decline in health, rode to Providence in the hopes of bringing her home, but under his terms. If Hannah would tell him who was responsible for her elopement, she could come back to the warmth and care of her family home. Hannah was honorable but also possessed the same stubborn streak as her father. Hannah refused his wishes, causing Mr. Robinson ride away in a huff.
Then came the day that Mr. Robinson finally agreed to let Hannah come home. When he entered her chamber he beheld his daughter, frail, white, and almost lifeless. He began to cry like a baby and completely dismissed the thought of asking Hannah to divulge the accomplices of that fateful evening. Instead, he held her cold, bony hand and promised to take her home. Mr. Robinson had Hannah placed in a carriage carried by hand called a litter for safe travel back to Narragansett.
The carriers, called “chairmen,” lifted the litter with Hannah inside and set out for home. When they reached Old Ridge Hill, where Hannah had met with her lover that fateful night, she covered her eyes and cried. As they passed McSparran Hill, Hannah begged for them to stop so she could see the ocean once more. There on the ledge, just past a great square boulder, Hannah rested, staring out at the bay just as she did many times in her youth. The chairmen rotated the litter so that she could get a glimpse of every angle afforded to her from her traveling bed. A servant plucked some flowers growing alongside the great rock and handed them to Hannah, who held them close to her breast.
Thomas D’Agostino and his wife Arlene Nicholson are seasoned paranormal investigators, authors, and co-organizers of Paranormal United Research Society. You can find out more about them by visiting www.tomdagostino.com.