Jane Tobes, possibly an enslaved woman, admitted that she brought rum to the men working in the fields, enticing them to neglect their work and get drunk. So, on July 7, 1772, the judge of the Tiverton Court, Job Almy, laid down the law: “I do sentence her to be whipt ten lashes on her Naked back well laid on.”
Shortly after Almy’s pronouncement, the crack of a whip sounded as a man lashed Tobes’ back while she stood topless, tied to the stone whipping post that stood in what is now a parking lot.
By 1838, Rhode Island had replaced corporal punishment like whipping with a plan for its first state prison. But according to local lore, the scourging of women ceased in Tiverton decades before, when a group of the town’s women engaged in civil disobedience to save one of their own from sharing the painful fate of Jane Tobes.
There are a couple of versions of the story, but both of them involve Isaac Wilbour, a Quaker from Little Compton. Wilbour is still the only person from Sakonnet to serve as Rhode Island’s governor, from 1806 to 1807, which allows us to date the supposed events.
In one version of the story, Governor Wilbour was on his way home to Little Compton when he happened upon the scene of “a woman, her back bared, tied to the whipping post,” while a sheriff read the sentence. In another version, it was Wilbour who read the court’s decision that “the condemned prisoner shall be tied to an upright post and flogged.”
In both versions, a mob of enraged women surrounded the condemned, demanding she be set free without being whipped. Wilbour pondered a moment, and then judiciously said, “But ladies, if it happened there should be no ‘upright post’ then how could the law be carried out?” Taking his hint, the women worked together to pull down the whipping post, leaving it lying in the dirt.
If the story is true, we might hope that the whipping post and it intended purpose disappeared forever, but a 1957 photograph shows it standing here, against the clapboard shingles of the John Almy House, which bore a plaque reading, “Whipping Post 1719—1812.” In 1957, Almy’s house was razed for the parking lot of the new Gray’s Ice Cream, and the whipping post disappeared.
Don’t be fooled by the granite obelisk across the street that looks something like the genuine article. Some local people believe that a history-minded person rescued the real whipping post from oblivion as a landscaping stone, wrapped it in burlap, and buried it near Four Corners. When word of the hiding place got around, the people who wished to preserve the post dug it up and hid it elsewhere.
Maybe the whipping post will reappear one day, perhaps in the corn crib at the Chace-Cory House, or leaning against the wall at Gray’s, as if waiting in the long line to place an order. Or maybe the people who preserved it will present themselves for the credit they deserve. Perhaps Jane Tobes would prefer that it remain hidden, just as she hid the scars on her back.