Filed Under Politics

Catherine R. Williams

"You might have heard a leaf move in the forest..."

A crowd of 1,500 had gathered in Millville on a late fall day in 1842 to show their support for their exiled hero, Thomas Wilson Dorr. One of the most well-known women in the crowd was Catherine R. (Arnold) Williams (1790-1872), who, despite some apparent misgivings about doing so, approached the podium to speak.

She later wrote to Dorr, “You might have heard a leaf move in the forest, so profound was the attention given.” The crowd had learned that Williams had recently visited Dorr and were eager to hear news of their leader. Williams writes of herself in the third person: “To my confusion, she was called for by so many voices at once, she was obliged to show herself. Literally forced to the stump. Thank heaven, women never are at a loss for words, and finding herself thus compelled, the Lady in question, threw off her cloak and stepped forward to the front of the Stand and gave a brief and I trust intelligible history of her visit to our exiled Governor.” 

Williams had come of age when White women were granted as yet unparalleled access to education and independence, and so it is fitting that she would have become a fierce public advocate for Thomas Wilson Dorr and close confidante. In fact, Dorr and Williams had much in common. Like Dorr, Catherine Arnold was born into a family with deep roots in Rhode Island, yet was devoted to the cause of common men (and women, in Catherine’s case). 

This location is the former site of Arnold family home where Catherine spent her childhood and later years.


Backlash Against Female Supporters
Backlash Against Female Supporters This 1845 broadside is an attack on the Rhode Island legislators who broke with their conservative party to support Thomas Wilson Dorr. The illustration shows a chariot drawn by Cerberus, the three-headed hound of hell, and by a cow with the head of Thomas Wilson Dorr. One of the figures in the chariot is an unnamed woman meant to symbolize the immense support Dorr received from women at the time.  Date: 1845
Dorr in Prison
Dorr in Prison This broadside, published in 1842, attempts to persuade the audience that Thomas Wilson Dorr does not belong in prison. Dorr pleads his case in the first-person: "Tis because I loved my fellow man/That I in prison lie.” His opponents, who deemed Dorr's activities to be treason, might have disagreed. Date: 1842
Portrait of Catherine R Williams
Portrait of Catherine R Williams This portrait of Catherine Williams was painted by Susanna Paine in 1830 when Williams was 40 years of age. Paine, like Williams, had divorced her husband and had to rely on profits from her art to provide for her family. Date: 1830


99 Roger Williams Green, Providence, RI 02906


Elyssa Tardif, “Catherine R. Williams,” Rhode Tour, accessed May 20, 2024,