Filed Under Businesses

Abraham Herman Stillwell

Citizens and Businesses for Dorr

“While there is life, let us act. Let not the damning sin of his murder rest upon us . . . Rhode Islanders, Americans! Have you thought of this? Are you prepared for this? Will you permit this?”

This rallying cry graced the windows of a bookstore adjacent to a coffee shop in Providence’s Market Square, thanks to a fierce Dorr supporter and bookstore owner, Abraham Herman Stillwell. A boyhood friend of Dorr’s, Stilwell was a descendant of the first English families to settle Providence and, like Dorr, a member of the elite class. From 1831 to 1867, Stillwell operated his shop, and during the Dorr Rebellion, he promoted his friend’s cause by pasting handbills in the store windows. As his granddaughter, Margaret Bingham Stillwell, later describes, “Businessmen walking down College Hill to their offices were startled to see that the southern facade of the bookshop had been turned into a bulletin board. They hurried to see what it meant. At times, they stood almost shoulder to shoulder as they read the handbills pasted on the windowpanes. Grandfather studied their faces, as for the first time they read a statement by Thomas Wilson Dorr that had not been distorted or deliberately garbled by the charter-controlled press. He had forced leading citizens to face facts.” For supporting Dorr, Stillwell apparently lost many customers but did not recant. His appeal to the authorities to release Dorr from prison in 1844 demonstrates the fervor that propelled the People’s Party:

“I appeal to you, in the name of a heart-bleeding father! -- in the name of a heart-broken mother! -- in the name of a crushed and suffering people! -- in the name of him who surrendered his liberty that others might be free! --in the name of Justice! -- and in the name of God! -- Pause not, faint not, rest not, until right is established. Undo the work of darkness. Break the bonds of Tyranny. Open the prison doors. You may do this without other than the force of Truth, without other than the force of Right, Without other than the force of Law! -- If we cannot do this, we are SLAVES.”

Later in life, when posing for a portrait, Stillwell’s likeness could not be captured in a pleasing way until the artist made mention of the Dorr War. At this reference, the painter’s “subject’s blood pressure went up, his face suffused with color, a new look of determination came into his eyes. Noticing this personality change, [the artist] kept [Stillwell] discussing politics all through the sittings, with the result that in the portrait he appears as rosy and rugged as an English country squire."

This location at 17 Canal Walk is the former location of Stillwell's bookstore.

Images

Old Coffee Shop Stillwell operated his book shop in the old Coffee House in Market Square. This twentieth-century drawing depicts the building as it appeared before its demolition in the 1850s.
Margaret Bingham Stillwell's Work Abraham's granddaughter, Margaret Bingham Stillwell, worked hard to preserve the memory of not only her predecessor, but of the entire East Side of Providence. She wrote extensively about historic Providence, including her childhood spent on Benefit Street. This image shows a clipping from John Hutchins Cady, noted architectural preservationist, describing Stillwell's historical efforts.
Tyrants Prostrate, Liberty Triumphant This illustration is the kind of pro-Dorr propaganda that Stillwell would have showcased in his shop. The 1844 image was printed during Dorr's imprisonment and argues for his release.

Location

17 Canal Walk, Providence, RI 02903

Metadata

Elyssa Tardif, “Abraham Herman Stillwell,” Rhode Tour, accessed February 7, 2023, https://rhodetour.org/items/show/231.