Grave Responsibility

Salisbury Farm’s cemeteries packed with stories


Arnold Fenner and a horse dropped dead, struck by a lightning bolt in 1796.

His father, standing nearby, was unharmed. Their Johnston barn burned to the ground.

The only evidence, “a little hair burnt on the top of his head,” according to a copy of the 18th Century periodical New York Magazine, or, Literary Repository, on-file in the Oxford University archives.

Fenner’s gravestone, broken and repaired at its center, stands in a small burial plot — known as Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Johnston 43 — surrounded by sprawling autumn wonderland Salisbury Farm in Johnston.


The inscription on his tombstone reads: “Arnold Fenner, whose death was caused by lightning, Aug. 9, 1776, aged 39 years.”

Initially, the Johnston Historical Society Cemetery Committee took on the task of restoring Cemetery 43 in the summer of 2016. Johnston Historical Society President Elise Carlson noted the inscription and did a little research.

She found a reference to Fenner’s death in the Aug. 13, 1796 edition of the New York magazine.

“While working with the cemetery committee on many family burial grounds over the years, I often think about the people buried there, how they lived and how they died,” she wrote, following the discovery. “This stone answered the question of how he died, but it made one wonder about the details.”

The tiny dispatch with a Providence dateline recorded the tale (accessed via Google books):

“A remarkable instance of the destructive effects of lightning happened at Johnstown on Thursday last, about 4 o’clock, PM Mr. Arnold Fenner, of that town, being at work in his field, near his barn, entered it, accompanied by his father, two children, and a young man that lived with him, to shelter themselves from a shower of rain. They seated themselves on the floor; the wind rising, they shut all the doors except one, which opened to an alley that led by the stable, at the west end. The father rose from the floor, and took a seat on a cask standing in the alley, near the door, sitting there some time; his son left the floor, coming out through the alley; the passage being narrow, the father rose from his seat and stood up, the son pressing against him to pass by. At the instant, when the father and son were close together, a flash of lightning stuck the roof, at the western gable end, parting all the planks from the rafters, and striking the son lifeless in an instant, leaving no other mark than a little hair burnt on the top of his head. His father caught him in his arms, having himself received no injury. His horse, standing in the stable, about three feet from him, was also struck dead at the same instant; some other horses that were in the barn were not hurt. The barn was left on fire and consumed, together with about twelve tons of hay and oats, some flax, about twenty bushels of rye, and all the farming utensils.”

Dignity Lost & Found

“The lot was in poor shape and had been encroached upon by years of farming tools and animals,” Carlson recalled. “This burial ground, located on present-day Salisbury farm, contains principally members of the Fenner family.”

When the Historical Society started, the cemetery was in rough shape; literally neglected for centuries.

“Restoring that cemetery was one of the toughest we have ever done,” Carlson recalled. “It was so hot that summer. Many of the stones were plowed underground.”

However, despite the details of Fenner’s death by heavenly execution, Cemetery 43’s actually best known for a man who’s no longer buried there.

More than a century ago, after the small burial plot had crumbled into the surrounding agricultural environment, the historic Johnston cemetery was the semi-final resting place of Col. Israel Angell, a Rhode Island Revolutionary War hero.

A 1934 Ocean State burial ground survey said the cemetery was “almost destroyed, the stones badly broken."

Prior to the survey, more than 100 years ago, the Rhode Island Society of the Sons of the American Revolution (RISSAR) exhumed Angell’s body and re-interred his remains in a prominent Providence cemetery.

“He was moved to North Burial Ground in 1918,” Carlson said.

Practically Immortal

The exhumation and relocation were well documented, and detailed in a story posted on the Varnum Continentals’ website (“The Final Resting Place of a Hero of the American Revolution: Col. Israel Angell” by Brian Wallin, May 6, 2017).

RISSAR not only moved the remains of Angell, but his first wife Martha (his second cousin), who died in 1793 (according to a May 26, 1826 edition of the Northern Star and Warren and Bristol County Gazette, at age 86 Col. Angell remarried Sarah Angell, age 56; no word on the ultimate resting place of Sarah).

Angell was born in Providence in 1740, and has been identified as the great-grandson of Thomas Angell, one of five men who settled Rhode Island in 1636 with Roger Williams, according to Wallin’s research.

“He was a relatively young 35 years old when the first shots of the Revolution were fired,” Wallin wrote. “Angell began his distinguished wartime career early in the war being commissioned as a major in the 11th Continental Infantry. He served at the Siege of Boston, and starting in August of 1776 spent considerable time in the Hudson River Valley of New York and in New Jersey at the Battles of Brandywine, Monmouth, Springfield, and Red Bank. After retreating across New Jersey, the unit was renamed the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment and fought at Assunpink Creek and Princeton in early January.”

A monument to Angell and his regiment, located at the Rahway Bridge in Union, New Jersey, immortalizes a letter from then Gen. George Washington to Rhode Island Gov. William Greene following the Battle of Springfield on June 23, 1780:

"The gallant behavior of Col. Angell's regiment ... at Springfield reflects the highest honour upon the officers and men ... They disputed an important pass with so obstinate a bravery that they lost upwards of forty killed, wounded and missing before they gave up their ground to a vast superiority of force. —Your Excellency's Most Obedient Servant George Washington."

Valley Forge Frost

Eventually, “Angell was promoted to lieutenant colonel and eventually assumed command of the 2nd Rhode Island Regiment following the death of Colonel Daniel Hitchcock in 1777,” according to Wallin’s research, which was aided by the Varnum Armory and RISSAR members and archives. “The 2nd Rhode Island Regiment became part of a brigade under General Nathanael Greene. In September 1777, the regiment was recalled to the main army for the Philadelphia Campaign. In company with the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, Angell and his men achieved a victory over the British at Red Bank in October of 1777.”

Angell was with “Washington and the Continental Army during the terrible winter spanning 1777 to 1778 at Valley Forge, returning to participate with his unit at the Battle of Rhode Island,” Wallin wrote.

In 1781, Angell retired from the Continental Army and returned to Rhode Island where he settled in Johnston (and later Smithfield). He was heavily decorated with service medals, and well known as a Revolutionary War hero, until he died at the age of 92.

He worked as a farmer and a cooper, obtained a tavern license and operated a public house in Johnston.

“It was an apparently popular place and well known for its hospitality,” Wallin wrote. “He married three times and fathered 17 children with his first two wives. Thirteen of his children reached maturity.”

Angell married three times, and was rumored to be contemplating a fourth, when he died in 1832.

In 1918, as RISSAR was planning the organization’s 125th anniversary, the organization decided to relocate Angell’s remains from his rural burial plot to “a place of honor.”

‘Several Tufts of Hair’

The 125th Anniversary Edition of the RISSAR Manual documented the exhumation and relocation.

“There, on Pippin Orchard Road near the town lines of Johnston … and Scituate … they located the grave site,” Wallin wrote. “While the farm buildings were, according to the RISSAR’s report, in good condition, the family cemetery was not. There was no protective fencing and over the years, time and the ravages of roaming cattle had resulted in Angell’s headstone being broken and toppled although the inscription was still legible. Working with cemetery sextons, the team exhumed the remains of Colonel Angell and Martha.”

The RISSAR report described their findings:

“The outlines in dust only of the coffin of Col. Angell could be distinctly traced. The glass which had covered the face was found, though broken into several pieces … The bones were removed with the greatest care and placed in a suitable box for the purpose. The condition of Mrs. Angell’s remains was much the same as that of her husband’s except that the bones were much firmer due undoubtedly to the fact that Mrs. Angell was but forty-six years old at the time of her death while the Colonel was in his ninety-second year. An interesting feature in connection with the remains of Mrs. Angell was the presence of several tufts of hair adhering to the skull notwithstanding the fact it had been in the grave for one hundred and thirty-five years. The original raven black color was distinctly discernible.”

Model T Hearse

The remains were sealed in a container, covered in an American flag, and transported in a “funeral cortege of a Model T Ford hearse and several vehicles.”

The RISSAR report called the new burial place “a commanding site surrounded by memorials to other celebrated public and historical characters … eminently fitting and appropriate that one of Rhode Island’s early heroes should be thus surrounded in his last long sleep.”

Approximately 99 years later, the Johnston Historical Society stepped up to rescue Cemetery 43.

The burial ground is one of 100 surviving historical collections of plots in town. Keeping them all pristine is a logistical nightmare; impossible with the society’s all-volunteer Cemetery Committee.

Although Cemetery 43 no longer contains the remains of its most famous former corpse, the site has been cleared, several tombstones restored, and the decorum returned to the final resting place of the Fenner family, and Arnold, “whose death was caused by lightning.”

Visitors to Salisbury Farm — a popular fall destination for pumpkins, produce and a corn maze — can stop by the cemetery and pay their respects amid modern agricultural relics, like soil-caked tractor tires and a horizon packed with massive white windmills.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fifth installment of a series looking into the conditions and history of Johnston’s nearly 100 historic cemeteries. The Johnston Historical Society needs help maintaining these burial grounds. Anybody interested in volunteering to help maintain an old cemetery in town, by mowing the grass and/or clearing weeds and debris, is urged to contact the Society’s Cemetery Committee by calling 401-231-3380.


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