December 19, 2014
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Then and Now
Warwick's 19th century temperance movement
Don D'Amato

In 1827 and 1828, a temperance society was formed in nearly every village in Warwick. One of the leaders of the temperance movement who greatly influenced the town was James Burlingame, pastor of the Rice City Church. He was Rhode Island’s first temperance agent and his sermons against alcohol often put him in physical danger, as at times stones were thrown at him and his sermons were interrupted. His efforts were rewarded, however, when he witnessed the state’s first temperance meeting at the First Baptist Meeting House in Providence in 1827.

It was believed that Amasa Sprague was murdered in 1843 because of his strong opposition to liquor licenses. The death of Sprague and the controversy over the use of alcohol in the mill villages saw a statewide Prohibition Act passed in 1852.

As the Prohibition party grew in strength in Rhode Island, politicians such as Henry B. Anthony used the temperance men to his advantage. His enemies were accused of advocating the use of liquor and one of his followers, the Rev. A.J. Woodbury, announced, “Candidates must be prevented from riding into power on a rum barrel and…should not be ruled by debauched Germans and ignorant Irishmen.”

The Progressive element in the Republican Party in Warwick tried to use the prohibition issue to oust Webster “Boss” Knight and hamper the “machine” control of the Town Council. At a rally in Lakewood, the Citizen Party called Knight the “Autocrat of the council table” and accused him of using his position to serve the B.B. & R. Knight Company rather than the citizens of Warwick. Foremost among the heated discussions at the Lakewood Town Hall was the controversy over the sale of liquor.

In 1886 a constitutional amendment was passed in Rhode Island that prohibited the sale of liquor in the state. The Warwick Town Council, led by Webster Knight and heavily influenced by Charles “Boss” Brayton, sought to make the law ineffective. They appointed two special officers, Michael B. Lynch and Michael Kelley for that purpose. These officers were instructed to ignore the violations of the law of 1886.

It quickly became obvious that the law was unenforceable in Warwick. Many of the citizens who had voted Republican and were in favor of the temperance movement were angered at Webster Knight’s casual treatment of the issues.

Bitter feelings grew as Brayton, a noted tippler himself, had the State Legislature enact a statute for the suppression of intemperance on May 27, 1886 and the very next morning appoint him to the newly created post of “Chief of State Police” to enforce the law. Brayton abused the office so terribly that, although elected for three years, he was actually forced to resign the position on one year.

According to the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, the area’s local newspaper, special officers would go to the most notorious areas of Warwick, raid one establishment there, where the owner was known to be against Brayton’s machine, and then stand on a corner where they would be conspicuous. After a while, they would slowly walk down the street and investigate establishments under complaint. Needless to say, with all that warning there were few, if any, arrests.

Voters believed that this was done with Knight’s knowledge and consent. IT led to his defeat in 1898 and to the victory of the Citizens Party coalition. The newly elected Town Council was able to enact some reforms and, for a very short period of time, even the illegal sale of beer at Rocky Point was curtailed. By the end of 1899, however, the General Assembly was forced to agree with Brayton that the law was unenforceable and prohibition was soon repealed.


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