On July 5, 1887, Sheriff William Carroll stood on the boundary line between Providence and Johnston and waved his club furiously. He warned the crowd that they had best not step over into the next town. “I’ll bust you up if you try it!” he promised.
Thousands of people had gathered in Providence’s Public Square that evening to be in the presence of 18-year-old Walter Watkins Vrooman of Missouri. The son of judge Hiram Vrooman and his wife, Sarah Buffington, Walter was an outspoken socialist whose goal it was to create an America in which socialism reigned.
Traveling the country, he would stand atop a wooden crate on street corners and deliver lectures that usually attracted police attention.
Of Walter’s four brothers, two became schoolteachers and one, Hiram, became a reverend. When the Vrooman family moved to Baltimore, Maryland, Hiram began preaching at the Associate Reformed Church. He also founded a civic organization called Union for Public Good.
Amne Grafflin, the daughter of wealthy dry goods and fertilizer merchant George Grafflin, attended the church and later became the secretary of Hiram’s organization. She began dating Walter shortly after her father’s death and married him in February of 1897.
As George had been a great philanthropist, Amne was eager to carry out his hopes for a better world. Her new husband had some big plans which she believed would help the lower class, and her inheritance of a quarter of a million dollars began to finance those plans.
In 1899, the couple founded Ruskin College, where men without money to pay for college could earn their tuition by performing different jobs at the school. Walter also founded the New York Society for Parks and Recreation, building playgrounds in poor areas using donations he easily secured from the wealthy.
He authored several books, such as “Dynamic Religion” and “Government Ownership in Production and Distribution,” and began buying department stores around the country as part of a co-operative movement he wanted to get rolling. Once he obtained five stores, he announced that within the next five years, he expected his co-operative enterprise would hold control over every department store in America.
Walter’s idea for the country he wanted to create was one in which everyone would own everything, and all have a share in the profits. In 1902, he purchased land where he planned to build a model village, complete with factories and public parks, where this new world movement would begin.
He attempted to convince farmers that it was in their best interest to join the co-operative instead of running private businesses, while continuing to convince the rich to hand over their money and helping his wife to sue her brother where George’s will was concerned.
This plan for a socialist America didn’t go smoothly. In March of 1903, Amne left Walter and filed for divorce. While some claimed she was angry about his wasting her fortune, other sources claimed he was having an affair and Amne found out. A divorce was granted in June.
The following month, 100 male students walked out of Ruskin College and vowed to never return. Political socialism was losing its popularity, and many didn’t want it taught in the schools. In addition, the college was now going to admit women, to the great distress of the males enrolled there. Walter’s educational aims had been a failure. His visions of model villages and a new world order had fallen apart and he was placed in a sanitarium where he was diagnosed with nervous troubles.
But long before it all crumbled, the crowd stood in Providence’s Public Square cheering and applauding his every word. The boundary line between Providence and Johnston ran right through the square and Sheriff Carroll was not going to have such anarchy going on in his town. To avoid retaliatory acts of violence on either side, the lecture that day was relocated to the corner of Valley and High streets.
Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.