To our contemporary eyes the Victorian mansion at 299 Broadway in Providence is an ostentatious mash-up of architectural styles—a little bit of Gothic, a little Romanesque, with a four-story octagonal tower topped by a peak roof and an impossibly narrow balcony. The front elevation includes a round solarium topped with triangular stained glass shields over six curved windows.
“The eccentric composition and ornamentation of the house are attributed to the wild tastes of its original owner,” according to the Providence Preservation Society. That would be a man with the peculiar name of Jerothmul Bowers Barnaby, and his over-the-top home is known as Barnaby’s Castle. (To ease the reader’s task, I will occasionally call him “JB,” as well as Jerothmul”).
This Victorian pile, located a block away from Seven Stars Bakery, is associated with a notorious crime—the murder of JB’s widow, Josephine, in April 1891—by her physician, advisor and business attorney, Thomas Thatcher Graves, according to a jury. It was then widely thought that Graves committed suicide while in jail. Both conclusions are open to doubt, as explained below. What is not in doubt it that it was the first murder committed through the postal service in United States history. And it was followed by a six-week trial, the longest murder trial in the United States up to that time.
But before we delve into the murder mystery, let’s meet Jerothmul and his castle, described as “lurid” in the Providence Preservation Society’s “Guide to Providence Architecture.” This wildly eccentric building might have been designed by an architect who never saw a tower, cornice or design furbelow he did not like. It was actually the work of the sober and respected Providence architecture firm of Stone & Carpenter (later Stone, Carpenter & Willson), whose designer obviously wanted to satisfy the wishes of his flamboyant client.
Built in 1875 on a street that was then being colonized by the city’s industrial and merchant class who were not shy about showing off their wealth through their elaborate homes, Barnaby’s Castle makes a statement. “This was a house built for entertaining, and to thumb his nose at the East Side aristocrats who considered him nouveau riche,” explained Kaitlyn Frolich, who describes herself as the “lady of the house,” its caretaker and event planner, and a stand-in for the house’s current reclusive owner.
Sadly but understandably, its glory days are past. The cost of maintaining such an extravagant building today—all 10,000 square feet of it—is astronomical. But the owner is committed to its restoration, which began in 2008.
The first floor of the house will be open to the public on Saturday, September 23, 2017, during a Doors Open tour of the capital city’s usually inaccessible properties. Of the more than twenty buildings that will welcome visitors during the tour, Barnaby’s Castle is a must-see. While the upper floors have been subdivided into four apartments that help defray its costs, the first floor still retains much of its 19th century opulence. Most of the finishes have been replaced (decorative artist Robert Dodge is doing that restoration) but the original architectural features remain.
A fourteen-foot high mirror with a carved wood frame commands attention in the front parlor. An elaborately carved sideboard fills the end wall of the dining room. The walls are paneled in the same hand-carved mahogany and the ceiling is molded plaster with touches of gold leaf.
The floors throughout are oak with intricate cherry inlays. There are seven fireplaces, each in a different style, and an incredible 118 windows, 14 of which are stained glass. “It was a showpiece, one of the grand homes in Providence,” says Kaitlyn.
The wedding of Mabel Barnaby, JB’s oldest daughter, to John Henry Conrad, was held in its grand public rooms, and the Providence Journal breathlessly described the banks of flowers that perfumed the air, the hundreds of candles reflected in mirrors, the copious amounts of food and drink consumed by a thousand guests while three orchestras played. The Journal even appraised the value of the wedding gifts, one of which was a $27,000 diamond bracelet from the groom. “It was described as the fête of the century,” says Kaitlyn. The event was capped by a gift from Barnaby to his new son-in-law, a wealthy Montana rancher and mine owner of the Conrad Building, which still stands at Westminster and Aborn Streets. The Journal added that the father of the bride gave Mabel a necklace of diamonds and pearls valued at $25,000.
So who was Jerothmul Bowers Barnaby? Born in Freetown, Massachusetts, in 1830, he came to Providence as a young man to make his fortune, which he did fairly quickly. Upon his unexpected death in 1889 Barnaby left an estate valued at $1,700,000. The money came from a dry goods store he established in 1869. J.B. Barnaby & Co. soon became one of the largest stores in Rhode Island. At one time it was located at the corner of Dorrance and Westminster Streets. J.B. Barnaby & Co. grew into a chain of men’s haberdasheries with branches in New England and the Midwest.
His wealth enabled JB to dabble in municipal and state politics, as a Democrat. He served on the Providence City Council from 1870 to 1879. He mounted a campaign for governor in 1877, losing by only 600 votes. Undaunted he ran for Congress the next year, only to lose by another small margin, this time a few hundred votes. Those disappointments did not, however, slow him down. The irrepressible Barnaby enjoyed the good life—he entertained politicians and fellow businessmen, threw lavish parties, kept prize-winning race horses, and maintained a mistress to whom he was exceptionally generous.
JB even commissioned his architects, Stone and Carpenter, to build a pretentious burial monument for himself in Swan Point Cemetery. Flamboyant in death as well as life, Barnaby’s fifty-five foot high granite and Italian marble shaft dominates the entrance to the cemetery.
When he died suddenly at the age of 59, his widow was left a pocket vest-sized income of $2,500 a year, an absurdly small portion of his estate, because he claimed that she was “too flighty to handle a substantial sum of money.” But Josephine was astute enough to consult her friend and advisor, Thatcher Graves. Dr. Graves told her that her share of the estate was unfair and suggested that she sue her daughter Mabel, her son-in-law John Conrad, and her other daughter Maude, who were also the beneficiaries of JB’s estate. She did and was awarded $105,000. This opened a serious breach between Josephine and her daughters and infuriated John Conrad.
Josephine Barnaby was not quite a merry widow, but apparently she did not miss her deceased husband very much. His outsized personality overwhelmed her and she realized that he would never be accepted by the city’s social elite. And she knew about the other women in his life. But with a hefty new bank account Josephine traveled to the Adirondacks, sometimes with the handsome Thatcher Graves, to the South, and to West to Santa Barbara where she took the baths for a slight paralysis in her right arm.
In April 1891 Josephine and her friend Florence Worrell traveled to Denver to stay at the home of Mrs. Worrell’s son, Edward. Denver was an exciting and wealthy new city built on silver from the Comstock Lode. On a perfect spring day the two women took a long carriage ride through the city’s best neighborhoods. When they returned at dusk Florence and Josephine agreed to refresh themselves with a whiskey toddy. The widow decided to open a strange-looking bottle she had received in the mail a few days earlier from an unknown sender. It came with a Boston postmark and a note: “Wish you a happy New Year. Please accept this fine old whiskey from your friend in the woods.”
The women sipped their lethal potions and what happened next was truly horrifying. Florence Worrell testified later that both women felt a puckering taste in their mouths and intense burning sensation in their stomachs. Florence eventually recovered but Josephine suffered excruciating pain for a week before she died on Sunday, April 19. Edward Worrell had sent for Josephine’s daughter, Maude, then in Helena, Montana, and Dr. Graves back in Providence.
One wonders why Worrell needed Dr. Graves to come to Denver after his guest died. Perhaps it was because Thatcher Graves was not merely her physician. The attractive fifty-year-old graduate of Harvard Medical School was her business agent and had her power of attorney to handle both her business and personal affairs. In fact, Josephine was almost unable to function without his assistance, and she showed her appreciation by leaving him $25,000 in her will. Graves later claimed that he knew nothing of the bequest and was stunned to hear of it.
Thatcher Graves was an impressive man but he had made a fierce enemy of Mabel’s husband John Conrad, described by his grandson, author Conrad Barnaby, as a ruthless man “with the less attractive attributes of a bulldog.” In fact Mabel and John’s celebrated wedding ended in divorce nine years later when she charged him with adultery, drunkenness, neglect, cruelty and physical abuse. Conrad decided to pin his mother-in-law’s murder on Graves to get even for the lawsuit Josephine had filed against him and her daughters.
A nasty piece of work, John Conrad had sticky fingers in every lucrative industry in Montana. He had plans for a political future and was embarrassed by his loss of a substantial amount of money from the lawsuit. Still, he could afford to pay for the outcome against Dr. Graves he wanted. He bribed two Pinkerton detectives, a bailiff and various other witnesses.
Graves’s murder trial began in Denver on December 1, 1891, with what Barnaby Conrad describes in his book, A Revolting Transaction, as a second rate defense team. It ended six weeks later, at the time the longest trial in United States history. After deliberating an hour and a half the jury found Dr. Thatcher Graves guilty of poisoning Josephine Barnaby, his friend and patient. He was sentenced to suffer death by means of a new contraption, Montana’s do-it-yourself hanging machine.
Dr. Graves’s legal team filed an appeal, while the convicted physician remained in jail from January 1892 to September 1893. Surprisingly, the Colorado Supreme Court granted a new trial scheduled to begin in October and allowed Dr. Graves to be released on bond. It was reported that he was looking forward to his release and a new trial and had been in good spirits, but his jailer could not wake him in his cell on September 2nd. It is generally believed that Dr. Graves committed suicide by poison. Arsenic was ruled out, but the poison was never identified. After studying family papers, Barnaby Conrad became convinced that his own grandfather, John Henry Conrad, arranged the murder of his mother-in-law Josephine, and later bribed a prison guard to slip poison into Dr. Graves’s food.
It is comforting to learn that this vile man never made it to the Montana governor’s mansion or the United States Senate. He died in Seattle of alcoholism in 1928, broke and supported by his son, author Conrad Barnaby’s father.
Barnaby’s Castle and perhaps the ghosts of its scandals will be open to the public on Saturday, September 23, 2017, during the “Doors Open RI” annual tour. More than twenty properties, rarely seen by the public, are included in the free tour. “We believe that when you have access to places in the community you feel connected to them,” says Doors Open director, Caroline Stevens. For more information go to www.doorsopenri.org.
[Banner image: “Broadway showing the Barnaby Mansion.” Postcard, early 1900s. (Providence Public Library, PC7181)]
Barnaby Conrad. A Revolting Transaction. New York: Arbor House, 1983. (Most of the information about the murder and trial is described in this book. The author is the great grandson of Josephine Barnaby.)
Martin C. Day. “Death in the Mail: A Narrative of the Murder of a Wealthy Widow and the Trial and Conviction of the Assassin, Who Was Her Physician, Attorney and Friendly Adviser.” Providence: Publication of the Providence Journal, 1892.
William McKenzie Woodward. “PPS/AIAri Guide to Providence Architecture.” Providence: Providence Journal, 2003.
Author Interview and Tour of Barnaby Castle with Kaitlyn Frolich, Tuesday, August 29, 2017
The Cultivator and Country Gentleman (Albany, NY), Jan. 26 and Sept. 7, 1893, p. 75 (Graves granted new trial) 699 (Graves committed suicide).