The Dr. Peter Turner house at 21 Courthouse Lane is another East Greenwich house that has seen more than its share of history.
A large Colonial-style house, it was built in October 1774 by house carpenter John Shaw, who lived there for five years before selling it to Charles Greene in May 1779. Charles Greene, a first cousin of Gen. Nathanael Greene, was a merchant, who traveled extensively, making several voyages to Canton, China as part owner of the ships and cargoes. In February 1783, Charles and his wife, Phebe, sold this house to Dr. Peter Turner, and moved to the Dr. Eldredge House at 28 Division St.
Doctor Turner, a native of Newport, had served as the surgeon for Nathanael Greene’s brigade during the Revolutionary War. Doctor Turner met his wife, Elizabeth Child, through his friendship with Gen. James Mitchell Varnum, whose wife, Martha “Patty” Child, was Elizabeth’s sister. The two couples lived diagonally across Peirce Street from each other.
While Doctor Turner was well respected by officers and soldiers during the war, his “rough and ready” personality was a bit off putting for the ladies in East Greenwich, at least until they learned that he also had a kind and gentle side. As there were no medical schools at that time, the tradition was for young men to study medicine with an established doctor. Turner himself had studied with his uncle, Dr. Jabez Campbell, in Newport. A number of young doctors also learned their medicine from Turner, including his three sons and two nephews as well as Dr. Thomas Tillinghast of Frenchtown.
When Doctor Turner died at his home in 1822, he was buried in his large oak grove, which was located along what are now Marion Street and upper Melrose and Montrose streets. His grave, along with those of his wife and a son who died at the age of 11, and five graves from William Gorton Bowen’s family cemetery, were located in what is now the middle of the street, directly in front of 17 Marion St., which was my family’s home for more than 45 years. These cemeteries were moved in 1850, when Marion Street was constructed. The Turner graves and markers were moved to Island Cemetery in Newport, and the Bowen graves and markers were moved to the East Greenwich Cemetery. When I wrote an article in “Rhode Island Roots” in 2009 about this discovery, the state actually assigned historic cemetery numbers to these two small former cemeteries, but I declined the honor of having the signs go up in front of my home.
After Doctor Turner died, his home on Courthouse Lane was sold at public auction to his nephew, Dr. William Turner of Newport, who in October 1826 sold it to Mary Spencer. In February 1851, Daniel H. and Susannah P. Greene sold the house, but I have never been able to learn how they came into possession of the property. There is no clear link between them and Mary Spencer, who was the last identifiable previous owner of record. However, in 1851, the Greenes did transfer the house to Franklin Greene, as trustee for Susannah P. Greene. After the death of Susannah, Franklin Greene transferred the house back to Daniel H. Greene in September 1851, and Daniel Greene continued to live there for more than 30 years, when he sold it in May 1883 to Silas Weaver.
In September 1893, the Weavers sold it to Sarah Gertrude Bowen, the wife of William Shaw Bowen of East Greenwich, who was the brother of the five Bowens buried in the Bowen Cemetery mentioned above. The Bowen family owned the house until 1947.
Since 1947, a number of families have owned the home, including the Hitte, Spencer, Stephens, Morrissey, Scott, Wilkinson, Balkcom and Bodington families.
However the history of the house isn’t quite finished, as in the early 1990s, an oil truck pulled up to the house, and because the fuel cap wouldn’t turn, the driver got a monkey wrench out of the truck, and after quite an effort, removed the fuel cap, and began to pump more than 200 gallons of fuel oil into the basement of the house, which several years earlier had converted to natural gas heat. The truck, which was at the wrong address, then left and several hours later, the gas furnace, surrounded by the 200 gallons of fuel oil on the floor, turned on, and ignited the oil with a terrific whoosh. The historic house was in flames but, fortunately, the family wasn’t home and the East Greenwich Fire District got the fire out fairly quickly and efficiently, but the damage was extensive. Today, except for the heavy original wood beams, very little remains of the 1774 house, but it’s a miracle that the house still stands at all.
Bruce MacGunnigle, a local historian, has lived in East Greenwich for more than 45 years, and served for 30 years on the Historic District Commission and as Main Street coordinator. He can be reached at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To the gentleman who wrote the article who contacted me by email (sorry lost email) please copy and paste this link into your browser page for more information on occupants of the house which is the subject of this article:
George Turner had one son Joseph L. Turner who was drowned in the Canton River.
He married Frances L. TURNER (yes her maiden name was Turner) this carte de visite is among my family things and must have been taken when my Great Great Granduncle George Turner lived yet in East Greenwich, RI
I take singular exception to what Bruce MacGunnigle has written about my Great Great Great Grandfather Peter Turner (1751-1822) has written about the family house in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. What does he know of the interior of the house? Indeed the unfortunate accident with the fuel oil DID occur, ruining Dr. Peter Turner, and his son Dr. James Varnum Turner's office which was at the basement level (see photo) of this house. But after extensive clean up nothing of the original house was permanently damaged. The existing house AS IT STANDS TODAY (2013) is s fine example of a late Georgian Colonial period. The massive chimney mass remains, the house has had a Federal period (1790 - 1820) redo inside that "updated" several fireplace walls, but other than that ALL woodwork is original to the earliest period of construction or the 1790 - 1820 period (the front doorway is an example of the Federal redo). That massive chimney alone should tell even the idle passer-by that Dr. Turner's house is still LARGELY INTACT. Has Mr. MacGunnigle been inside? I suspect not. Should he like to email me or access me on Facebook he can feel free. My email is Cadellacorte@gmail.com and my name is Richard B. Hall, the Great Great Great Grandson of Dr. Peter Turner who served as surgeon during the War of 1812. Additionally, Dr. Peter Turner died at the home of his son, Dr. James Varnum Turner at #2 School Street, Newport. Does Mr. MacGunnigle know that Dr. James Varnum Turner married the younger daughter (Catharine Ray) the granddaughter of Governor William Greene, and daughter of The Honorable Ray Greene Attorney General of Rhode Island under President John Adams. Greene Farm is just up the road at the corner of Division Street and Love Lane. I suspect not. Before one states things akin to: "all that survives are a few heavy wood beams"!! ( Nothing could be further from the truth).lets know what we're talking about shall we? Does Mr. MacGunnigle know that there exists, or at one time existed a tunnel from this house diagonally across the street to impressive home of General James Varnum's (Mrs. Turner [née Elizabeth Child was sister to Mrs. Varnum, her first name being Martha) I suspect not. Let's do our homework before spouting misinformation that's unable to be effectively retracted! Sincerely, Richard Bradford Hall
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