Last week, we stopped and pondered the life and times of 19th century black barber Uriah Weekes. Today we will examine the tragic death of another of our fair town’s black residents in the 19th century; a man who spent much of his life as a slave working on the dairy farm that once was located at Rome Point, Cato Roome. Although he began his life as one of South County’s numerous slaves in the mid-to-late-18th century, he died a free man.
The death of Cato Roome was considered at the time to be one of the most notorious crimes in Rhode Island history and it was talked about around the village of Allenton, where Cato lived, for decades after. This version of the events of winter of 1837-38 was remembered by mill-owner William Pierce and recorded for posterity in Cole’s “History of Washington and Kent Counties” which was compiled largely in 1888-9.
Pierce sets the tale by describing the two protagonists Cato Roome, an old man of color who was well-liked and highly respected in the village of Allenton; he had recently undergone a surgery by Old Doc Shaw and was weakened by the ordeal, and James Browning, a stout robust black man of more than 250 pounds who ran a small successful farm. Cato Roome lived with his wife Dorcas, in a small home on the corner of what is now Tower Hill and West Allenton Roads and Browning’s farm, which he shared with his wife and three sons was located about a half mile up what is now Pendar Road. Pierce tells the tale thusly, “The circumstances of the murder are as follows. Mr. Browning had been to Providence with a horse team carrying a load of poultry and farm produce and returning with winter stores. On his return he stopped at the house of Mr. Roome, late at night, complaining of feeling very bad and asked the old man to drive his team home for him and unload it. Cato declined saying he was not feeling well himself on account of his recent surgery. Browning then left and went on by himself. Some two or three hours later the old man Cato and his wife were awakened by the wife of Browning asking him to come with her to her house as her husband was acting very strangely, and had driven her out-of-doors, threatening to kill her. Cato went reluctantly, and arriving at the house was met in the entryway by Browning, who pounded him to death against the sides of the door threshold. Not being satisfied with this, Browning pounded Roome’s head to jelly with a stone that had been used to hold the door open. The wife immediately alarmed the neighbors, who flocked to the scene of the tragedy (Pierce was among this group) and by sunrise some 50 people or so were on Browning’s Farm. Soon after the murder, Browning, with his gun and his dog, had fled into the woods. Within an hour or so, Browning returned and threatened to start shooting. People sought shelter in and around the house and other buildings. His dog got to fighting with another dog eventually. This distracted Browning enough to allow the people there to rush him and overpower him. They carried him into the house and lashed him to the bedstead, it took as many men as could possibly stand around the bed to hold him down while he was being tied up. Once lashed to the bedstead, his only weapon was to spit, which he did to anyone who entered the room. His mental health continued to deteriorate and he was finally carried off by the authorities to the jail in Kingston, where he died one month later, by then a complete raving maniac. He left behind a widow and three sons Samuel, Jonathan, and Daniel. Daniel, too, went insane and killed his mother in March of 1846. He spent the remainder of his life at the State Farm in Cranston.”
As is the case with most of the Roomes, no one knows now where Cato Roome is buried. No mention is made of how Dorcas Roome and her two grown sons, William and Ebenezer, dealt with this swirling maelstrom of tragedy, death, and insanity that had overcome their family and taken Cato. The tale does paint for us a picture of what life must have been like during a time when the only “law” around was a state sheriff some ten miles away. Ironically, I also must note that the widow Dorcas Roome left this life in the same year and month that Daniel Browning murdered his widowed mother. In this manner too, the two families are forever tied together by tragedy.