210819ind history

While the Gilbert Stuart birthplace in Saunderstown may be a picturesque landmark, it’s certainly not without its dark moments in history, like the time in 1891 when Capt. George Kenyon shot and killed carpenter Jack McInnis on the property after a dispute involving pay.

Here is another look at a quirky, perhaps even a bit insane, 130-year-old story about another prominent South County landmark and a Narragansett local celebrity, now resting eternal in Wakefield, who lost his grip on reality it would seem.

The headlines of Aug. 15, 1891 reflect the feeling of inevitability shared by just about everyone in South County.  “At Last! Capt. Kenyon in a new role.  He kills a man at Last.” Everyone knew something like this would happen sooner or later; it had been just a matter of time. On his best days, Capt. George N. Kenyon was considered an eccentric, his days colored by erratic behavior and wild mood swings. At his worst, he was a ticking time bomb, a man capable of anything; woe to the poor soul that crossed his path.  That poor soul on the fateful day that Capt. Kenyon’s restraint snapped was carpenter Jack McInnis. It was poor Jack McInnis that stood in front of crazy Capt. Kenyon as he leveled his Winchester, took aim, and blasted a hole through his chest.  But it wasn’t always like that with George Kenyon, he wasn’t always like this.

George Kenyon was born in 1830 and as soon as he was old enough set out for a life upon the sea.  He was a brilliant mariner and achieved his master’s rating while in his middle 20s. By the late 1850s, he earned the right to carry the moniker of Capt. Kenyon and for the next 20 years sailed as master of numerous sailing vessels hailing out of Newport and later North Kingstown; among these were the Justice, the Argus, the Medad Platt, the Alexander Henderson, the M.R. Carlisle, the Ben Butler, the Tonowanda, and the Barracuda. Towards the middle of the 1880s after more than two decades at sea, Capt. George Kenyon had not only had enough, he had made enough; he took a portion of his substantial nest egg and purchased the Ocean House on the Narragansett Pier.

For a time, this arrangement went quite well. Kenyon’s nautical “eccentricities” were viewed as charming and colorful. His ability to spin tales of the sea was an asset, bringing even more guests to the popular resort hotel. But then, towards the end of the decade things began to change, Kenyon began to change, his mood swings were wild, his temper extraordinary and guests flocked elsewhere. Kenyon in a moment of lucidity realized he needed to sell the Ocean House while it still retained some of its excellent reputation.

After selling the Ocean House, Kenyon turned his attentions to the Narrow River; contrary to all logic and everyone’s advice he was convinced he could turn it into a major seaport and in one of his periods of insanity, purchased the old Glebe property and began to put his crazy scheme into action, at the same time, as his behavior grew more erratic, he was committed to the State Mental Hospital. After a legal battle, Kenyon was released and then purchased the Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace property, for what he described as a “visionary project to turn it into a Mecca for the summer visitors who throng to the resorts of South County”.  This is where poor Jack McInnis enters the story.

Kenyon hired Jack McInnis to operate as a full-time carpenter on the property; he promised him a set weekly pay and said he would pay him his first pay check towards the end of the summer season. McInnis’ first task was to get the grist mill up and running so the Kenyons could operate it regularly to provide a steady income stream.  This was what he was doing when the trouble began. It seems, as August had reached its mid-point, that Jack had not yet received any pay and he confronted Capt Kenyon on this point. This was all it took to set his volatile boss off and, before you knew it; heated words were flying between the two men. Kenyon at one point turned away from McInnis and headed into his home, the birthplace of Gilbert Stuart, with Jack McInnis on his heels still railing away about his paycheck. The heated exchange continued in the hallway of the birthplace until finally Kenyon went into his bedroom, took the Winchester rifle off the wall and fired two shots in Jack’s direction. The second found its mark and Jack McInnis crumpled to the floor of the hallway. In an instant he was up again and lurched down the stairs and out the door. He fell again on the walkway over the mill race between the birthplace and the grist mill he had been repairing. Kenyon and a farmhand assisted McInnis back into the birthplace where he eventually died. Before Kenyon died though, he was able to describe the circumstances of the shooting to both Doc Metcalf, who attended to him, and Town Sergeant Thomas W. Pierce. One of the last things ever uttered by Jack McInnis was “So this is my summer pay!”  Pierce arrested George Kenyon on the spot and took him to the town jail cell in the basement of the Town Hall on Boston Neck Road.

Kenyon was held in the Town Hall jail cell overnight until his arraignment in the Council chambers on the second floor at noon on Thursday.  He was then transferred to the County Lock up at the Court House in Kingston until his trial.

On the trial date of Sept. 3, Kenyon was transported back to the Town Hall in Wickford for his trial. It was a packed house in the Council chambers and a number of very prominent Narragansett Pier gentlemen, including ex-Governor Sprague, who said he’d post any bail to get his friend out of jail, were here in attendance. Also here was Jack’s brother, his only relative in the United States. The trial itself was short and to the point, the prosecution brought a number of witnesses to the stand detailing the events of that day and recounting Jack McInnis’ dying declaration. All the defense could muster was that Kenyon acted in self-defense and was definitely not drinking too heavily at the time of the shooting.  The verdict was quick and certain – guilty.  At the sentencing hearing in Providence on Sept. 21, Capt George Kenyon was sentenced to 15 years in the state prison; a life sentence as it were for the 62-year-old killer.  He died there in prison in August of 1900, just half way through his sentence.  By then he was considered completely insane. George Kenyon’s body was buried in the Riverside Cemetery in Wakefield.  

So to those who stop by Gilbert Stuart’s Birthplace in the quiet of the early morning or the peaceful tranquility of a late summer’s eve; well don’t be surprised if you just don’t feel quite alone – George Kenyon and Jack McInnis certainly have some unfinished business to attend to.

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

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