Deborah Pearce Hilliard Brownell

Deborah Pearce Hilliard Brownell

1910 – 1988

Deborah Pearce Brownell. Courtesy of RI Historical Cemetery Commission.

‘Your other patient, where is he?’

‘You shall see; but stay outside till I get a lantern.’

Accustomed to exploring cells and dungeons in the basements and cellars of poor-houses and prisons, I concluded that the insane man … was confined in some such dark, damp retreat.

…the mistress advanced, with keys and a lantern. ‘He’s here,’ said she, unlocking the strong, solid iron door. A step down, and short turn through a narrow passage to the right, brought us, after a few steps, to a second iron door parallel to the first, and equally solid. In like manner, this was unlocked and opened; but so terribly noxious was the poisonous air that immediately pervaded the passage, that a considerable time elapsed before I was able to return and remain long enough to investigate this horrible den. …Notwithstanding the assertions of the mistress that he would kill me, I persevered. …The place, when closed, had no source of light or of ventilation. It was about seven feet by seven, and six and a half high. All, even the roof, was of stone.

‘My husband,’ said the mistress,’ in winter rakes out sometimes, of a morning, half a bushel of frost, and yet he never freezes;’ referring to the oppressed and life-stricken maniac before us. ‘Sometimes he screams dreadfully,’ she added, ‘and that is the reason we had the double wall, and two doors in place of one; his cries disturbed us in the house.’ ‘How long has he been here?’ ‘Oh, above three years; but then he was kept a long while in a cage first; but once he broke his chains and the bars, and escaped; so we had this built, where he can’t get off.[1]

Dorothea Dix, excerpted

Dorothea Dix, 19th century social reformer, had been told of a man kept in deplorable conditions at the Little Compton Town Farm and visited in 1843 to make first-hand observations. Dix didn’t identify the “mistress” of the Town Farm she described above, but the historic record reveals this memorable (infamous?) figure in Little Compton’s history: Deborah Pearce Hilliard Brownell.

Deborah Pearce Hilliard (seventh child of Samuel Hilliard and Elizabeth Pearce Hilliard’s ten children[2]) married George Cooke Brownell[3] when she was twenty-one years old in 1822.[4] She was forty years old in 1841 when her husband George was hired as Keeper of the Town Farm for $125 annual salary and they moved to the farm on Grange Ave.[5] As mistress, Deborah Brownell kept house and performed other necessary chores for not only their nuclear family, but for the men, women, and children who had been sent to live at the Town Farm due to poverty, indigency, or mental illness.

 At the time of Dix’s visit in early 1843, Deborah’s daughters, Priscilla Pearce and Sophia Elizabeth Brownell, were twelve and five years old, respectively.[6] Her eldest child, James (alt. Jonas) Randolph Brownell was twenty years old; it is unknown if he lived there with them at that time. Among the non-family residents of the Town Farm was the “oppressed and life-stricken maniac” confined to the stone enclosure: Abraham Simmons.

Abraham Simmons was born in 1800 in Little Compton.[7] Beginning in 1836, the voters of Little Compton assumed responsibility for Abraham as evidence of his significant mental health issues emerged. Over nine years the Town Meeting minutes tell the story of the Town’s response to his condition.[8] In Dix’s account, Deborah Brownell embodied the voters of Little Compton in a memorable and compelling exchange.

The quotations below are statements attributed to “the mistress,” Deborah Brownell, by Dorothea Dix.

he was kept a long while in a cage first

February 1837: Simmons was to be “carried to the Poor House (Town Farm) and chained or put in a cage prepared for that purpose.” [9]

assertions of the mistress that he would kill me

August 1840: Simmons was in jail in Newport, charged with attempting to murder Sylvester Gifford with a hatchet; he was found unfit to stand trial and returned to the care of the Town of Little Compton. [10]

but once he broke his chains and the bars, and escaped; so we had this built,

September 1840: Town voted to construct a “stone building 6’ x 10’ inside walls” for Simmons upon his return from Newport jail. [11]

Sometimes he screams dreadfully,’ she added, ‘and that is the reason we had the double wall, and two doors in place of one; his cries disturbed us in the house’

April 1841: Simmons’s “house” was to be “repaired by a coat of water cement on the outside.” [12]

After her visit to Little Compton Dorothea Dix worked on Simmons’ behalf. She appealed to members of the Rhode Island State Assembly for his release from the stone cell.[13] She published “The Tenacity of Life,” an exposé of Simmons’ living conditions in the Providence Journal in April of 1844.[14] Later the same month a representative of Little Compton announced to the Rhode Island State Assembly that Simmons had died. Upon hearing the news Dix accused the people of Little Compton of murdering Abraham Simmons.[15] She helped convince wealthy donor Cyrus Butler to sponsor construction of the Butler Hospital in Providence, among the earliest public hospitals for the care and treatment of people with mental illness.[16]

Dix’s visit had little to no impact on Abraham Simmons’ condition. In August 1843 voters authorized an investigation into possible repairs or alterations to Abraham’s stone cell, but no changes were approved or made.[17] More than a year after Dix’s initial visit and having made no changes to Simmons’ living conditions, voters agreed to cover the expense of transfering Abraham Simmons to the Brattleboro Asylum in Vermont. At that same April town meeting they were satisfied enough with George Brownell’s job performance to renew his contract as Keeper of the Town Farm for the 1844-1845 term.[18]

Little Compton voters hired a new Keeper of the Town Farm for 1845-1846 and 1846-1847, then rehired George for the March 1847-1848 term.[19] Deborah and George’s elder daughter Priscilla died in 1847 during their tenure at the Town Farm.[20] Whether George didn’t reapply for the position or the hiring committee preferred another candidate is unknown, but a new Keeper was hired for the 1848-1849 term. At the time of the 1850 census George, Deborah, and Sophia still lived in Little Compton on their own farm.[21]

Deborah Pearce Hilliard Brownell died in 1853 at fifty-three years old. She, George, and their children are buried in the Old Burying Ground on the Commons.[22] Dorothea Dix pursued social reforms until her death in 1887. No record of Abraham Simmons’ death has been found, but the author believes he may be buried in the Prospect Hill cemetery in Brattleboro, VT.[23]

Melinda W. Green

March 2020

Back to Table of Contents


[1] Tifanny, Francis. Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Boston & NYC 1892 pg 98-100 https://books.google.com/books?id=TdVa_fOkjU8C Accessed 3/4/20

[2] Little Compton Vital Records Volume 2 page 22, June 22, 1800

[3] Also known as Cooke Brownell, perhaps to distinguish him from his father, George Brownell 1756-1831

[4] Little Compton Vital Records Volume 2 page 59, February 23, 1822

[5] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3, page 119, April 21, 1841

[6] Little Compton Vital Records Volume 2 page 87

[7] Little Compton Vital Records Volume 2 page 75, October 23, 1800

[8] All contained in Town Meeting Volume 3; see pages 88, 89, 90, 112, 114, 117, 120, 124, 146, 147, 148

[9] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3 page 89, February 22, 1837

[10] Newport Supreme Judicial Court, “Indictment State vs. Abraham Simmons,” Book 9 Page 80, August 1832

[11] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3 page 114, September 12, 1840

[12] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3 page 124, April 21, 1841

[13] Dorothea Dix Correspondence, Ch. M.3.2, pt. 1. Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books. Folder 13: Dix, Dorothea Lynde, 1802-1887. A.L.S. to George Barrell Emerson; [Newport, R.I.], 13 November, 1843

[14] Tifanny, Francis. Life of Dorothea Lynde Dix. Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Boston & NYC 1892 pg 96 https://books.google.com/books?id=TdVa_fOkjU8C Accessed 3/4/20

[15] Dorothea Dix Correspondence, Ch. M.3.2, pt. 1. Rare Books and Manuscripts Department, Boston Public Library. Courtesy of the Trustees of the Boston Public Library/Rare Books. Folder 16: Dix, Dorothea Lynde, 1802-1887. A.L.S. to George Barrell Emerson; [Newport, R.I.], 11 May 1844

[16] Butler Hospital. Butler History: Its Story. Providence, RI, 1922, page 10 https://archive.org/details/butlerbook/page/n2/mode/2up accessed 3/19/2020

[17] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3 page 146, August 29, 1843

[18] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3 page 149, April 4, 1844

[19] Little Compton Town Meeting Minutes Volume 3 page 197, April 1847

[20] Arnold, James Newell. Rhode Island Vital Extracts, 1636–1850. Providence, R.I.: Narragansett Historical Publishing Company, 1891–1912. Page 94

[21] 1850 United States Federal Census; Little Compton, Newport, Rhode Island; Roll: M432_842; Page: 291B; Image: 7

[22] Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission  http://rihistoriccemeteries.org/newgravedetails.aspx?ID=136435

[23] An Abel Simmons is buried at the Brattleboro Asylum in a section for deceased patients of the Brattleboro Asylum next to a grave dated 1843, and two plots away from a grave dated October 1844; Abraham Simmons’ death was announced in Rhode Island Assembly in April, 1844. http://www.usgennet.org/usa/vt/county/windham/asylumwork2007.htm

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