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South County's Juliet: The Sad Story of Hannah Robinson

There's living history everywhere in South County, as countless buildings from the region's early days are still standing today, and many have important stories to tell. 

Although it isn't an original building from the 1700s, Hannah Robinson Tower, constructed by Civilian Conservation Corps in 1938, tells a tragic tale of a young woman from Narragansett whose forbidden love led to her death in 1773 at the age of 27. 

The tower stands where U.S. Route 1 and Bridgetown Road meet in South Kingstown at a spot important to Robinson during her youth. 

Here's a look at the life and death of Hannah Robinson, a sometimes forgotten piece of South County's history.

Who Was Hannah Robinson?

In short, Hannah Robinson, born in 1746, was the daughter of a wealthy planter from Narragansett. The family lived in a large stone house near Narragansett Bay and welcomed famous visitors like Count Rochambeau and Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution. Hannah always had everything she wanted in life and spent a lot of her time sitting on a large rock overlooking Narragansett Bay. 

As Hannah grew into an adult, she was considered perhaps the most beautiful woman in Rhode Island. Eventually, her family sent her to a finishing school in Newport, where the story takes a bit of a turn. 

While in school, Hannah would meet Pierre Simond, a dance instructor from a French family. Simond anglicized his name at some point and went by Peter Simon. He had little money, but Hannah quickly fell in love with his charm, leading to a relationship between the two. 

However, Hannah's father, Rowland, wouldn't allow the young couple to marry, saying that Peter was unsuitable for his daughter. They secretly continued their relationship, though, even after Hannah returned home upon completing school. 

Peter would sneak into the Robinsons' house and hide on their property until Hannah's mother eventually found out about the relationship. 

In a stroke of luck, Hannah's mother actually approved the courtship and helped keep it a secret from Rowland. Peter found a job tutoring some of Hannah's cousins, ensuring he was always close, and the couple continued with their forbidden relationship for quite some time. 

They couldn't keep their love a secret forever, though, and Rowland eventually spotted Peter in a lilac bush on his property, banning his daughter from ever seeing him again. 

The Elopement

As you might expect, the story doesn't end there. Although Rowland kept a very close eye on Hannah and prevented her from going anywhere unattended, he eventually permitted her to attend a ball at a nearby property one night. 

Hannah was escorted by her sister, Mary, and a servant. While on the way to the ball, a carriage appeared from the woods with Peter aboard. Hannah quickly boarded the carriage and went to Providence with her love, where they married almost immediately. 

It's unclear how Peter found Hannah and pulled this off. He didn't have much money, and it's unlikely he had the resources on his own. Legend suggests Hannah's mother and uncle arranged the entire thing because they wanted to see her happy, paying for the carriage and tipping Peter off on the route they would take to the ball. 

Rowland was furious and pulled all financial support from Hannah, leaving her and her new husband in poverty in Providence. 

What Happened to Her?

Unfortunately, Hannah's Romeo turned out to be a dud. Peter stopped coming home at night once it became clear that he wouldn't have access to her family's fortune. First, he could leave for days at a time, which quickly turned into weeks. Eventually, Peter left Hannah all alone and without any money, never to return. 

Hannah grew ill while living alone in Providence and had very little company or nourishment. Eventually, Rowland began softening his stance on supporting her, saying she could return home if she informed him on who helped her elope. 

She refused to admit who assisted her, but when Rowland finally visited and saw how sick she was, he immediately allowed her to come home. 

On the way home, Hannah asked to stop at her favorite rock, which overlooks Narragansett Bay. Although she was very frail by this point, she took the time to enjoy the view one last time. 

Hannah Robinson died of natural causes on October 30, 1773, a short while after returning to her family residence.

The Hannah Robinson Tower was erected in 1938 near her favorite rock and provided the same views over Narragansett Bay that she spent her days enjoying.

About the Tower

The original Hannah Robinson Tower from 1938 was 100 feet high and made of wood. During World War II, it received a fair amount of use as an observation tower because it provided 360-degree views of the area. 

The tower was rebuilt in 1988 using the original pillars. This tower is only 40-feet high but still provides excellent views of the bay. 

You can access the tower by climbing its interior staircase. There's a small on-site parking lot, and you can hike through the surrounding woodlands, too. 

Thousands of people drive past the Hannah Robinson Tower daily, and very few know its entire story. Learning about local characters from the past is yet another feature that makes South County such an enchanting place to live.

Published August 11, 2021 in Exploring South County