I guess that counts as a spoiler!
Writing in the History of Rehoboth (1836), Leonard Bliss, a tubercular Congregationalist convert, reported the following, secondhand (he was largely confined to his home due to his health), to the 265 people who preordered his book. Bear with me. It’s a little long.
NINE MEN’S MISERY. This name is given to a spot in Cumberland, R. I., where nine men were slain by the Indians, on the same day with Pierce’s Fight. This place is in what is called “Camp Swamp,” about half a mile from the house of the late Elisha Waterman, Esq. There are two or three traditions respecting this event; one of which is thus stated by Daggett, [Hist. of Attleborough. p. 52-3.] “A company of nine men were in advance of, or had strayed from, their party for some purpose, when they discovered a number of Indians near this spot, whom they immediately pursued and attacked, but a large number of the enemy rushed out of the swamp and surrounded them. The whiles, placing their backs to a large rock near by, fought with desperation till every one of them was killed on the spot. The rest of their party, who were in hearing of their guns, hastened to their succour, but arrived too late to render them any assistance. Their bodies were buried on the spot, which is now designated by a large pile of stones.” Another tradition says, that these nine men were part of a company that marched from Providence to aid Capt. Pierce, in compliance with a message sent by him to that town, at the commencement of the engagement; but that they did not reach the spot till after the battle; and that these nine, being in advance of the rest of the company, were surprised and slain by the Indians in the manner above related. The third tradition respecting this event, and the one which seems the most probable, and the best supported by circumstances, is, that these nine men were a remnant of Pierce’s brave band, who were taken prisoners by the Indians, and reserved for torture. They were carried to a sort of peninsula of upland, nearly surrounded by “Camp Swamp,” and seated upon a rock in a kind of natural amphitheatre, formed by the elevated ground around it. The savages commenced the war-dance around them, and were preparing to torture them; but, disagreeing about the manner of torture, they fell into a quarrel among themselves, in which some of the Indians despatched the prisoners with the tomahawk. This story is said to have been related to the English by an Indian who was soon after this taken prisoner. The Indians, having scalped them, left their bodies upon the rock where they had slain them, and here they remained unburied till they were discovered by the English some weeks after. They were then buried, all in one grave, on the higher ground, fifteen or twenty rods from the rock on which they were slain. A heap of small stones, in the shape of the earth on a newly made grave, still marks the spot where they lie. Around where they fell, and where they are buried, there is a forest of considerable extent.
Daggett is the only writer who has related this occurrence at “Nine Men’s Misery.” He was unable to fix the date, but says, “there is some reason for believing that it was at or about the time of Pierce’s Fight.” I have been able to assure myself, on good grounds, that this date is correct. A part of these bones, about the time of the American Revolution, were disinterred by some physicians from Providence. One of the men was ascertained to be a Bucklin of Rehoboth, from his very large frame, and from a set of double teeth all around. In the town record of deaths and burials, the names of four individuals are recorded, as “slain on the 26th of March, 1676,” viz : John Reed, Jr. John Fitch, Jr. Benjamin Buckland, and John Miller, Jr. Between the first two of these names and the last two are inserted the names of seven other persons, bearing a later date; which leads me to infer that John Read, Jr. and John Fitch, Jr. were found with the main body of the slain of Pierce’s army, and that Benjamin Buckland and John Miller, Jr. were found among the nine, at “Nine Men’s Misery,” and interred at a later period than the other two.
Oh, but I can do better—and better than Jim Vieira and the History Channel.
Really, would you expect anything less?
Bliss refers to John Daggett’s History of Attleborough (1834, but composed in 1830), from which he borrowed the above story. When we turn back the pages of history to Daggett’s account, we suddenly find that the giant with double rows of teeth disappears into little more than Bliss’s paraphrasing error:
… Their bodies were buried on the spot, which is now designated by a large pile of stones.
I have seen no notice of this occurrence in history; but as to the main fact there can be no doubt. The bones of these men were disinterred not many years ago, by some physicians (for anatomical purposes) and were found nearly perfect. But the people in the vicinity insisted upon their being restored, which was accordingly done. One of the slain was ascertained to be a Bucklin of Rehoboth, from the remarkable circumstance of a set of double front teeth which he was known to possess.
Both the neighboring towns of Attleborough, Mass., and Rehoboth, Mass., are reasonably close to Cumberland, R.I., so it’s difficult to determine which author to privilege in terms of accuracy on that count, but since Bliss is explicitly basing his account on Daggett, it seems that Daggett ought to be our preferred source. Oddly enough, in a later printing of Daggett’s book in 1894, the subsequent editor—his daughter Amelia Maxcy Daggett Sheffield—added in the “double row” of teeth alongside Daggett’s original double front teeth. Her update drew its language directly from Bliss (as in a direct quotation), and added that one of the surviving physicians testified in 1834 (before Bliss wrote) that Daggett’s original account was “substantially correct,” thus contradicting Bliss on the toothy point even though Daggett’s daughter seemed to think this firsthand evidence thus confirmed it.
On the strength of Bliss’s account and the updated version of Daggett’s book, the legend of a “giant” with “double rows of teeth all around” was widely repeated in New England literature of the 1880s-1900s. Sidney Smith Rider, writing in The Lands of Rhode Island (1904), attributes to Daggett the false claim that “The teeth filled the jaws; there were no ‘single’ teeth.” He obviously got it from the 1894 edition. William Jones Miller included the story, directly from Bliss, in King Philip and the Wampanoags of Rhode Island (1885 second ed.). Interestingly enough, the competing version—the double front teeth—was just as widespread among authors taking their material directly from the 1834 edition of Daggett, including the New England Magazine, The Bay State Monthly, and other publications. Bliss’s version even ended up in Eric B. Schultz and Michael J. Tougias’s King Philip’s War (1999).
So, the bottom line is that Benjamin Bucklin may have been large—but no one ever described him as a giant. He may have had double front teeth—but the rest of them seem to have been added in exaggeration.
But I can’t leave it at that. We have to find out where the Wikipedia story about the 1790 medical students came from. Fortunately, the answer is clear to that, too. It comes from a bit of folklore reported in the Providence Journal on January 20, 1886:
....a strange incident occurred in relation to the nine men’s grave. It was either during, or shortly after the Revolutionary War. Some Providence gentlemen, led, it is said, by Dr. Bowen, went up to the place and dug open the grave. They had already stretched three of the skeletons upon the ground ere they were discovered. When the Cumberland people found out what was going on, a hue and cry being raised, and the farmers assembling from all the region round, the cessation of the robbery was compelled, the disinterment being regarded as a first-class outrage. It is not said whether the affair took place at night, by the light of lanterns in the windy forests, but the story is true as it is told, and well illustrates the peculiar place the tradition has in the minds of the Cumberland people. One fact was settled by the disinterment, and that was the identity of the men themselves who were buried. One of the skeletons dug up was of extraordinary size, and by the fact of it's having a double set of teeth, was recognized as that of Benjamin Bucklin (Buckland), of Rehoboth. It is assured thus that the men were from other colonies than that of Providence.