The current issue of the Valley Breeze reports that Jim Vieira and his Search for the Lost Giants traveling circus blew into Cumberland, Rhode Island, to ask for assistance in proving that a giant is buried at the Nine Men’s Misery monument that marks the site of a 1676 Native American ambush that took the lives of nine European colonists. According to the news report, Vieira believes that a man named Benjamin Bucklin, who died on March 26, 1676, was a giant who had two rows of teeth. His body was exhumed and reinterred in 1976, and Vieira is looking for witnesses who might have seen the oversized corpse. Interestingly, the report also confirms that Vieira and his brother Bill have found “no remains” of any giants in their nationwide search.
I guess that counts as a spoiler!
Modern legends accuse the Nine Men’s Misery site of being haunted, and one unsubstantiated tale reported on Wikipedia claims that the site was disturbed in 1790 by medical students searching for a giant with double rows of teeth. I looked into the reports of Bucklin, and I found the origin of the story of Bucklin as a “giant.” It offers some interesting evidence that we aren’t dealing with a Nephilim, Rephaim, or any other “lost race” but rather a bit of textual confusion and a failure to check primary sources.
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.
Note two important points: The Bucklins of Rehoboth were known for being large—but not Nephilim-size gigantic—and they were also identifiable by their unusual dentition, suggesting that the family suffered from a genetic anomaly of the teeth such as the supernumerary teeth widely reported in the seventeenth century and eighteenth century, such as in Thomas Berdmore’s Treatise on the Disorders and Deformities of the Teeth and Gums (1768). The condition, as I have explained before, was so widespread that it affected King Louis XIII and was listed as a “not uncommon” condition in the notes to Bostock and Riley’s classic translation of Pliny the Elder. In fact, just recently a dentist in India found 202 teeth in one girl’s mouth! Unfortunately, all this analysis relies on us taking Bliss at his word.
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.
Suddenly Benjamin Bucklin is no longer a giant, and his double rows of teeth are reduced to two supernumerary front teeth, a not uncommon dental malformation well known in that era. Note, too, that Bliss places the date of disturbance in the 1770s or 1780s, while Daggett places it in the early 1800s.
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.
This story is quite clearly a folk tale or historical fiction, composed 100 years after the fact. Although the nut of the story—the outrage at the disinterment by “resurrectionists” in an era rife with grave robbing—comes directly from Daggett, all the other elements of the story seem to be drawn very closely from Bliss’s account, particularly since each detail parallels Bliss’s sentence in grammar, structure, and organization—and repeats Bliss’s mistake that the event occurred during the Revolution rather than in the early 1800s as his source, Daggett, and the actual participants in the exhumation asserted. If I had to guess, I would say the Journal reporter probably read a secondhand summary that drew on both Daggett and Bliss in creating his colorful but conflated account. Note, too, that at last the large man has become extraordinary, growing ever larger in the telling, until finally, more than 200 years after his death, he became a giant.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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