1842: Samuel W. Butler to Leroy Milton Yale

Most Americans today are probably not that familiar with Dorr’s Rebellion, particularly if they were not raised in Rhode Island. In a nutshell, it was an armed insurrection led by Thomas Wilson Dorr in Rhode Island between 1840 and 1842 with the objective of achieving greater suffrage in the state. The state lagged behind almost all of the other states in eliminating the land-holding requirement for suffrage incorporated in its colonial charter of 1663. With the industrial revolution and the migration of the population away from farms to urban areas, many men found they could not longer meet the land-holding requirement. As a result, by 1840, it is estimated that 60% of the male population were disenfranchised. With Dorr’s leadership, a People’s Convention was held that ratified a popular referendum and Dorr was elected governor under this document. The movement was only crushed militarily by Gov. King declaring marshal law and arresting its leaders, including Dorr, in June 1842 when this letter was written. Though the movement was stopped, it did initiate the drafting of a new constitution in Rhode Island that liberalized voting the following year. [See Dorr Rebellion/Rhode Island’s Very Own, Very Small Civil War by Justin Shatwell]

To read more on the rebellion, readers are referred to Rory Raven’s 2010 book entitled, “The Dorr War”

This letter was written by Dr. Samuel W. Butler (1815-1881) of Newport, Rhode Island, who provides detailed information about Dorr’s insurrection and, in rather melodramatic fashion, proclaims he may loose his life in “the cause of our country.” Though the rebellion caused great anxiety and the weeping of enough tears “to float a ship,” it lasted only two months without a single battle being fought, and the whole affair resulted in a single death—an innocent civilian shot by mistake.”

Dr. Butler wrote the letter to Dr. Leroy Milton Yale (1802-1847) of Holmes Hole [now Martha’s Vineyard], Massachusetts. Dr. Yale graduated from the Harvard Medical College in 1829 and must have been an expert on venereal diseases as his advice was sought on its treatment in the closing paragraphs of this letter. Perhaps the disease was more prevalent in both Newport, R. I. and Holmes Hole, Mass., due to the high percentage of mariners living in these villages.


Newport, Rhode Island
June 26, 1842

Dr. Yale, Sir.

Another skirmish has commenced in Providence as the legitimate fruits of the suffrage business which has so long harassed the quietude of this Commonwealth and sent discord and unhappiness into every society and  institution in the state; even the Church and fireside have not escaped its pernicious influence.

Our troops had orders to march to Providence about one o’clock Friday morn and since that time every boat, carr, or carriage of any description has been brought more or less to the scene of the action, and we understand the Governor’s troops are five thousand under arms and waiting orders to march into the midst of Gov. Dorr’s  encampment and dislodge them at once. Col. Bankhead—the commander of the troops at Ft. Adams—has by request of Gov. King, sent to Capt. Tyler to obtain leave to call into requisition U. S. troops on this station to  reinforce ours already in the field.

A caricature representing Dorr’s troops from a pro-charter broadside. [LOC]

This day twenty of Dorr’s men were taken, including his Sec. and a man  with supplies for their army. The artillery company of this town solicited me very earnestly to accompany them on Friday, but it was not quite prudent for me to leave then. Tomorrow is the day appointed to make the  attack and I expect to go up the first boat and, agreeably to their request, accompany our troops with three other Surgeons to render assistance if necessary. The city is under martial law and every avenue is  guarded. If the tears already shed by anxious mothers, wives, and sisters were collected, they might float a ship for ought I can tell. There is this moment before my office no less than four weeping, and as many more  inside.

I expect to be exposed to Dorr’s fire and may be the first victim, but nevertheless where duty calls, I must go, relying on our great Creator and Preserver in every exigency. We have our lives and our honor to  sacrifice, if it must be so, at this shrine—“the cause of our country.” We hope no blood will be shed, but the Officers are determined to treat them as insurgents, by opening fire upon them immediately on our arrival and repeat the same until they surrender as prisoners, give up their arms and quietly submit to the laws of the land.


We have many cases of venereal [disease], thus far confined to Gon[orrhoea], Glut. Chordee, 1 Glut. Chlam[ydia]. We have  succeeded without difficulty as yet. Will you please to give me, in addition to the information I have from authors and others, your practice in each form – also your opinion of the use of Hyd Mur. Sub. in these cases, and whether you think clapp will produce other forms of venereal (if you consider clap a species of true  syphilis) either in the patient himself or the companion. What form of Sars. do you put for patients, &c, &c. all about  it. You Rx check. We have had one case of midwifery all right—kept cool no trouble.

Remember my best respects to all my friends who may enquire. Truly yours, —S. M. Butler

[to] Dr. L. M. Yale

1 Chordee was variously described as a hardening of the penile shaft or painful, sustained erection. This may represent either priapism or an inflammatory infiltration of the shaft. It was almost always associated with a venereal infection. One treatment was ointment of camphor in brandy and mercury and was obviously a very painful condition; a grain of opium was suggested at bedtime. [Genitourinary medicine and surgery in nelson’s navy, by J. C. Goddard]

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