After the death of their mother, Anna Power, in 1858, Sarah Helen Whitman took sole care of her mentally unstable sister, Susan. The sisters moved from the red house on Benefit Street to here, 140 Power Street (which at the time was 39 Benevolent Street. The structure was saved from demolition in 1950 when the Wriston Quadrangle was built. Brown University was responsible for saving the home, physically moving it here to this location).
Whitman’s care and devotion to Susan would prove to be quite a weight on her shoulders. Visitors to the home were often turned away due to Susan’s instability, but of the few visitors that were able to make it inside the home (usually while Susan was hiding in closet) they were awed by Whitman’s cunning way of throwing drapery over lamps to illuminate certain prints or portraits on the walls, leaving the rest of the room in complete darkness. The two women never kept much food in the house, but it was said that when they did, they ate like royalty. Sarah Helen Whitman hosted literary salons in this home that were attended by some of Providence’s most notable folks, including John Hay. The house also served as a séance parlor in which Whitman hosted many conversations with the dead.
Sarah and Susan lived in this house for seventeen years until Susan passed away on December 8, 1877. And this came as a bit of a shock to Whitman, since she was certain that her sister would outlive her. Whitman took every precaution necessary to set her sister up financially, and even had friends promise to keep an eye on Susan in the event of Whitman’s death. Sarah Helen Whitman was now alone and declining rapidly. The heart condition which afflicted her for most of her life was now at its worst, and she remarked that even though she was now free from the many responsibilities that consumed her time, she was unable to enjoy it.
It was at this time that Whitman received an offer from her friend, Charlotte Dailey, to move into her home on Bowen Street so her family could care for their elderly friend. Whitman accepted this offer very graciously, auctioning off most of her possessions (keeping only a few treasures most important to her). The Dailey household would become Whitman’s final stop, where she passed away only five months later in June, 1878.
You can see the modest plaque near the front door, where you may or may not see what’s left of the peeling letters spelling “Home of Sarah Helen Whitman.”