Sarah Helen and Susan Anna Residence, 140 Power Street

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After the death of their mother in 1858, Sarah Helen Whitman had full responsibility for her mentally ill sister, Susan. Due to its large size and extensive upkeep, the house on Benefit Street no longer suited them, so the sisters moved into this smaller house at (then) 39 Benevolent Street. Sarah Helen Whitman’s care and devotion to Susan would prove to be quite a weight on Helen’s shoulders. Visitors to this house were often turned away due to Susan’s instability, but of the few that were able to make it inside (usually while Susan was hiding in closet) they were awed by Helen’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. When Susan had bouts of mental stability, Helen was able to host literary salons in this home that were attended by some of Providence’s most notable folks, including John Hay. 

The two never kept much food in the house, but when they did, they ate like queens. Helen and Susan lived here for seventeen years until Susan passed away in 1877. This came as a bit of a shock to Helen, since she was certain that her much younger sister would outlive her. Helen took every precaution necessary to set her sister up financially in the event of her surviving her sole caretaker and provider. Sarah Helen Whitman now found herself 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 Helen would receive an offer that she couldn’t refuse, when her friend Charlotte Dailey asked Helen to move into her home on Bowen street so her family could care for the elderly Mrs. Whitman. Helen accepted this offer very graciously, and the Dailey household would become Helen’s final stop, where she passed away not even a year later in June, 1878. 

This house on Power Street was saved from demolition by Brown University when it was moved from its original location on Benevolent Street in 1950. The house has a modest plaque on the front, where you can see what’s left of the peeling letters spelling “Home of Sarah Helen Whitman.”

Early images of 140 Power Street (including its earlier location at 39 Benevolent Street) courtesy of the Providence Library digital collection.
The house as it was in 1974, courtesy of RIC’s digital archive.