Sidney Rider: Rhode Island’s 19th Century Pundit

Sidney Rider (1833-January 31, 1917) By: Michelle Valletta, May 31, 2015

 Legislature has produced more misery, both in England and the United States, than all the other causes of misery combined. Sidney Rider

Sidney Rider lived a full public life as an engaged citizen, merchant, critic, historian, writer, collector, reformer, and publisher. While his writings often centered on controversy and scuttlebutt, many of his contemporaries admired his erudite knowledge of Rhode Island History. Today, scholars and researchers are indebted to Rider for his meticulous collection of Rhode Island literary artifacts now housed at the John Hay Library, Providence, Rhode Island.

Sidney Rider was born to George Clinton and Ann Eliza (Turner) Rider in Rensselaer County, New York, on November 5, 1833. Rider was the eldest of three sons (Frederic C. Rider and Albert H. Rider). According to Rider, his ancestors came from the Kent region of England and he descended from Gershom Turner, proprietor of the Nassau Manufacturing Company in New York. In the late 1830s, the Riders moved to Pomfret, Connecticut and finally settled in Rhode Island in 1845. That year, at the age of 12, Sidney became the apprentice of Charles Burnett, a Providence bookseller in Market Square. During his apprenticeship, Rider began his obsession with Rhode Island History.

Rider married Lorania Burke (10/3/1839 – 12/17/1907) of Providence County on November 4, 1858. The marriage lasted 49 years and produced two children; a son Burnett and a daughter Annie. In 1859, Rider formed a partnership with Henry Stewart selling new, used, and rare books and writing supplies at 17 Westminister Street, Providence. However, by the close of the year, Rider became the sole owner of a bookstore and his strategy to market this enterprise was a stroke of genius.

Uniquely, he merged his passion for history, politics, and culture with a business centered on selling books and subscriptions to his periodicals. In effort to capture the attention of potential customers in a highly competitive market, he not only demonstrated his expertise in the book business but self-published a variety of periodicals. Alongside his critiques of books and inventory advertisements, Rider composed articles about Rhode Island culture, art, history, politics, and current events. Determined to set the record straight, he spared no effort debunking Rhode Island historical myths and legends. His self-published periodical titled Book Notes which ran for 33 years and produced 870 issues.

Book Notes became Rider’s controversial sounding board where he debated the political, social, and economic ills of his time. Powerful businesses such as the Providence Journal and the Union Railroad Company frequently suffered the wrath of his pen. Rider authored plenty of sentiments about legislation and statesmen as well. Contrary to his many complementary commentaries about Roger Williams and Samuel Gorton, to name a few, some of Rider’s most scathing literary assaults condemned Chairman of the Providence City Council William Vaughan and Republican Party boss Charles R. Brayton. In 1893, Rider boldly wrote that Vaughan should be “hanged” for negotiating away the public’s property to benefit the Union Railroad and suggested bribery was involved. In the case of a more powerful politician such as Brayton, Rider employed greater caution. Rider waited until Brayton’s death in 1910 before lambasting Brayton for disreputable deeds and blaming him for the suicide of his brother Frederic. Rider’s opening statement read, “The time to write history is after men have cease to make it, the time to write an account of Brayton’s connection with the History of Rhode Island is after he has cease to manipulate it.”

Overall, Rider’s collecting habits transformed his shop into a time capsule of sorts, stockpiling everything from valuable manuscripts to the smallest paper vestige such as play bills, lottery tickets, and other paraphernalia. Consequently, Rider’s shop gained popularity as a gathering place for local bibliophiles and academics. In 1880, Brown University awarded Rider with an honorary Master of Arts degree for his ambitious and educational essays on Rhode Island history and culture. However, Rider also suffered his share of personal and financial difficulties from the 1880s to the 1890s. In addition to the suicide of his brother in 1881 and the arrest of his son in 1893, Rider accumulated substantial debt, petitioned for bankruptcy, sued loss of property.

In the early twentieth century, Rider finally surrendered to old age and retired. In 1903, wealthy financier Marsden J. Perry purchased the Rider Collection and deeded it to Brown University. On January 17, 1917, Rider died and was interned at North Burial Ground, Providence, RI.

Further Reading:
Russell J. DeSimone and Erik J. Chaput. “Sidney Rider And The Business Of Rhode Island History.” ProvidenceRI.com. <https://www.providenceri.com/archives/sidney-rider-and-the-business-of-rhode-island-0>.

Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame. “Sidney S. Rider.” (1833-1917) Inducted 2007. <http://www.riheritagehalloffame.org/inductees_detail.cfm?iid=578>.

I also highly recommend perusing Book Notes which may be read for free on Google Books.

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