WEST WARWICK – Several years ago Laurie and Jeffrey Dumas were working on the third floor of their West Warwick home, preparing to turn a small back room in the attic into a music studio, when they discovered a shocking piece of history that has been largely forgotten.
The two were in the attic one day cleaning when Laurie found a dirty white rag on the floor and began to pull it. She removed the rag and found a drain in the floor and began to realize there was something odd about the space. Combined with the metal flooring, the school house door and the fact that there was only a doorknob and deadbolt on the outside, she knew whoever was in the room was not going to get out.
“I had no idea why it was there,” said Dumas in an interview this week. “I just couldn’t for the life of me even think of what the room could be used for. I had all kinds of questions - was it used only when company came? Were they trying to keep the person safe? My attic gets so cold in the winter and so hot in the summer. There was no research to be had.”
Employed in the research department of the West Warwick Public Library, Dumas decided to do some digging to find out more about the room.
She found out they have what used to be called a “Disappointment Room,” a place where elite members of society would hide away their disabled children around the turn of the century. The home was formerly owned by a local judge Job Smith Carpenter, who lived from 1866 to 1906, and his wife, Frances Ellen Carpenter. The nearby Carpenter Court was named after the judge. Prior to Carpenter the home had another famous occupant, Casey B. Tyler, for whom the structure has a dedicated plaque.
“I go to work at the library, and I was telling my coworkers and an elderly historian about the room and her hand just comes over and she sets it on mine and she says ‘you have a disappointments room.’”
Dumas says she had heard of such places but always considered them to be a myth. In the 1847 novel Jane Eyre, one of the main characters, Edward Rochester, keeps his wife, Bertha, who is said to have gone mad, in a third floor room at their estate. Other stories throughout history have had similar themes. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Professor Dumbledore had a sister who was also kept hidden away.
The woman explained that the elite felt having a family member with a disability reflected poorly on a family and that these rooms became one of the world’s best kept secrets. She said the term ‘disappointment room’ was a phrase people in the local community attributed to the practice.
Through her research in a cemetery database at the library Dumas was able to find the location of the family’s plot in Woodland Cemetery in Coventry. The couple had a daughter, Ruth, that Dumas now believes was the occupant of the room in her home. The judge, who was always making headlines at the time, seemed to keep the child a secret. At the time it was not uncommon for families to feel a disabled child would bring them shame and dishonor, especially for a well-known and affluent person in the community.
She felt this was the ultimate disrespect to the people who were kept in these rooms and set out on a mission to shine a light on them, to give them their rightful place in history.
“My quest has been to give them the recognition and respect that was stolen from them - to give them a place in history because as it stands they didn’t exist,” said Dumas. “They had them, they hid them and then they died.”
In 2007 she allowed HGTV to come into her home and film a segment called “If Walls Could Talk” to spread awareness. In 2011 Hollywood screenwriter and actor Wentworth Miller saw a rerun of the segment and reached out to Dumas about turning the concept into a film.
“He wanted to do a screenplay inspired by the room,” she explained. “He was hoping it would open up a conversation and that would result in the rooms coming to light.”
Miller sold the rights to the script which was later turned into the 2016 film “The Disappointments Room,” directed by D.J. Caruso and featuring actress Kate Beckinsale. Although the dark psychological horror film is inspired by Ruthie’s story, Dumas wants people to know that hers is not a ghost story and that’s not her goal in spreading awareness.
“This is how we grow - from the mistakes of the past,” she explained. “This was at the turn of the 20th century but even before that the rooms existed and in some places they still exist now. It’s sad. The whole thing is very upsetting.”
Today the room is a working memorial to Ruth, designed and decorated to look like a young girl’s room.
“Most of these rooms are in houses that have been renovated so we’ve lost history,” she said. “I’ve just been trying to get as much research out as I can before other things are lost. This is the world’s best kept secret.”
In an effort to connect the past and present, Dumas decided to start a nonprofit organization in Ruth’s memory - Ruthie’s Room. The organization now holds fundraisers to provide portable sensory comfort items to athletes in the Special Olympics Summer Games and now, West Warwick Public Schools.
Dumas made a generous donation to the West Warwick School Department this week by providing a wide variety of sensory toys and other similar items such as weighted blankets, seats, puzzles, a sensory swing and other items to help disabled children focus in the classroom.
“We were beyond fortunate when a couple of months go Laurie contacted us,” said West Warwick Superintendent Karen Tarasevich. “She has made a very generous donation to the school department.”
“Each of the district’s occupational therapists were very excited about this opportunity to purchase additional supplies that will greatly benefit our students,” said director of special education Jessica Perry. “The district was able to purchase sensory items that will support our students with disabilities from ages 3 to 21.”
“We want them with us and not hidden away in a room,” said Dumas. “That’s what we’re all about.”
In May the organization will hold a fundraiser for a 3-year-old girl with Sturge-Weber Syndrome who is in need of some sensory comfort items. Donations can be made on the “Ruthie’s Room” Facebook page.
Follow Kendra Port on Twitter @kendralolio