Samuel Casey (1724-1773) was born in Newport, the descendant of Thomas Casey, an Irishman who allegedly fled his country in the 1640s to escape English persecution. Little is known of Casey’s early life or his training for the craft of silversmithing other than an apprenticeship to Jacob Hurd in Boston. In 1745, he was admitted as a freeman of the newly created town of Exeter, a rural area that had been set off from North Kingstown in 1743.
For several years, Casey practiced his craft in Exeter, fashioning work that experts have described as much more imaginative than that of most of his contemporaries. Around 1750, he relocated to the South Kingstown village of Little Rest (now known as Kingston), where he entered into a partnership with his brother, Gideon. Here, he married Martha Martin.
Little Rest was a vibrant village that had become the business center of the region and serviced the needs of the nearby Narragansett plantations. Casey’s home and shop on the main street gave his customers easy access and allowed him to supplement his income by opening a dry goods store. In September 1764, however, disaster struck: Casey’s house burned due to a fire sparked by his forge. The flames destroyed his expensive furnishings and many of the tools of his craft.
Casey rebuilt his home and studio but turned his extraordinary skill to counterfeiting (then called “money making”) to recoup his losses more quickly. This crime was natural for silversmiths because they possessed the technical skills to make dies for printing fake money. In fact, colonial governments often hired silversmiths to make the dies for legal tender.
Despite his legal and illegal activities, in March 1770, Casey submitted a petition for insolvency to the General Assembly, signed by twenty-seven of his creditors. A subsequent investigation of his finances disclosed that he was the head of a group of silversmith counterfeiters operating from the attic of his Little Rest home, where authorities found a press and dies. Casey was arrested along with four accomplices and tried in October 1770 in the King’s County Courthouse in Little Rest.
After he had recanted his confession, a friendly jury found him not guilty. This annoyed the five-member judicial panel, so they validated the confession and sent the jury back to deliberate. Casey was then convicted and sentenced to hang. His four associates got sentences requiring ear-cropping, branding, the pillory, or public whipping. On the night before his scheduled execution, Casey was freed by a mob of his friends and neighbors, and he fled Rhode Island, never to return.
Lawyer-historian Christian McBurney, the leading modern historian of Kingston, discovered a petition for amnesty presented to the General Assembly by Casey’s wife in 1779, a document asserting that Casey “wandered in exile nine years forlorn and forsaken and destitute of every means of support . . . separated from his wife and offspring.” Amazingly, the legislature voted to pardon the silversmith, but Casey never took advantage of that pardon. McBurney states that a Canadian descendant of Casey recollected that Samuel had been a Loyalist during the War for Independence and died in that conflict. McBurney theorizes that “this report is somewhat supported by evidence that Samuel Casey’s son fought as a Tory and after the war fled to Canada.”
One thing is certain: Casey was the most accomplished silversmith of early Rhode Island. A modern collector has stated that Casey was second only to Paul Revere in the skill that he brought to his craft.
His teapots, creamers, tankards, and porringers are highly prized and featured in all the major museums around the country that celebrate the skills of colonial American craftsmen. Casey’s works demonstrate the Queen Anne and rococo styles, the first characterized by simple forms that rely on contour and plain surfaces with little decoration, the latter emphasizing detail and surface ornamentation. A sizable number of Casey’s pieces are reproduced in Alice Hauck’s American Silver, 1670-1830 (1980), which is a catalog of the fine silver collection of the late Newport attorney Cornelius C. Moore.
Samuel Casey was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1998.
For additional reading: Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.