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Shang Bailey, sinner, soldier, saved soul?

By Jane Fusco

(Based on interviews with Anthony Ursillo and research contributions from the Johnston Historical Society)

JOHNSTON – The Shang Bailey House was once a house of ill repute before it became an exclusive gift shop and listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For 40 years, Beatrice and Tony Ursillo, and their son Anthony, owned and operated The Log Gift Shop on Hartford Avenue, which sold high-end china, collectibles, housewares, and curtains. The shop closed in 2009 and is now Anthony’s permanent residence.

Long before the Log was an exclusive gift shop, it was a brothel owned by Frederick Augusta “Shang” Bailey. Bailey was a Civil War soldier, con artist, saloon owner and pimp, before converting to Christianity and preaching the word of God.

Native Rhode Islander

Bailey was born in 1842 in Burrillville, R.I. in the factory town of Gazzeville. Bailey was known as a bad boy and the ringleader of the neighborhood, leading the village boys into all types of trouble. He grew to be almost 7 feet tall, which was unusual in those days, which proved to be a great asset to him throughout his life. He also had a natural fearlessness about him.

At 16, Bailey left home for New Bedford, Mass. seaport. In the mid-1850s, whaling was a major industry and New Bedford was a thriving whaling seaport. Bailey bribed a prostitute with $5 to pose as his mother, since he would not be allowed on a ship without parental permission. Bailey went out to sea for three years and was in the West Indies when word got out that Fort Sumter had been attacked. The American Civil War had begun.

Civil War Soldier and POW

Bailey returned to R.I. and enlisted in the Army. Bailey and his regiment were involved in the first major battle of the war, the Battle of Bull Run, was captured by the Confederates, and taken prisoner.

He spent 12 months bouncing from one Southern prison to another. The conditions at the prisons down South during the Civil War were inhumane and deplorable, with no electricity, running water, or bathroom facilities. The summers were hot and humid and winters were bitterly cold. Many prisoners died from the horrific conditions. Bailey survived, and was eventually paroled and released.

Bailey returned to R.I., but 10 days later, the government issued a call to all paroled prisoners of war to report to Parole Camp in Annapolis, Maryland. Bailey fought in the Battle of Fredericksburg and the Battle of Salem Heights, before ordered to await the call to Gettysburg where he and other Union soldiers marched from Fredericksburg to Gettysburg. This march was a test of endurance and Bailey was a survivor, His final battle was a small one at Funkstown, Maryland. After that battle, he took sick and was sent to Portsmouth Grove Hospital in Tiverton. He was given an honorable discharge after serving for three years; one year in Confederate prisons and two years in battles. Four weeks later he was discharged from the hospital and enlisted in the Navy where he remained until the war ended in 1865.

Circus Performer and Saloon Owner

Returning to R.I., Bailey worked along the shore for a few years before taking a job with the circus, going from town to town performing under the big tent. Bailey then went to Philadelphia (a Quaker City) and opened his own business, a dance hall called the Red Light. Quaker authorities shut him down six months later.

He returned to the circus, portraying a Prussian Giant in one of the sideshows. He was given the nickname Shang by some of the circus workers, since he fit the description of a shanghai fowl – a big, tall, awkward bird recently introduced into the U.S. Tired of the circus life, Bailey got a job for one year as a Sentinel Guard (requirement: must be at least 6’ tall), then returned to Philadelphia and opened a liquor saloon after bribing the owner of the building to rent him the space by doubling the rent and paying him three months in advance. He moved into a larger salon three months later and opened a pool parlor the served liquor.

Liquor, Gambling and Lust

Bailey next venture was a business that included liquor, gambling and lust. A brothel. He ran this brothel in Philadelphia for six years, bribing crooked town officials and paying off the police so they would not meddle in his affairs. He became a nuisance drunkard and was eventually run out of town.

Back home in Burrillville in 1880, he acquired a roadhouse called the Round Top, on Round Top Drive, which he purchased with the money he had made in Philadelphia. There were no prohibitionary laws at that time, so he operated the brothel for 12 years without a license, again by paying off the town officials and policemen. Before long, he was kicked out by the new town officials and moved his operation into the Cornell-Randall Hotel on the Connecticut Turnpike in Johnston, R.I., now known as Hartford Avenue, Route 6.

Three years later in 1899, he changed the roadhouse’s name to The Shang Bailey Hotel, which operated as a brothel. At this time, a trolley line was being set down from Providence to Danielson, Conn. (then called Danielsonville). Business boomed. Shang and his brothel were well known throughout New England. The brothel had built up such a reputation that it was dubbed as a notorious roadhouse. Stories spread that Bailey transported his girls by wagon to the nearest church in Scituate and paraded them in front of the church for the men to see as they came out of Sunday service, enticing them to visit his establishment.

A Changed Man

On February 27,1905, without warning, Bailey made a shocking announcement to his family and that would change the course of his life. Bailey said that he had heard a voice in his head that he claimed was the voice of God, telling him to stop living his sinful life, shut down the brothel, and pour all the liquor into the streets. The next day he poured the entire stock of liquor onto Hartford Turnpike, and placed a notice in The Providence Journal that Shang Bailey’s place of business was closed. He also hung a CLOSED sign on the front door of the brothel.

The religious community praised him, but many sneered at this act, calling it just another one of his shenanigans. Many newspaper articles were written about his transformation and conversion to the Christianity.

Every Friday night for the next 17 months, Bailey hosted prayer meetings in what was once a brothel. Christians came from near and far to pray with him. Still, Bailey wanted to make things right with God and those he had stolen money in fixed card games, rigged slot machines he’d installed in the brothel, and others that he’d cheated through the years. He made a list of everyone to whom he owed money, including the government, which he had cheated out of $2,400 from collecting a disability pension that he did not deserve. After paying off his debts, he told religious leaders that he was still living in misery. He said it wasn’t until he fell to his knees and surrendered himself to God that he was forgiven of his sins. A few months later, he was baptized in Lake Moswansicut in Scituate.

Not long after his baptism, Bailey became ill and doctors told him that he did not have long to live. Though sickly, Bailey traveled throughout Rhode Island, stopping at all the local churches and religious organizations to tell his story of conversion to Christianity and how he became a changed man.

He sold the hotel, under two conditions: 1) it would never be turned into a house of ill repute again, and 2) liquor could never be sold or served in it again.

On April 17,1913, Bailey died peacefully of consumption (now known as tuberculosis) with his wife Isabell on one side of the bed, and his son Eliphalat on the other. In his obituary, not one word was mentioned of his sinful life. It stated that Frederick Bailey died a preacher. He is buried in Grace Cemetery at the corner of Elmwood Ave and Broad Street.

The Roadhouse is Restored

Bailey sold the property for residential use shortly before his death, and it changed hands many times until Beatrice Ursillo spotted it while on a drive. There was no For Sale sign on the property. It was owned by a bank and condemned by the Town of Johnston.

“At the time, we had no idea of its historical significance,” said Anthony Ursillo Jr. The Ursillo family purchased the Shang Bailey Roadhouse on Dec.27, 1975 and began the restoration the following year.

The Shang Bailey Roadhouse was restored back to its original state early in 1976, and the Ursillo family opened the Log Gift and Curtain Shoppe six months later. It remained opened for 40 years. The Shang Bailey House won a restoration award in 1976 and was placed on the National Register of Historical Places in May 1984.