you travel from Colebrook to Bradley Field along CT Route 20, shortly
before coming to East Granby, there is an intersection and if you are
attentive, a sign pointing to the left indicates that Old Newgate Prison
lies somewhere beyond the bend and past the all-obscuring trees.
Today this museum belongs to the State of Connecticut, but this is a
relatively recent phenomenon, as I well remember going there more than once
when it belonged to the Viets family, in whose possession it had been since
early colonial times.
The first use of the land was as a copper mine. In 1737 the then
owner, Samuel Higley, began issuing three-penny tokens. As hard cash
was very scarce in colonial times, there was a market for any coin,
regardless of its composition. Higley’s neighbor’s complained that
these tokens were overvalued, and as a result he changed the reverse legend
from “3 pence” to “Value me as you please”, but still retained the Roman
numeral three for three pence. Today, these are extremely rare coins. There
were five variations, having two dates: 1737 and 1739. Their value, as of
2008, varied from a low of $6,500 to a high of $60,500. One contributing
factor to their low number was that they were made of very pure copper, and
hence were apt to be melted down for other purposes.
On December 2, 1773, the Colonial Legislature approached the landowner, John
Viets, who now made his living by conducting a tavern across the street, and
convinced him that he would make an excellent prison keeper. The old mine
had been made escape-proof by closing the drain and a few of the
subterranean passages, capping the main shaft with a heavy iron grill, and
building a guardhouse over it. For an expenditure of $375, the colony had an
impregnable prison. The jail was nothing more than a dank, dismal cavern
with one accessible entrance, down which a forty-foot ladder led to the
depths from the guardhouse. Year round the temperature remained about 50
degrees, and the only sound was the everlasting rhythmical drip of water,
and the only light was what filtered down the well shaft. It was with a
feeling of confidence that the Legislature turned the new facility over to
John Viets; 22 days later he was given his first charge.
The first prisoner assigned to the new facility was a young man by the name
of John Hinson. Hinson was no ordinary prisoner. He was an elusive character
who had done time in half a dozen county jails between escapades as peddler
of stolen wares, imposter at church fairs and general transgressor of
Connecticut’s blue laws. With his glib manner he could talk his way out of
scrapes almost as fast as he got into them, and usually succeeded in talking
his way out of county jails as well. The judge who turned Hinson over to
jailer Viets warned, “he is sly, ornery and cunning as a viper. If there is
any way of breaking out of Simsbury jail, Hinson will find it.”
Everything went smoothly until the night of December 22. A full-blown winter
storm covered the entire area; heavy, wet snow two feet deep covered the
ground and began breaking branches from the trees. John Viets, his tavern
and taproom empty of customers, and with no prospects of seeing any, spent
his evening in the guardhouse feeling sorry for himself as well as for his
prisoner. To break the monotony, he would call down the shaft every so
often, exchanging comments as to whether the climate was better on the
surface or down in the depths.
Then, about midnight, Viets detected a strange creaking noise out in the
yard. The snow was falling so fast that he could barely see more than six
feet, and the clumps of snow falling from branches along with occasional
branches themselves breaking off and landing in the snow, filled the air
with a cacophony of natural sounds. Reassured that what he had heard was of
natural causes, he closed the door and resumed his seat in the guardhouse.
Then as an afterthought, he called one more time down the shaft, but this
time there was no answer. This was strange, as Hinson was a light sleeper.
Viets unlocked the ponderous trap door, and taking a club and a lantern,
descended the ladder. Hinson’s bunk was empty, and his few personal
possessions were missing. Eventually he ransacked every inch of the
underground caverns and passageways, but Hinson was not there. The Simsbury
prison was empty.
The leave-taking was the first of many mysterious departures from
Connecticut’s trusted jail, but failure to detain inmates for long never
seemed to weaken the faith of lawmakers in its impregnability. As fast as
miscreants and derelicts could be rounded up, they were put into Viets’
custody, and they absconded almost as fast. A trio confined in February made
their getaway early in April. Sometimes prisoners disappeared singly,
sometimes en masse. One resourceful desperado chose to remain only four
Guards were doubled and quadrupled, and still the breaks continued. The top
of the well shaft was fitted with a grate as ponderous as the entrance
hatch. Hourly checks were made on the prisoners below ground, many of whom
were shackled and chained in solitary cells. A crusty old militia officer
succeeded Viets; the guards were frequently changed. Still the Simsbury mine
couldn’t contain its convicts.
Sometimes it was weeks or months before the mystery of an escape was solved,
but generally the truth boiled down to this: prisoners had too many helpful
friends at large. “We believe it is not possible for any person to escape
unless by assistance from abroad,” reported the embarrassed overseers to the
That is the way Hinson had left, but with him romance had entered the plot.
His rescuer, it turned out, was a faithful mistress who had tramped over the
snow-bound hills with a 100 foot coil of rope over her shoulder, and let it
down the well shaft.
To prevent this sort of thing from happening again, half-ton stones were
cemented over the top of the well shaft, nearly covering the iron grating so
that only a narrow slit for ventilation remained. Over the main entrance a
sturdy two-story blockhouse was constructed of timbers ten inches square.
The work was done with the help of prison labor under armed guard. Somehow
every last one of the laborers slipped away before the roof was on.
For a time it
appeared that those caverns on the side of Talcott Mountain weren’t going to
be any more successful as a prison than they had been as a copper mine. It
was in 1705 that the local citizens first became aware of a report that a
mine of either silver or copper had been discovered in town. For the next 70
years one corporation after another sprang up – in Hartford, New York,
Boston, London and even in Sweden – to finance mining operations. Altogether
around a million dollars was sunk in those hills, in a day when three or
four thousand dollars was a lavish sum to expend on a single colonial
enterprise. Tons of yellow-blue copper ore were taken out of Talcott
Mountain, but the ore was of a poor grade, and the copper was hard to
extract. Few of the investors ever got their money back.
Finally, in 1773, the Connecticut legislature decided that the colony itself
should give it a try, using prison labor. For the bargain bid of $375, an
unexpired lease was purchased and the mines “fortified.” The idea was to
have a few expert miners employed with the prisoners, and after a larger
blockhouse was constructed, picks and shovels were doled out to the
convicts. But the system didn’t work. Miners became too friendly with
prisoners and too readily entered into their escape plans. Furthermore, the
tools required for mining were just the tools needed for escape. Mining and
penology didn’t mix. With this failure rate, it is probable that Simsbury
prison would have been abandoned if the rebels of Lexington and Concord had
held their fire. The Revolution introduced a demand for prison lodgings
exactly on the order of Simsbury’s.
Between 1773 and 1775 practically every prisoner confined there had managed
to escape in one way or another, yet word of the dungeon’s horrors had
spread faster than news of its insecurity. In derision the place had been
dubbed “Newgate,” after England’s more formidable stronghold, but as
awe-inspiring descriptions of underground life at Simsbury circulated, the
Confidently the overseers reported to the General Assembly that every
possible exit had been cut off, that they were prepared to take on the most
incorrigible outlaws. [Sound familiar?]
This time the overseers were not the only ones who had confidence in the
security measures. From Cambridge, Massachusetts on December 11, 1775, an
important gentleman then engaged in putting his country on a war footing
addressed a note to the Committee of Safety at Simsbury:
“Gentn: The prisoners which will be delivered you with this, having been
tried by a Court Martial, and deemed to be such flagrant and atrocious
villains that they cannot by any means be set at large or confined in any
place near this camp, were sentenced to be sent to Symsbury in Connecticut;
you will therefore be pleased to have them secured in your Jail….so that
they cannot possibly make their escape….. I am, &c
With the arrival of this contingent of Tories, Simsbury’s Newgate was in
business as the first national penitentiary. Crowded into the black
underground caverns was every type of criminal, from political dissidents to
murderers to young boys doing three months for misdemeanors. They were
provided with musty straw to sleep on, led forth in chains every morning at
four o’clock for compulsory labor in the nail factory, provided with
half-edible food, given countless lashes for disobedience and returned at
four o’clock in the afternoon seventy feet underground.
Existence in the Simsbury dungeon was so unbearable that getting out was the
one incentive that kept its inmates alive. All the time-tested methods of
escape from prison were tried. One attained freedom by substituting his body
for that of a corpse. Men waited for weeks for the opportunity to slug their
guards and attempt to fight their way out. Others pooled their meager
resources for a bribe big enough to persuade an attendant to leave a door
unlocked for a single member to escape – only one escapee per fee.
The year 1776 brought the first crude mass attempt to burn a way to freedom.
During the days of mining operations a long drainage channel large enough
for a man to
crawl through had been blasted from the lowest floor level to the outer hill
slope. The overseers had closed it with a massive oak door studded with
iron. Attempts to break down the door or to chip away at it had proved
fruitless, so the inmates decided to try burning it. Over a period of weeks
quantities of kindling were smuggled below, a little at a time, until at
last there was enough for a sizable bonfire. It was piled against the door,
and a blaze was started with a flint. For a time the fire burned merrily as
the flames licked at the wooden barricade. The prisoners were confident that
the door would be demolished in an hour or two. However, there was no one
among them with a sufficiently scientific turn of mind to foresee the
combined effect of the noxious fumes and the limited supply of oxygen.
Gasping, hysterical men scrambled to save themselves, but there was nowhere
to turn. One by one they were overcome.
Above, the guards saw the smoke and knew what the result would be below.
They waited, and after the fire had burned itself out and the air had
cleared, they carried out the dead and the unconscious.
Immediately, all the survivors were crowded into a small holding space
beneath the blockhouse while the drain was plugged with stone and mortar. It
was an unwise move, for in their anger about the overcrowding, the inmates
set fire to the timbered ceiling, and all might have perished in the flames.
But in the ensuing confusion the guards lost their heads – and most of their
charges as well.
The number of Tories and culprits ready to take the place of any escapees
seemed inexhaustible. The blockhouse was quickly rebuilt, stronger than
ever, with a whipping stall, separate dungeons in the basement, and double
hatchways at the main shaft entrance. Some thirty desperadoes were ushered
through it into the caverns, and this was the group that staged Simsbury’s
most famous break.
At the time, the confinement of the prisoners was considered so essential to
the welfare of the country that the guard was increased to twenty-four
privates under a corporal, a sergeant, and a lieutenant. (Actually, strong
parallels can be drawn between Newgate during the Revolution and the
Guantanimo retention center in today’s war against international terrorism.)
The privates were required at all times to carry loaded muskets with
bayonets fixed; the officers, cutlasses and pistols. There were almost as
many guards as prisoners, and in their sense of strength came a relaxing of
the harsh ways. They began treating their charges with a degree of civility
that included an occasional visitor.
Abigail, wife of prisoner Jonathan Young, presented herself to the
lieutenant late on the night of May 18, 1781. She begged permission to spend
an hour with her husband, submitted to a careful search of her person and
was escorted to the hatch at the top of the shaft.
But Abigail’s call was not unexpected, either by Jonathan or his associates.
It was part of a carefully plotted escape plan. On the ladder leading down
the shaft were mounted most of the prisoners, armed with stones or any piece
of metal they had been able to sneak into their quarters. No sooner was the
hatch unlocked than strong arms from below heaved it upward, and the
desperadoes poured forth. The officers were
quickly overpowered, and their arms taken. Privates on night duty
surrendered easily, and those asleep were given little chance to resist.
Several prisoners were severely gashed by their own comrades during the
scuffle in the dark, but by midnight every convict able to travel was over
the hill. Behind them they left one dying officer, six privates stabbed or
shot, and the entire company of jailers, regardless of their condition,
locked in the dungeon. It was morning before the breakout was discovered,
and by then it was too late to recover more than a handful of the escapees.
That break from what was often regarded as the strongest prison on the
American side of the Atlantic was a painful embarrassment to Connecticut.
The legislature was in session in Hartford at the time, and not a day was
lost in starting an investigation. The strongest censure was reserved for
the members of the guard. “A young man more fit to carry fish to market than
to keep guard at Newgate!” they flung at Jacob Southwell, who had had sense
enough to remain out of the fray. “A small lad just fit to drive a plow with
a very gentle team,” was the sarcastic charge cast at Nathan Phelps.
But that wasn’t the end of Newgate. With the same unyielding resolution
demonstrated after other Revolutionary defeats, colonial officials once more
patched up the prison and repopulated it; rough, tough, brutal guards were
substituted for the lenient ones.
In spite of these changes, in the five years that
Newgate served as
a penitentiary for the Continental government, over half the prisoners had
escaped, yet despite the breaks, the riots and the fires, the makeshift jail
somehow retained its name as the most formidable stronghold in the country.
With the signing of the Paris Peace Treaty, federal interest in the facility
faded, but Connecticut never lost faith in their bastille. In 1790 it was
formally constituted the permanent state prison; new workshops for the
convicts and a comfortable brick dormitory for the guards were added, and
the half-acre yard was enclosed in a sturdy log palisade topped with spikes.
The wooden barrier proved to be much too destructible, so the prisoners were
put to work replacing it with a great stone wall twelve feet high with a
moat on the western side.
From nail making, the prison industry branched out into coopering,
blacksmithing, manufacturing wagons and plows, producing boots and shoes and
woven baskets. Over the years most of the parade ground inside the walls
became crowded with little factories. A stone chapel with a picturesque
spire was added, as well as a hospital, quarters for female convicts, and a
thirty-foot treadmill wheel for grinding grain. In spite of all the
improvements, Simsbury’s jail was still a miserable place for the prisoners.
On the steps of the treadmill marched the incorrigible and the defiant,
through endless hours, often chained to their places, an overseer standing
by with a ready whip.
Newgate became one of early America’s great showplaces. During the early
1800s tourists traveled many miles to gaze upon the walled citadel
reminiscent of a Rhineland castle on a hillside. A journalist who visited in
1807 was allowed to tour the facilities and subsequently wrote an account
that portrays conditions at that time. Prisoners being moved from one
location to another were so heavily chained that they had to move by small
jumps rather than by walking. When they reached their place of work, the
chains were substituted for neck chains secured to the ceiling.
The journalist was escorted down the ladder to the dungeon below, commonly
referred to by the inmates as “Hell.” He found the floor covered with thick,
the odors unbearable, bunks of wet straw crawling with vermin, seepage from
the walls trickling into the living quarters everywhere. The noon meal
consisted of pickled pork, thrown by the guards on the floor of the forge,
where it was then picked up, washed and boiled in the same water that had
been used to cool the iron wrought at the forges. The evening meal consisted
of corn meal mush 365 days a year.
Punishment for refusing to work or for disobeying orders included reduction
in ration allowance, flogging, hanging by the heels, double or triple sets
of irons, and confinement in the stocks below ground.
Connecticut felt far from apologetic about its dungeon. “Public opinion in
this state would not support an establishment which was inhuman or
unnecessarily rigorous,” wrote Governor Oliver Wolcott. “The people are,
however, economical, and are not willing that rogues should become dangerous
to society, or inconveniently burdensome to honest men.”
Through a continual succession of fires, breaks and savage riots, Newgate
held its own until 1827, when the old mine tunnels were finally abandoned as
a prison, and the convicts moved to the comforts of a modern institution at
Wethersfield. Sociologists were advancing a new theory that prisoners might
be reformed under less stern discipline.
On September 28, 1827, the night before the final evacuation to
Wethersfield, there was one last fling at escape. Abel Starkey, with 17
years of his sentence for counterfeiting still ahead of him, could afford to
be reckless. For $50 he bribed a guard to leave the rope and water bucket
hanging in the seventy-foot shaft, which evidently, by this time, once again
had a more or less open top. Hand over hand he climbed up the frayed old
rope, but before he reached the top the rope snapped, and Abel was plunged
to his death in “Hell.”
It was indeed like Hell, in all respects except one: the souls condemned to
suffer there had the hope- never vain and often substantiated – of escape to
the cool, clean air of freedom.
Research for this article came from The Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911
edition, “Stone Walls do not a Prison Make” by W. Storrs Lee, published in
the February, 1967 “American Heritage” and publications of the Connecticut