Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make

Prison keeper John Viets was new at his job. In fact, his prison, official lockup for the colony of Connecticut, was new. On December 22, 1773, the Simsbury dungeon, soon to be known as Newgate, had seen service for only twenty days.

Viets, a congenial man, had taken over the post of turnkey more as an accommodation to the General Assembly and the prison overseers than out of any enthusiasm for penology. His real calling was playing host at Viets Tavern across the highway, but the overseers had persuaded him that he could easily make one job out of the two.

“A sharp eye, a keen ear, and a ready hand with the musket” were the three qualifications they had emphasized. There would be no need to maintain a watch except at night, but meals would have to be provided two or three times a day, and cells and surroundings checked frequently after dark. That was all that would be required. So Viets accepted the part-time position of colony jailer and on December 2 received his first charge, a man named John Hinson.

Young 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, impostor at church fairs, and general transgressor of Connecticut’s blue laws. With his glib and facile 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. “He’s sly, ornery, cunning as a viper,” the magistrate had warned when yielding him to Viets. “If there is any way of breaking out of Simsbury jail, Hinson will find it.”

But obviously there was no possible escape from the Simsbury jail. Everybody knew that. Connecticut had taken over an old copper mine on the sheer slope of Talcott Mountain, fourteen miles north of Hartford, closed off the drain and a few of the subterranean passages that angled back under the hill, capped the main shaft with a heavy iron grill, and built a guardhouse over it. For a total expenditure of $375, the colony had an impregnable prison. It wasn’t even necessary to cover a second shaft that led down into the mine, for that was a hole the size of a well, cut seventy feet through solid rock and overgrown with slippery moss that even a human fly could not conceivably climb; actually it was a well: at its base deep in the mine lay a spring of crystal-clear water, and by means of an old windlass built over the opening, water as well as ore had been hauled up for more than half a century.

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 below remained an uncomfortable fifty degrees or thereabouts; the only sound was the everlasting rhythmical drip of water, and the only light the daylight at the bottom of the well shaft, unless a prisoner cared to procure his own candles.

To John Viets, who loved the conviviality of a taproom, watching over a lone prisoner proved anything but agreeable. He found it difficult to cultivate a very strong dislike for the inmate, for, despite the warnings of the magistrate, he discovered him to be in no way ornery. In fact, Hinson was so co-operative, so amicable, so docile, that the jail keeper, after a few days, had exercised the authority allowed by the overseers and removed the prisoner’s fetters, giving him the run of the great underground vault. (As the ex-peddler himself had suggested, chains were somewhat superfluous, considering the security of the place.) Constitutionally the tavern host wished to be at peace with all men, and Viets made his peace with Hinson by adding a mug of rum to the menu, smuggling slabs of pumpkin pie for him out of Mrs. Viets’ larder, and paying him long social visits in the caverns.

But on December 22, something about Hinson’s familiar attitude of the previous evening had set the jailer to wondering whether the peddler might not be taking advantage of his companionship. It might be well to exercise caution and discontinue the fraternal overtures for a few days.

The night of December 22 was remarkably dull. Viets sat alone in the guardhouse. A thick wet snow was falling outside, slanting in from the south like a wall of cotton. A foot or two of it had already accumulated in the roads, blocking all traffic. The guest rooms in the tavern were empty; Viets’ taproom was deserted. He was moody, cold, and feeling sorry for himself—sorry, too, for John Hinson in his solitude.

To break the monotony, the prison keeper had twice sent a cheerful “Hello,” down the shaft and received the usual prompt response. Each time the two men had exchanged jocular comment about the weather topside compared to the more moderate climate below, but Viets held his resolve to keep his distance.