- Historic Sites
Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make
The horrors of Connecticut's maximum-security dungeon at Simsbury were notorious even abroad. Yet time and again its inmates proved that, with a clever escape plan, stone walls do not a prison make.
February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
Then, toward midnight, the jailer was startled by an unusual creaking sound in the yard. He went to the door with his lantern and peered out for a full minute, but against the blanket of snow he couldn’t see six feet. All was silence except for the soft plummeting of clumps of snow released from overburdened branches and the periodic cracking of boughs giving way under the accumulation. Reassured that the noise was nothing but nature, Viets closed the door. Then, as an afterthought, he decided he might make one more call down the shaft. He shouted the usual summons.
There was no answer.
“Hinson! Hinson!” he repeated.
Still no reply. It was strange. Hinson never slept so soundly that he wasn’t quickly roused.
Laboriously Viets unlocked the trap door. With a truncheon hidden under his jacket and the lantern awkwardly dangling from his wrist, he let himself down, locked the grill above, and descended the iron ladder.
Hinson’s bunk of straw was unoccupied. The rock ledge on which he kept his scant collection of toilet articles was bare. The keeper started a search. In the dim light he roamed through corridor after corridor, calling as he went. He knew every corner and cranny of the passageways and knew how a man could hug a turn and spring upon his enemy from the side. Gripping his truncheon, he carefully felt his way around, growing more and more irritated. He paused under the seventy-foot auxiliary shaft and looked up. A light mist of melting snowflakes dampened his face. There were tracks around the spring at his feet, but nothing out of the ordinary. He ransacked every chamber of the caverns. Hinson was not there. The Simsbury prison was empty.
That 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 particularly malevolent 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 days.
Guards were doubled and quadrupled, and still the clandestine breaks continued. The curb 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 them were shackled and chained in solitary cells. Viets was succeeded by a crusty militia officer; 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 General Assembly. “No place ever was or can be made so secure that if persons from abroad can have free access to such prison, the prisoners will not escape.”
That was 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 snowbound hills with a 100-foot coil of stout rope over her shoulder, and let it down the well shaft.
To prevent this sort of thing, half-ton stones were cemented into the curbing 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 in 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 when the local citizens had first been set agog by the report that “there is a mine either of silvar or coper found in the town,” and for the next seventy 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 north of Hartford, in a day when three or four thousand dollars was a lavish sum to expend on a single colonial enterprise. Tons of yellowish-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 plots. Furthermore, the tools required for mining were just the tools needed for escape. Mining and penology didn’t mix.