- 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
The picks and shovels were collected, and the politicians concentrated on establishing a stronghold that would be escapeproof. Even that effort, as we have seen, was not successful, and 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 name stuck. Newgate it was to people who had never heard of the little mining town. And by late 1775 the Simsbury prison had been in fact made much more secure. 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.
The overseers were not the only ones who had confidence in the security measures. On December 11, 1775, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, 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 attrocious 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 George Washington
With the arrival of that uncongenial note of introduction and of the contingent of Tories that accompanied it, Simsbury’s Newgate was in business as the first national penitentiary. Crowded into the dripping black caverns seventy feet below the surface were political dissidents, as well as horse thieves, perverts, counterfeiters, and common miscreants. Veteran criminals sentenced to life terms were herded together with young boys doing three months for misdemeanors. On long wooden shelves strewn with straw they were bunked body to body, dovetailed to save space, so that one man’s feet rested on the next man’s pillow.
At the discretion of the jailer, agitators were shackled and the violent and insane permanently chained in gloomy recesses. “Prisoners in this gaol are treated precisely as tigers are treated in a menagerie,” a visitor observed. “From all persons in and about the gaol, you hear nothing but the ferocious disposition of the prisoners and of the continual fear in which they keep their keepers. Everything that human art can do is done to brutify and inflame the victims.”
Inmates of a more conciliatory nature were lodged in the stone basement of the guardhouse, known as the “Jug,” but there was little difference between their treatment and the treatment of those below. They were provided with the same musty straw for bedding, led forth in chains every morning at four o’clock for compulsory labor in a nail factory, thrown the same half-edible food, given the same number of lashes for disobedience, and returned to their cells at four in the afternoon to crouch in darkness. In fact, convicts often begged to be placed in the caverns, where there was greater variety of companionship and where the air was less foul; the shaft vented into the apartment above all the nauseating underground odors.
Those confined in the guardhouse, however, always felt that they were in closer touch with the outside world, and occasionally they proved it. A routine count of the Jug prisoners revealed one morning that a wiry fellow named Newman, thin as a cornstalk, was missing. Certainly he had been spirited away, for there was not the slightest sign of a breach in the stone walls. Under a brutal inquisition of his companions the facts leaked out. Every night for weeks, while the guards were pacing menacingly overhead, a massive stone weighing half a ton had been pried out of the floor, a few handfuls of dirt scooped out and thrown down the shaft, and ,the stone carefully replaced. Again and again the back-straining operation had been repeated until a burrow just big enough for the slender Newman to crawl through was dug into the prison yard. The others would have used the exit too, but a protruding ledge made it impossible to shape a larger hole; so his accessories had to do months of penance for Newman. In their off-duty hours they were forced to lay a second, immovable floor over the first.
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 alert ruffian attained freedom by substituting his body for a corpse. Again, with superhuman patience men waited for weeks to slug a guard under exactly the right conditions and then took their chances on being able to fight their way out. Others pooled their resources for a bribe big enough to persuade an attendant to leave a door unlocked for a single member to escape—only one per fee.