- 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
In the five years that Newgate had 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—in fact, its reputation seemed so firmly entrenched that Congress decided to use it “for the reception of British prisoners of war and for the purpose of retaliation.” But the Revolution was over before the captured redcoats arrived, and after 1783 federal interest in the mines as a jail began to slack off.
The Connecticut Yankees, however, lost none of their 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.
But the wooden barrier proved to be much too destructible, so the prisoners were set to work replacing it with a great stone wall twelve feet high and adding a moat on the western exposure. Between convicts and attendants badinage flowed freely during the long months of construction, and such a fine esprit de corps evolved from the joint operation that a banquet for all the builders was held when it was completed in 1802. “Here’s to the great wall,” ran one of the toasts supplied by a prisoner, “may it be like the walls of Jericho and tumble down at the sound of a ram’s horn.” And to the captain of the guard, who had little more freedom than his charges and a great many more anxieties, the cups were raised: “Here’s health to the Captain and all the rest of the prisoners.”
From nail-making, the prison industry branched out into coopering and blacksmithing, manufacture of wagons and plows, production of boots and shoes, and the apparently inevitable basket weaving. 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. But despite 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 lash.
Newgate became one of early America’s great showplaces. During the early 1800s tourists travelled many miles to witness the spectacle of the walled citadel perched like a Rhineland castle on the hillside above the broad valley of the Farmington River. It was a major attraction, too, for European visitors. Only persons of distinction or accredited relatives of quiet prisoners ever got inside, but enough of them recorded their impressions to leave an indelible picture.
A globe-trotting journalist, Edward A. Kendall, entered the grounds in 1807 just as the bell was summoning the prisoners to work. He saw them straggling across the yard in twos and threes accompanied by guards with levelled and loaded firearms. The inmates were ordered to “heave up” from below, and their emergence with chains clanking and eyes glaring at bystanders “resembled, perhaps, more than anything the belching from the bottomless pit.”
“Heavily ironed, secured both by hand-cuffs and fetters, and being therefore unable to walk,” Kendall continued, “they could make their way only by a jump or a hop. On entering the smithy, some went to the sides of the forges where collars, dependent by iron chains from the roof, were fastened around their necks, and others were chained in pairs to wheelbarrows.”
Kendall was proudly ushered down the ladder to view the underground area, commonly known as “Hell.” He found the floor covered with thick, pasty slime, the odors unbearable, bunks of wet straw crawling with vermin, seepage from the walls trickling into the living quarters everywhere. Making a hurried retreat aboveground, he paid a second visit to the smithy during the lunch period. “I found the attendants of the prison,” he reported, “delivering pickled pork for the dinner of the prisoners. Pieces were given separately to the parties at each forge. They were thrown upon the floor and left to be washed and boiled in the water used for cooling the iron wrought at the forges.”
The rules for maintenance of the prison were very simple. Convicts were required to perform a “reasonable day’s labor” in the shops from sunrise to sunset; the rest of the time they were to be confined to their quarters. Punishments 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. Implementation of the rules was left entirely to the discretion of the keeper. He had authority to shackle offenders and impose penalties as he chose. Those who were “diligent, faithful, and obedient” he could reward with “ardent spirits” in such quantities as he deemed wise, and could even allow them employment, under guard, in the fields of neighboring farmers.