- 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
For dinner the staple diet was corned beef or salt pork, with peas or potatoes occasionally; for supper, corn-meal mush year in and year out. All prisoners were allowed a daily ration of a pint of hard cider. They were permitted to swap rations, exchange commodities, barter with the guards, buy and sell as they chose. Many an inmate with cash on hand lived in a perpetual glow from the quantities of cider he exchanged for pork, or from the hard liquor he bribed , the guards to procure for him at Viets Tavern.
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 continued 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, and another group of overconfident capitalists had their eyes on Talcott Mountain. They were sure there was still pay dirt in the chambers occupied by two generations of Tories, horse thieves, and counterfeiters.
On September 28, 1827, the night before the final evacuation to Wethersfield, there was one last fling at escape. Abel Starkey, with seventeen years of his sentence for counterfeiting still ahead of him, could afford to be reckless. For fifty dollars 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.”
“The plague spot on American prison history,” a critic called the Simsbury experiment. Another added: “There probably has not been on earth a stronger emblem of the pit than the sleeping rooms of that prison, so filthy, so crowded, so inclined to evil, so unrestrained.” And the evidence still exists. A gruesome museum—now in East Granby because of a relocation of town lines—bears witness to the tortures inflicted at Newgate. The ruins of the treadmill, the workshops, the chapel, and the guardhouse are there, and in a glow of electric lights one can climb down the old ladder to recapture a hint of the underground “plague spot” known to hundreds of prisoners between 1773 and 1827. It was indeed like Hell, in all respects save one: the souls condemned to suffer there had the hope—never vain and often substantiated—of escape to the cool, clean air of freedom.