- Historic Sites
In Windsor Prison
IT BEGAN AS America’s most modern penal institution, and for generations the Vermont State Prison reflected the changing ways by which we thought we should punish our wrongdoers. Then a tormented era and a ghastly crime combined to end its old career—and give it a surprising new one.
May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
In addition to being protected against custodians’ unpleasant language or behavior, inmates were generously fed. The prison maintained four or five milk cows, and the daily ration included three gills (quarter pints) of Indian or rye meal, one gill of molasses, three-quarters of a pound of beef and potatoes or six ounces of pork with half a pint of peas or beans, one ounce of bread, and coffee in the morning, “which requires it is to be properly seasoned with salt.” Prisoners were shaved twice a week and got haircuts once a month. They changed their shirts once a week. Their pantaloons and spencers, “or what are more commonly called sailor jackets,” were of red and green woolen cloth, and they wore leather caps.
But this wasn’t some country club. Construction costs had risen above the legislatively allotted amount of $30,000 by $8,733.33; the taxpayers weren’t additionally going to foot bills so that prisoners could sit around in lordly indolence. Supervised by guards carrying cutlasses at all times and forbidden ever to address their charges save to give orders, the inmates hammered out tons of nails for sale by the state. They were also put to shoemaking. Both endeavors proved unprofitable. Many of the prisoners, an 1810 report noted, appeared “more anxious to injure than to benefit the institution” and deliberately ruined nails even as they manufactured unwearable shoes. A happy solution was found: The prison purchased a score of looms. That meant that the results of a destructive prisoner’s malevolent deficiencies could easily be detected by the master weaver, and because the work was not too physically demanding, the aged and infirm could also perform while “otherwise they would do nothing but eat and sleep.” However questionable their work ethic, the inmates soon were weaving thousands of yards of fine cloth annually, “from the most elegant diapers to the coarsest flannels.” Shortly the Vermont State Prison at Windsor was paying its way entirely and turning over end-of-year profits of a few hundred dollars to the state.
Counterfeiting fell off. Commitments for horse stealing increased dramatically, and many people were locked up for highway robbery. As in the cases of other new prisons springing up across the country, visiting the institution became an early-day tourist attraction for Windsor. (When Charles Dickens visited America, he said that the two things he most wished to see were Niagara Falls and Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary.) The Vermont State Prison opened its doors to the public on Thursdays, and sometimes, the would-be scholar Russell records, one thousand citizens came to see the inmates, whose uniforms shortly changed to the black-andwhite-striped outfits seen in Warner Brothers movies of the 1930s. When the prisoners were moved about en masse, to dinner or out into the walled yard for fresh air, they went in lock step, each wedged close up to the man in front and with one hand on his shoulder, with all heads turned to the side, and with absolute silence enforced. Refractory men went about in chains, shackled one to another. There were lines painted down the center of the aisles in front of the five-foot-sixinch by seven-foot-six-inch cells, and coming or going, the shuffling prisoners had to stay on those lines. Anyone who really acted up got solitary confinement on bread and water for up to forty days, or streams from a fire hose pouring into his cell—the water treatment. There was recourse to the whip.
Prisoners—with names like Bildad Easton, Ebenezer Young, Ludowick Luce, Moses Woodbury, Hiram Bentorn, Levi Noble, Silas Themley, and Gideon Wheeler, old-fashioned names that seem to conjure up the image of New England in the first decades of the nineteenth century—died in confinement at Windsor by suicide, by being shot while attempting escape, by drowning in the well, of dysentery, and most often of typhoid. Their names for the most part were never on a marker or cross. If relatives claimed a body, they were free to come bear away and bury it where they wished. But prisoners usually didn’t have welloff families able to take time off from work. Unclaimed inmates were interred in the prison yard without service or stone.
Some prisoners died at the end of a rope. In early days Vermont capital cases were dealt with throughout the state, but in 1839 the legislature ruled that all executions would take place in the Windsor prison yard. (The last nonyard hanging, of Archibald Bates in Bennington, was a gala affair. Some fifteen thousand spectators attended.) A temporary scaffold would be erected, the trap sprung, the dead man likely buried in the yard, and the scaffold put away until the next time.
Breach of promise, alienation of affection, murder, manslaughter, stealing a ride on a railroad train, lewd and lascivious conduct, keeping a house of ill fame, open and gross lewdness, and, by far the most common charge, being a tramp: The incarceration of felons was a growth industry. In 1830 the prison was enlarged. There would be several more enlargements, the last a century after the first.