- 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
She went up the scaffold steps, wearing pince-nez. “These are for my sister,” she said. “Please see that she gets them.” She took them off, and the hood and the rope were put on, and the trapdoor slammed down. Then, with what horror we can imagine, it was instantly seen that the new rope had not been tested for tension or spring and was too long. Mary Rogers shot down through the air, and the tips of her shoes touched the ground before she bounced up again. She came down, her toes reaching earth, and danced there.
Up on the scaffold platform the deputy sheriff, along with one of the two doctors on hand, snatched at the rope and yanked it up and awkwardly held on. For fourteen minutes Mary Rogers was swung back and forth like a pendulum, the next day’s papers said.
Her accomplice spent the remaining years of Theodore Roosevelt’s term, and those of Taft and Wilson, tacking on heels and soles in the Vermont State Prison shoe shop. By then the prison —the Big Joint on State Street—had been in Windsor for more than a century and was the subject of great myth. Folklore held that every second student seen in the grammar school 250 yards away, and in the high school 350 yards distant, was the offspring of an inmate, brought to Windsor by the inmate’s wife so that she and the family could be near Father. This was never so. There was a cluster of inmate families, but the numbers were always small. What few there were stood out, and there were cases of children sitting in class with other children whose fathers told their fathers what to do, enforcing the order when necessary with a club or a blackjack, for the cutlasses were gone, and such children were likely to be subject to ridicule and taunting. But the legend of an encompassing inmate-family culture dominating Windsor—great masses of people whose entire attention and focus was the Joint, children growing up in the shadow of Daddy’s place of imprisonment—was all bosh.
Just before going to the chair, Blair wrote his guard, “Hello Mr. Davis. ... believe me, it has been nice knowing you. Because you have always treated me like a man.”
In fact the prison was simply there, part of the landscape. Cells with barred windows facing the street were highly prized, for they offered a view of the passing world as Windsor grew and houses and pedestrians and automobiles replaced the woods. But if the inmates gazed out, Windsor did not stare back. No one much noticed the prison, or the prison farm, some four miles away on land largely purchased from the family of William M. Evarts, Andrew Johnson’s main defense attorney in his impeachment trial. Trusted inmates there cared for a herd of more than two hundred Holsteins and fourteen hundred chickens and a large hoggery supplying hospitals, homes for the retarded, and reform schools, whose inmates all too often, reform or no, would soon be at the Joint. There were large inmate-maintained gardens adjoining the prison, outside its walls, with greenhouses, canneries, and potato cellars. It all was simply part of the Windsor scene.
In those years the inmate magazine, The Monitor , was rather elegantly done up on glossy paper. It carried inspirational poetry, details on activities within the walls, and exchange items from other prisons’ publications. The 1915 Memorial Day observances included a concert by the prison band in which “Tipperary,” “America,” and “a few other numbers” followed the opening piece, “a snappy march.” Athletic events followed: the running broad jump, potato race, three-legged race, running high jump, and sack and barrel races. The prizes included tobacco contributed by Windsor citizens grateful for the inmates’ work in town cleaning streets and installing plants and flowers along them, plus Christmas decorations. For two decades the annual minstrel show was a popular event open to the public and presented for three nights in the mess hall, with skits and the band, which usually had a first and second violin, a clarinet, a tuba, first, second, and third trumpets, a saxophone, drums, and a piano. Baseball was always big in the prison, with several teams competing in the inmate league. The size of the yard did not permit use of a regulation hardball—home runs would too easily be hit out into that other world of freedom, with the ball probably lost—so a soft one was used. The prison’s allstar team played against the fire department and Goodyear and the Cone Automatic Machine Tools Company. There were no away games.
The last hanging was in the first month of 1914, for the murder by an Englishman of a young Essex Junction girl. He shot her nine times. After the execution a letter for him came in. The prison officials opened it. It was from his mother in Northampton: Arthur, you told me something was to happen on January 2, but I don’t understand what you meant . Future executions would be by electric chair.
The last prison extensions went up in 1928, raising the capacity to 352 inmates, whose incarceration provided Windsor with more than a hundred jobs plus large in-town purchases of goods. In addition to shoes, inmates made highway guardrails, furniture, mattresses, and the traditional license plates. By then the prison had electricity, and each cell contained an eight-candlepower bulb and a flush toilet.