- 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
The Second World War came and went. Inmates gave to the blood drives of the period. A decade after Japan’s surrender there was an escape that called forth the biggest manhunt in the history of New England. A large delivery truck had come in through the opened metal doors of the entranceway. The driver stepped out. He left the keys in the ignition.
Two inmates saw their chance. They gunned the truck at the closing metal doors, crashed through, then crashed through a second metal gate. The man in the guard tower had a rifle and a shotgun, but he could not be sure the prisoners didn’t have another guard with them as hostage and so held his fire. The prisoners sped away, ditched the truck, and broke into the home of a sleeping couple. The man got out of bed to see what the noise was and was hit with a three-foot length of iron pipe the escapees had picked up. He staggered out of his home. The two men stove in his wife’s head with the pipe and a metal file.
Aposse of two hundred police, prison employees, and volunteers searched the countryside, found the rnen hiding in some woods, and flushed them out with a fusillade of shots. One was a hulking brute serving a term for murder and always regarded as dangerous. The other, Francis Blair, was the product of a Dickensian childhood that saw him brought up in an orphanage after his mother had been consigned to a mental institution. He had been committed for grand larceny and nighttime breaking and entering. The men went on trial individually.
The court proceedings were held in Woodstock. The guard, or “custodial officer,” as the official job description had it, who each day supervised Blair’s trip to his trial and back, was Glen Davis. The salt of the earth is not uniformly utilized in the construction of prison guards, but Davis was notable for being upright, honest, and strong, a listener to and what is now called a role model for many of the men he normally oversaw in the license plate shop, among whom had been the man Davis escorted each day to the courtroom. During the lunch breaks he took Blair to a Woodstock restaurant. The prisoner wore heavy shackles and a special boot of tremendous weight.
The verdicts were “guilty.” Four hours before he went to the electric chair Blair wrote:
Feb. 8, 1954
Hello Mr. Davis
I am happy to have the opportunity to write you this last letter before I leave the World.
And believe me, it has been nice knowing you. Because you have always treated me like a man.
And I appreciate it very much. Say, Mr. Davis, how about a Pork Chop Dinner. That always was my favorite dish which I am sure you know about. When you took me to Woodstock, that was my favorite meal.
Well, I want to wish you all the Happiness in the World. And all the success.
And may your family have much Happiness. I will end for now so keep your chin up.
Good Bye and Good Luck.
Francis H. Blair
At Blair’s request, Davis was present at the execution. “It was the hardest thing I have ever had to do,” he said. Unclaimed prisoners were no longer being put in unmarked graves in the yard, so Francis Blair lies in the prison cemetery. He was thirty-one.
Thomas Michael Coxon lived across the street from the Vermont State Prison for part of his youth. His father was deputy warden, the second-incommand. The family had milk and vegetables from the farm and gardens and an inmate houseman who cooked and cleaned. Mike’s brother Matthew was baby-sat by convicts, and Mike played one-on-one basketball with them in his back yard and walked across the street to the prison for haircuts.
He went away to college, graduated, got a master’s in psychology, worked on planning and administration in the state corrections department, and returned to Windsor to be director of treatment and training at the prison. It was the worst period in American penological history, New York’s bloody Attica its symbol. All over the country the social turmoil of the late sixties and early seventies found expression in the prisons. There was tremendous unrest, with the establishment of prisoners’ rights groups, constant lawsuits, rebellion unknown to previous generations, and with society’s increased turn to violence on the outside mirrored behind prison walls in knives being held to hostages’ throats. It was so everywhere. In Windsor college radicals came to parade the streets, chanting, “Put the pigs in the pokey and the people on the streets!”