February 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 2
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.
Prison keeper John Viets was new at his job. In fact, his prison, official lockup for the colony of Connecticut, was new. On December 22, 1773, the Simsbury dungeon, soon to be known as Newgate, had seen service for only twenty days.
Viets, a congenial man, had taken over the post of turnkey more as an accommodation to the General Assembly and the prison overseers than out of any enthusiasm for penology. His real calling was playing host at Viets Tavern across the highway, but the overseers had persuaded him that he could easily make one job out of the two.
“A sharp eye, a keen ear, and a ready hand with the musket” were the three qualifications they had emphasized. There would be no need to maintain a watch except at night, but meals would have to be provided two or three times a day, and cells and surroundings checked frequently after dark. That was all that would be required. So Viets accepted the part-time position of colony jailer and on December 2 received his first charge, a man named John Hinson.
Young Hinson was no ordinary prisoner. He was an elusive character who had done time in half a dozen county jails between escapades as peddler of stolen wares, impostor at church fairs, and general transgressor of Connecticut’s blue laws. With his glib and facile manner, he could talk his way out of scrapes almost as fast as he got into them, and usually succeeded in talking his way out of county jails as well. “He’s sly, ornery, cunning as a viper,” the magistrate had warned when yielding him to Viets. “If there is any way of breaking out of Simsbury jail, Hinson will find it.”
But obviously there was no possible escape from the Simsbury jail. Everybody knew that. Connecticut had taken over an old copper mine on the sheer slope of Talcott Mountain, fourteen miles north of Hartford, closed off the drain and a few of the subterranean passages that angled back under the hill, capped the main shaft with a heavy iron grill, and built a guardhouse over it. For a total expenditure of $375, the colony had an impregnable prison. It wasn’t even necessary to cover a second shaft that led down into the mine, for that was a hole the size of a well, cut seventy feet through solid rock and overgrown with slippery moss that even a human fly could not conceivably climb; actually it was a well: at its base deep in the mine lay a spring of crystal-clear water, and by means of an old windlass built over the opening, water as well as ore had been hauled up for more than half a century.
The jail was nothing more than a dank, dismal cavern with one accessible entrance, down which a forty-foot ladder led to the depths from the guardhouse. Year round the temperature below remained an uncomfortable fifty degrees or thereabouts; the only sound was the everlasting rhythmical drip of water, and the only light the daylight at the bottom of the well shaft, unless a prisoner cared to procure his own candles.
To John Viets, who loved the conviviality of a taproom, watching over a lone prisoner proved anything but agreeable. He found it difficult to cultivate a very strong dislike for the inmate, for, despite the warnings of the magistrate, he discovered him to be in no way ornery. In fact, Hinson was so co-operative, so amicable, so docile, that the jail keeper, after a few days, had exercised the authority allowed by the overseers and removed the prisoner’s fetters, giving him the run of the great underground vault. (As the ex-peddler himself had suggested, chains were somewhat superfluous, considering the security of the place.) Constitutionally the tavern host wished to be at peace with all men, and Viets made his peace with Hinson by adding a mug of rum to the menu, smuggling slabs of pumpkin pie for him out of Mrs. Viets’ larder, and paying him long social visits in the caverns.
But on December 22, something about Hinson’s familiar attitude of the previous evening had set the jailer to wondering whether the peddler might not be taking advantage of his companionship. It might be well to exercise caution and discontinue the fraternal overtures for a few days.
The night of December 22 was remarkably dull. Viets sat alone in the guardhouse. A thick wet snow was falling outside, slanting in from the south like a wall of cotton. A foot or two of it had already accumulated in the roads, blocking all traffic. The guest rooms in the tavern were empty; Viets’ taproom was deserted. He was moody, cold, and feeling sorry for himself—sorry, too, for John Hinson in his solitude.
To break the monotony, the prison keeper had twice sent a cheerful “Hello,” down the shaft and received the usual prompt response. Each time the two men had exchanged jocular comment about the weather topside compared to the more moderate climate below, but Viets held his resolve to keep his distance.
Then, toward midnight, the jailer was startled by an unusual creaking sound in the yard. He went to the door with his lantern and peered out for a full minute, but against the blanket of snow he couldn’t see six feet. All was silence except for the soft plummeting of clumps of snow released from overburdened branches and the periodic cracking of boughs giving way under the accumulation. Reassured that the noise was nothing but nature, Viets closed the door. Then, as an afterthought, he decided he might make one more call down the shaft. He shouted the usual summons.
There was no answer.
“Hinson! Hinson!” he repeated.
Still no reply. It was strange. Hinson never slept so soundly that he wasn’t quickly roused.
Laboriously Viets unlocked the trap door. With a truncheon hidden under his jacket and the lantern awkwardly dangling from his wrist, he let himself down, locked the grill above, and descended the iron ladder.
Hinson’s bunk of straw was unoccupied. The rock ledge on which he kept his scant collection of toilet articles was bare. The keeper started a search. In the dim light he roamed through corridor after corridor, calling as he went. He knew every corner and cranny of the passageways and knew how a man could hug a turn and spring upon his enemy from the side. Gripping his truncheon, he carefully felt his way around, growing more and more irritated. He paused under the seventy-foot auxiliary shaft and looked up. A light mist of melting snowflakes dampened his face. There were tracks around the spring at his feet, but nothing out of the ordinary. He ransacked every chamber of the caverns. Hinson was not there. The Simsbury prison was empty.
That leave-taking was the first of many mysterious departures from Connecticut’s trusted jail, but failure to detain inmates for long never seemed to weaken the faith of lawmakers in its impregnability. As fast as particularly malevolent derelicts could be rounded up, they were put into Viets’ custody, and they absconded almost as fast. A trio confined in February made their getaway early in April. Sometimes prisoners disappeared singly, sometimes en masse. One resourceful desperado chose to remain only four days.
Guards were doubled and quadrupled, and still the clandestine breaks continued. The curb of the well shaft was fitted with a grate as ponderous as the entrance hatch. Hourly checks were made on the prisoners below ground; many of them were shackled and chained in solitary cells. Viets was succeeded by a crusty militia officer; the guards were frequently changed. Still the Simsbury mine couldn’t contain its convicts.
Sometimes it was weeks or months before the mystery of an escape was solved, but generally the truth boiled down to this: prisoners had too many helpful friends at large. “We believe it is not possible for any person to escape unless by assistance from abroad,” reported the embarrassed overseers to the General Assembly. “No place ever was or can be made so secure that if persons from abroad can have free access to such prison, the prisoners will not escape.”
That was the way Hinson had left, but with him romance had entered the plot. His rescuer, it turned out, was a faithful mistress who had tramped over the snowbound hills with a 100-foot coil of stout rope over her shoulder, and let it down the well shaft.
To prevent this sort of thing, half-ton stones were cemented into the curbing of the well shaft, nearly covering the iron grating so that only a narrow slit for ventilation remained. Over the main entrance a sturdy two-story blockhouse was constructed of timbers ten inches square. The work was done with the help of prison labor under armed guard. Somehow every last one of the laborers slipped away before the roof was on.
For a time it appeared that those caverns in the side of Talcott Mountain weren’t going to be any more successful as a prison than they had been as a copper mine. It was in 1705 when the local citizens had first been set agog by the report that “there is a mine either of silvar or coper found in the town,” and for the next seventy years one corporation after another sprang up—in Hartford, New York, Boston, London, and even in Sweden—to finance mining operations. Altogether around a million dollars was sunk in those hills north of Hartford, in a day when three or four thousand dollars was a lavish sum to expend on a single colonial enterprise. Tons of yellowish-blue copper ore were taken out of Talcott Mountain, but the ore was of a poor grade, and the copper was hard to extract. Few of the investors ever got their money back.
Finally, in 1773, the Connecticut legislature decided that the colony itself should give it a try, using prison labor. For the bargain bid of $375, an unexpired lease was purchased and the mines “fortified.” The idea was to have a few expert miners employed with the prisoners, and after a larger blockhouse was constructed, picks and shovels were doled out to the convicts. But the system didn’t work. Miners became too friendly with prisoners and too readily entered into their escape plots. Furthermore, the tools required for mining were just the tools needed for escape. Mining and penology didn’t mix.
The picks and shovels were collected, and the politicians concentrated on establishing a stronghold that would be escapeproof. Even that effort, as we have seen, was not successful, and it is probable that Simsbury prison would have been abandoned if the rebels of Lexington and Concord had held their fire. The Revolution introduced a demand for prison lodgings exactly on the order of Simsbury’s.
Between 1773 and 1775 practically every prisoner confined there had managed to escape in one way or another, yet word of the dungeon’s horrors had spread faster than news of its insecurity. In derision the place had been dubbed “Newgate,” after England’s more formidable stronghold, but as awe-inspiring descriptions of underground life at Simsbury circulated, the name stuck. Newgate it was to people who had never heard of the little mining town. And by late 1775 the Simsbury prison had been in fact made much more secure. Confidently the overseers reported to the General Assembly that every possible exit had been cut off, that they were prepared to take on the most incorrigible outlaws.
The overseers were not the only ones who had confidence in the security measures. On December 11, 1775, from Cambridge, Massachusetts, an important gentleman then engaged in putting his country on a war footing addressed a note to the Committee of Safety at Simsbury:
Gentn.: The prisoners which will be delivered you with this, having been tried by a Court Martial, and deemed to be such flagrant and attrocious villains that they cannot by any means be set at large or confined in any place near this Camp, were sentenced to be sent to Symsbury in Connecticut; you will therefore be pleased to have them secured in your Jail … so that they cannot possibly make their escape … I am, &c George Washington
With the arrival of that uncongenial note of introduction and of the contingent of Tories that accompanied it, Simsbury’s Newgate was in business as the first national penitentiary. Crowded into the dripping black caverns seventy feet below the surface were political dissidents, as well as horse thieves, perverts, counterfeiters, and common miscreants. Veteran criminals sentenced to life terms were herded together with young boys doing three months for misdemeanors. On long wooden shelves strewn with straw they were bunked body to body, dovetailed to save space, so that one man’s feet rested on the next man’s pillow.
At the discretion of the jailer, agitators were shackled and the violent and insane permanently chained in gloomy recesses. “Prisoners in this gaol are treated precisely as tigers are treated in a menagerie,” a visitor observed. “From all persons in and about the gaol, you hear nothing but the ferocious disposition of the prisoners and of the continual fear in which they keep their keepers. Everything that human art can do is done to brutify and inflame the victims.”
Those confined in the guardhouse, however, always felt that they were in closer touch with the outside world, and occasionally they proved it. A routine count of the Jug prisoners revealed one morning that a wiry fellow named Newman, thin as a cornstalk, was missing. Certainly he had been spirited away, for there was not the slightest sign of a breach in the stone walls. Under a brutal inquisition of his companions the facts leaked out. Every night for weeks, while the guards were pacing menacingly overhead, a massive stone weighing half a ton had been pried out of the floor, a few handfuls of dirt scooped out and thrown down the shaft, and ,the stone carefully replaced. Again and again the back-straining operation had been repeated until a burrow just big enough for the slender Newman to crawl through was dug into the prison yard. The others would have used the exit too, but a protruding ledge made it impossible to shape a larger hole; so his accessories had to do months of penance for Newman. In their off-duty hours they were forced to lay a second, immovable floor over the first.
Existence in the Simsbury dungeon was so unbearable that getting out was the one incentive that kept its inmates alive. All the time-tested methods of escape from prison were tried. One alert ruffian attained freedom by substituting his body for a corpse. Again, with superhuman patience men waited for weeks to slug a guard under exactly the right conditions and then took their chances on being able to fight their way out. Others pooled their resources for a bribe big enough to persuade an attendant to leave a door unlocked for a single member to escape—only one per fee.
The year 1776 brought the first crude mass attempt to burn a way to freedom. During the days of the mining operations a long drainage channel large enough for a man to crawl through had been blasted from the lowest floor level to the outer hill slope. The overseers had closed it with a massive oak door studded with iron. Attempts to break down the door or to chip away at it had proved fruitless, so the inmates decided to try burning it. Over a period of weeks quantities of kindling were smuggled below, a little at a time, until at last there was enough for a sizable bonfire. It was piled against the door, and a blaze was started with a flint. For a time the fire burned merrily as the flames licked at the wooden barricade. The prisoners were confident that the door would be demolished in an hour or two. But there was no one among them with a sufficiently scientific turn of mind to foresee the combined effect of the noxious fumes and the limited supply of oxygen. The smoke billowed along the ceilings of the cave. Gasping, hysterical men scrambled for air in lower chambers and found it thin. They clawed their way to the air shafts and were gagged there by the poisonous fumes. One by one they were overcome.
Above, the guards smelled smoke but were wise enough to know what a fire in the caverns would do to the occupants. They waited, and after the conflagration had died down of its own accord and the air had cleared, they carried out the dead and the unconscious.
After that unsuccessful attempt, all prisoners were jammed into the Jug while the drain was being plugged with stone and mortar, except for an air vent the size of an eaves trough. It was an unwise move, for in their anger over the congestion they set fire to the timbered ceiling, and all might have perished in the flames. But in the ensuing confusion the guards lost their heads—and lost most of their charges as well.
The number of Tories and culprits ready to take the place of any escapees seemed inexhaustible. The blockhouse was quickly rebuilt, stronger than ever, with a whipping stall, separate dungeons in the basement, and double hatchways at the main shaft entrance. Some thirty desperadoes were ushered through it into the caverns, and this was the group that staged Simsbury’s most famous break.
At the time, the confinement of the prisoners was so essential to the welfare of the country that the guard was increased to twenty-four privates under a corporal, a sergeant, and a lieutenant. The privates were required at all times to carry loaded muskets with bayonets fixed; the officers, cutlasses and pistols. There were almost as many guards as prisoners; they were cocky about their strength, and as undisciplined as they were confident. For once the custodians were almost humane, treating their charges with social deference and even permitting them visitors occasionally.
Abagail, wife of prisoner Jonathan Young, presented herself to the lieutenant late on the night of May 18, 1781. She begged permission to spend an hour with her husband, submitted to a careful search of her person, overlooked the ribald asides from the non-coms, and was cheerfully led by two of them to the hatch at the top of the shaft.
But Abagail’s call was not unexpected, either by Jonathan or his associates. It was part of a carefully plotted escape plan. On the ladder leading down the shaft were mounted most of the prisoners, armed with stones or any piece of metal they had been able to sneak into their quarters. No sooner was the hatch unlocked than strong arms from below heaved it upward, and the desperadoes poured forth. The officers were quickly overpowered, and their arms taken. Privates on night duty surrendered easily, and those asleep were given little chance to resist. Several prisoners were severely gashed by their own comrades during the scuffle in the dark, but by midnight every convict able to travel was over the hill. Behind them they left one dying officer, six privates stabbed or shot, and the entire company of jailers—regardless of their condition—locked in the dungeon. It was morning before the dash to freedom was known to the outside world, and by then it was too late to recover more than a handful of the escapees.
That break from what was often regarded as the strongest prison on the American side of the Atlantic was a painful embarrassment to Connecticut. The legislature was in session at Hartford at the time, and not a day was lost in starting an investigation. The most excoriating censure was expended upon members of the guard. “A young man more fit to carry fish to market than to keep guard at Newgate!” they flung at Jacob Southwell, who had had sense enough to remain out of the fray. “A small lad just fit to drive a plow with a very gentle team,” was the sarcastic charge cast at Nathan Phelps.
But that wasn’t the end of Newgate. With the same unyielding resolution demonstrated after other Revolutionary defeats, colonial officials once more patched up the prison and repopulated it; rough, tough, brutal guards were substituted for the lenient ones.
Among the prisoners privileged to participate in the new order was a champion of King George named Simeon Baxter, a free-spoken clergyman incarcerated for high treason. Over the years the prison population had known some stout leaders, but never one who could equal the vituperative Mr. Baxter. In the depths of Talcott Mountain he set up his pulpit, and on weekdays as well as on the Sabbath preached his doctrine of retribution, scorn, and escape.
Baxter modestly labelled himself “Licentiate in Divinity and Voluntary Chaplain to those Prisoners in the Apartment called Orcus,” but his sermons were very much at odds with the messages delivered every Sunday in the prison-yard nail factory by pastors from the surrounding countryside. Attendance at those services was compulsory. Surrounded by fixed bayonets, tractable prisoners were marched to benches before an improvised altar in the shop; the less docile were herded out of the pit in shackles and were chained to blocks while the minister propounded an orthodox discourse according to the gospel of Congress and Jonathan Edwards, and a choir of public-spirited ladies from Simsbury or Hartford chanted inspirational psalms.
The congregation was torn between the two philosophies, but Baxter’s sermons obviously made the deeper impression. Whenever he discovered a lagging spirit content to put up with the miseries of Newgate, the Licentiate in Divinity quickly restored the man to a proper perspective. Henry Wooster, sentenced to four years for participating in a Tory raid on a private home in Bethany, was a man after Baxter’s heart. Upon arrival underground, Wooster made a meticulous survey of the prison and concluded that the only possible route of escape was down the drain that had so recently been blockaded and barred.
Egged on by Baxter, he first contrived to fashion a key with which he could lock and unlock his fetters at will. Then from the nail shop he stole fragments of nail rods, concealed them in his clothes, and carried them below. He started to work, picking at the mortar which held the bars. One by one they were removed, so cleverly that they could be fitted back in place to conceal the evidence of tampering. With longer pieces of pilfered nail rod he started chipping away at the drain, breaking the mortar, prying out pieces of stone and hiding them in distant passageways.
Barely able to stand up, Wooster appeared for roll call a few minutes later; the following week he led down the drain to freedom all the prisoners whose fetters he had been able to unlock. The evacuation was discovered sooner than the evacuees had hoped, and many of them were recaptured—but not the tricky Wooster. Climbing a hemlock a few yards from the exit, he hid in the topmost branches and for twenty-four hours watched his pursuers milling around below. When they had given up, he eased himself down and sauntered away unmolested.
Those who failed to escape with Wooster had to wait for another chance until the following year, when headquarters were again set afire. A magnificent blaze that reddened the sky all the way to Hartford was kindled by privileged trusties housed in the Jug. A scared guard, Abel Davis, was responsible for releasing those in the pits. For his humanity he was rewarded with three months’ imprisonment. Davis balked at the treatment, going over the heads of his superiors and writing directly to the General Assembly for remission of his sentence:
Whare as I was confided of mis Deminer on the count of Newgate being burnt as I had command of said gard and was ordered to be confind three month for disabaing orders … but I did all in my power to distingus the flame, but being much frited … I thot it best to let out the prisoners that war in the botams as I had just time to get the gates lifted before the hous was in flames. …
But the long-suffering Assembly was much too mortified to grant favors.
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.
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.
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.