May/June 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 3
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.
The official name for the various high school teams was the Yellowjackets, and their home backers called them the Jacks. Not so fans attending away games. At any Vermont gym or field but their own the players were referred to as the Prisontowners.
The official name for the various high school teams was the Yellowjackets, and their home backers called them the Jacks. Not so fans attending away games. At any Vermont gym or field but their own the players were referred to as the Prisontowners.
That defined Windsor despite the Goodyear plant and the big automatic machine-tools place and the town’s historical background, which had seen early officials write the state constitution there. Montpelier was the state capital, Windsor the site of the state penitentiary. It was decided in 1807.
The citizens of the day were delighted when it was ruled that they could have the prison. In addition to paying along with other Vermonters the one-cent-per-acre special construction levy on all privately owned land, Windsor’s people were happy to provide the raw materials for the projected prison. They quarried five thousand tons of granite from Mount Ascutney, some three miles from the village, and brought it by oxcart to the wooded area where the prison would be. In the spring of 1808 the cornerstone was drawn from the mountain’s base and, records an early chronicler, was taken with “utmost splendor” to the construction site. A crowd of hundreds, if not to say thousands, followed a procession attended by martial music. The cornerstone was laid to the crash of cannon.
In the following year, 1809, the prison opened for business. There were twenty-four inmates, whose crimes included manslaughter, theft, rape, horse stealing, and, in more than half the cases, counterfeiting. Their massive new stone residence—castlelike, eightyfive feet by thirty-six, three stories tall—included a yard surrounded by walls three feet thick and fourteen feet high, with foot-long iron spikes on top. “A view of the prison from the adjacent hills strikes the beholder with awe and carries the contemplative mind back to the rude and gothic ages of the world when barons bold surrounded with vassals waged war with each other,” writes the ea.rly chronicler, who was John Russell, Jr., and whose An Authentic History of the Vermont State Prison , published in 1812, was written, he tells us in the introduction, so that he could raise enough money to go to college. The would-be undergraduate, unfortunately “without parental assistance and without any pecuniary aid,” apparently saw the inmates as not entirely unlike his own future scholarly self, for they also were being educated. The prison, Russell writes, was “a school in which they have such lessons of industry, economy, and sober habits as will be of infinite service to them the remainder of their lives.”
This very concept was something decidedly novel, modern, and progressive in the early days of the nineteenth century. No such penological uplift theories had ever existed anywhere prior to 1790, when Philadelphia’s Walnut Street prison opened. Before then there were no penitentiaries anywhere, as we understand the word. There were dungeons where people were held for trial, or convict hulks, decommissioned ships swinging at anchor, yes; but after trial and conviction a felon did not sit around eating at the cost of the taxpayer and having his or her character improved. The crime was taken out of his purse, if he had anything in that purse, or, far more likely, his skin. The whipping post, the sweatbox, the ducking stool, breaking on the rack, branding with irons heated over coals, slicing off ears, hanging, and burning at the stake were the recommended fashions of dealing with serious malefactors in all parts of the United States and elsewhere. Minor disturbances, such as bringing in hay on the Sabbath, meant standing a certain number of hours in the pillory. A 1779 law held that every Vermont town had to make and maintain a good pair of stocks.
In order to return prisoners to society as good citizens, the bylaws of the new prison decreed, it was necessary that they be treated humanely. The keeper was enjoined carefully to “guard himself against any impulse of personal resentment” and informed that even as “it cannot be necessary for him to strike his prisoners (unless in self defense), much less can it answer any good purpose to give his orders in a violent tone, or attended with oaths.”
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.
By the time of the Civil War, American penological theory held that it wasn’t enough merely to keep people at work and then return them to cells for twelve hours. There have always been prisonreform movements, along with periodic demands for emphasizing or doing away with capital punishment—it is a recurring matter and goes in cycles —and now public opinion called for libraries and chapels and classrooms for prisoners. That cost money, and so contract labor began, with private companies paying the state for the use of convicts. In the South that meant leasing out crews to plantation owners, who put them at clearing snakeridden swamps, but in industry-minded New England the inmates were set to manufacturing. A big shoe factory went up at Windsor, the earlier failed attempts at the craft disregarded, and privately employed supervisors held sway over some 130 men producing footwear. Others under contract continued the weaving operation and constructed water pumps and rifle parts.
The prison was entering its eighth decade when there occurred a hanging that was to echo years later in the most celebrated event of its history. Lucy Emeline Meaker, of Burlington, put in charge of bringing up to maturity a nine-year-old girl upon payment of four hundred dollars in advance, decided to dispense with the bringing up. She gave the girl a dime’s worth of strychnine in sweetened water. The child died in convulsions. Mrs. Meaker was tried and convicted.
From the very first the prison had a small complement of female inmates, but it was a matter of some moment to execute one. “It is indeed an awful thing to hang a woman,” said the Burlington Free Press , “but still more awful is the spectacle of a woman devoid of the natural instincts and affections of her sex.” The world, said the paper, would “breathe freer with the execution. Such a monster we hope the present generation will not be called upon to deal with again.” But a member of the next generation, of the same gender as Mrs. Meaker, was to bring the Vermont State Prison at Windsor to national, even international, attention. Exactly three weeks before the child poisoner ascended the prison-yard scaffold, on March 9, 1883, Mary Callahan was born in Bennington as the product of what was termed a forced marriage.
Accounted very strange in childhood years, she had by the age of fifteen blossomed into a voluptuous and good-looking and much sought-after young woman with lustrous large dark eyes, jet black hair, and white and unblemished skin. She married Marcus Merritt Rogers, a decade older. He addressed her as “May.” That was in 1898. Her first child died in infancy, and in 1901 she gave birth to a stillborn. By then she had what the newspapers would term “a well-known notorious character” that on “numerous occasions” rendered her “oblivious to her marriage vows.”
At nineteen she left her husband and went to work as a maid for a family that had two sons of about her age. Soon she was observed in bed with each of the young men. The family took in a gentleman boarder, and she was seen in bed with him also. All the young men gave her little gifts. Before long she found herself in what the phraseology and newspapers of the day termed “an interesting condition.” She went to a doctor and asked him to remedy the situation and when he refused flew into such a rage and emitted such threats against his life that he concluded she was deranged.
Her situation, in tone, in time, in the feel of it, is reminiscent of the upstate New York case on which Theodore Dreiser based An American Tragedy . She needed to be married, and soon, but not to Marcus Rogers, who would know the approaching child was not his, and whom she also found a “poor simp.” But the poor simp had a life insurance policy with his May named as beneficiary. It was for five hundred dollars. With that she could, or so she hoped, elicit a wedding proposal from the gentleman boarder, for whom she seemed to have genuine feelings, set up housekeeping, and have the baby. She went about Bennington stores to price furnishings. She told the clerks she was soon to marry a notable young man of the town.
But first came the matter of her husband. She separately asked the gentleman boarder and one of her employer’s sons if they would help her kill him. Both took her to be joking. She then turned to the second son, who said he’d do what she requested. She wrote a note to her husband asking him to meet her at Morgan’s Grove, a picnic area on the banks of Bennington’s Little Walloomsac River. It was August 12, 1902. “I’m awfully glad to see you again, May,” Rogers said as she kissed him. The employer’s son stood by.
They sat down on the ground. He’d heard she was seeing a lot of men, Rogers said, and she replied that she wished people would mind to their own business and stop telling stories. She told him to lie down and put his head in her lap, and he did so. Her girl friend, she remarked, had recently been to see Houdini perform at the Rutland Opera House, and he’d done some wonderful rope tricks. She would show him one. She tied his hands behind his back and, as he lay with his head in her lap, took from her bosom a vial filled with two ounces of chloroform, poured it onto a handkerchief, and pressed it to his face.
One sees Rogers in imagination, trying to struggle up as the employer’s son springs forward, the hired horse and rig that brought him and May of a summer evening to Morgan’s Grove tethered nearby, everybody in the long-dressand-shirtwaist and buttoned-up-shoes-and-high-collar-tie fashion of the day. Rogers sustains a compound multiple depressed fracture of the skull, a severe contusion over one eye, a badly torn ear, and swollen wrists from the rope. When it is over, he is dragged to the river and put in, and she pins a note to a man’s hat and ties the hat to a small elm tree nearby: Blame no one as I have at last put an end to my miseberl life as my wife now I have threatened it, everyone nows I have not eny thing or no body to live for, and so blame no one as my last request. Marcus Rogers. May, I ope you will be happy .
The year 1902 was a long while ago, and we in our modern medical-miracles fashion are inclined to smile at the era’s knowledge and practices. But the most incompetent coroner of the day could not fail to find that this was no suicide. Even before an inquest was held, the young widow applied to the insurance company for payment of the five hundred dollars, but it was never given over. For when questioned by the authorities, the young man who assisted in the murder told all. He dictated and signed an eighteen-hundredword description of what had occurred at Morgan’s Grove.
Mary Callahan Rogers was tried and convicted of murder. She did not take the stand. To much of the world she seemed a cheap and promiscuous little small-town gold digger. But in the curious manner in which certain cases grip the imagination and interest and gain a wider audience than others, her situation became known far beyond Vermont’s borders. The child she was carrying was stillborn, but it was not forgotten. A woman doctor in Fall River, Massachusetts, wrote President Theodore Roosevelt that the effect on Mary Rogers of being pregnant had been insufficiently emphasized. “If the mothers of the United States who have murderous impulses during these periods of peculiar stress,” wrote the doctor, would simply stand up and declare themselves and admit it, saying “T and T and ‘I,’ Mary Rogers would not hang.”
Roosevelt reeused to get involved, and what was called “puerperal insanity” did not seem to Vermont’s governor Charles Bell a reason to extend clemency to the murderess, though he received more than forty thousand appeals to spare her, from all parts of the country and abroad. “I wish I could save her,” Governor Bell said after visiting her in her cell. Despite the wretched spelling and punctuation of the silly note meant to masquerade as her husband’s last communication, Mary Rogers, to the governor and others, seemed an eminently presentable and well-spoken personage. Something about this obscure and sadly foolish creature of in-trouble impulse, so her pregnancy was described, her childhood marked by her mother’s out-ofwedlock mating with her father, her youthful marriage, her eroticism certainly stemming from something other than willful flouting of Victorian morality, and, finally, perhaps, her striving for married respectability and motherhood—it gripped people. The high sheriff and his four Windsor County deputies appealed to Governor Bell not to force them to hang Mary Rogers, but the governor had his duty as he saw it and said that if she didn’t hang, he would be unworthy to rest himself in Vermont ever again. As for the sheriff and his deputies: “If there are any who desire to retire from office they are at liberty to do so.”
The United States has historically gone between enthusiastic endorsement of the death penalty and abhorrence of it, and the country was at the moment in the latter frame of mind. No one had been hanged in Vermont in fourteen years, and no woman since Mrs. Meaker. Nevertheless, on the afternoon of December 8, 1905, the murderess was brought down from her cell on the top story of the original building of the Vermont State Prison, from the sides of which stretched the newer extensions. She said she was pregnant again—by someone at the prison. At the railroad station telegraphers stood ready to send out the reporters’ descriptions of what was to ensue. Every room in the local hotel, as well as some two dozen rooms in private homes, had been reserved weeks earlier.
The scaffold was waiting. Almost eight hundred people in Bennington had signed a petition for mercy, each saying he or she had originally been in favor of a death sentence. Thousands of letters for Mary Rogers had been delivered to the prison along with food, candy, delicacies from all over. The sheriff had decided not to use the rope that had previously served in eight hangings, and had prepared a new one.
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.
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.
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!”
Outfitted as pigs dragging fellow demonstrators attired as prisoners in stripes through Windsor’s main thoroughfare, militants shouted, “Jail the rich! Free the poor!” From the prison came the sound of convicts banging on the bars, on one occasion for three days, off and on. There were constant riots in the cellblocks, stabbings, assaults, fires. A guard was killed. Hostages were seized. There were escapes. Hurrying to the prison in response to a screaming siren, Mike Coxon found himself listening to the shouts of convicts running in the opposite direction. He thought of his wife alone with the kids at home a stone’s throw away, reassured himself that the fleeing inmates weie undoubtedly going to get out of town as swiftly as possible, and went on. Lawsuits poured down: allegations of improper behavior by guards and officials, violation of prisoners’ rights, declarations that life in the prison was intolerable. The employee turnover was awful.
And Windsor began to turn against the Big Joint on State Street. Legislative rumblings that this ancient and antiquated relic ought to be done away with were nothing new. But they had always been voiced in Montpelier, the capital. Now such sentiments began to be heard in Windsor, the prison’s natural constituency, its home. The town is not large, some thirty-seven hundred people, and it was deeply affected by a fierce 1973 disturbance that saw the state police called in. More than fifty of them, with helmets, rifles, riot batons, shields, shotguns, and gas canisters, lined up in the streets around the prison, a couple of football fields’ distance from where children on the way to school were usually found. Calling in the state police is an open admission of lost control. No one in Windsor failed to take note of that.
The signposts for what was coming can be clearly marked. Resolutions to look into modernizing the prison were made in the legislature, but every study showed that the expense would be astronomical for a small state where taxpayer money has never been thrown around. There were more and more disturbances, violence, guard breakdowns and resignations, fires, students proclaiming their identification with the imprisoned—and there was the application for parole made for a particular prisoner.
To all who knew him the inmate in question seemed an intensely dangerous man. Most guards may not be formally educated in the psychology or pathology of violence, but it is their stock-in-trade to know about it. Here, they saw, was danger. One day in his cell in the oldest part of the prison, in the basement, the prisoner poured lighter fluid over himself and lit a match. A brave and determined guard rushed in and saved him. The matter came to the attention of a Windsor minister and his wife. It seemed to them that kindness might effect something here. They asked that the prisoner be paroled in their custody.
Every employee at the prison was utterly against the idea. But while to the public the parole board and the prison authorities seem two arms of a single body, they are in fact totally independent of each other. The parole board voted affirmatively. Mike Coxon called the area superior of the minister and begged him to tell his subordinate not to take in the prisoner. He told the bishop that the minister and his wife had neither the knowledge nor the experience to deal with such a person. The bishop would not be moved. Let the erring sinner be freed and helped. “We’ll hear about this sooner rather than later,” Coxon said when he saw it was no use going on.
The prisoner went to live with the minister and his wife, and in a little while he entered the home of a Windsor family whose nine-year-old son was being baby-sat by his seventeen-yearold aunt. He raped the teenager. He stabbed the child to death. Coxon was home in bed when Windsor’s police chief called with the news. “That’s the end of the prison,” Coxon told himself when he hung up.
On August 7, 1975, Windsor Prison was officially closed. For months prisoners singly and in groups had been trucked away to half a dozen decentralized Vermont institutions, one of them the former prison farm turned into a minimum-security facility, where Coxon later was appointed superintendent. The most dangerous inmates were sent on contract to tough federal places. The traffic had gone the other way in the past, when prisoners from elsewhere had sometimes been hidden away in remote Windsor, their identities unknown to their new fellow prisoners along with their backgrounds: mob informers, former policemen who had committed crimes, men known to have revealed escape plans or drug smuggling in their former places. Gov. Thomas P. Salmon officiated at the closing ceremonies, and many in the crowd of four hundred wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Windsor State Prison, 1809-1975.”
Of course the prison was completely antiquated, with cells far smaller than national standards allow, and there was truth in what legislative investigators said about it: that to enter it was “like stepping back into the 15th century,” that it was “this monstrosity from the past” defying restoration. “The complex,” said an expert from the state health department, is “ancient, decaying, depressing. . . . The overall atmosphere is one of gloom, frustration, isolation, and hopelessness.” But on the day it officially shut there were those, Mike Coxon among them, who felt a certain sadness. What a world of pain and suffering these walls had enclosed, day in and day out and every day for long and terrible years. Who had come there? People who failed their schools, their families, their communities, themselves most of all. Many of them, Coxon knew, were the children of men his father had known in his days as deputy warden, the names of thirty years before coming back, some following not only father but grandfather.
And yet, he thought, walking the eerily empty and quiet halls from which doors had been taken off their hinges and locks made inoperative, and plumbing, air ducts, and bulletproof glass sent off to other state institutions, the prison had not been entirely a desolate, degenerate place. For some of the inmates it had been a home of a sort. That was what the little baseball scoreboard said along with “visitors": HOME . Very often the guards and employees were the only people who cared anything, anything at all, for certain men; no one visited, no/one sent gifts. Christmases were well done, with cookies and entertainment. Men learned, some of them, to do fine wood-carving. Some guards, as kindly as the job permitted, were the best people many of the prisoners had ever known. Anyway, it was all over now. One hundred and sixty-six years.
Entirely silent and deserted, the great building squatted in the center of Windsor. Had it been located in, say, the sixteenth arrondissement of Paris, or along New York’s Park Avenue in the Sixties, demolition crews would have been on the job. But spend God knows how much to provide little Windsor with an empty space? No one in the world was going to do that. A New Jersey man suggested making the building into a restaurant-disco to be called The Cell Block, with waiters dressed in black and white stripes. Columbia Pictures was interested in dynamiting a portion for an escape scene in a movie. Neither plan worked out.
Rated as excess property of the state of Vermont, the place had by law to be advertised for sale. The official in charge of such matters announced that sealed bids would be accepted. He did not expect any. “Did you ever try to sell a house of three hundred rooms with bars on the windows?” he asked.
But the ad in The New England Real Estate Journal did attract the attention of one reader. He was sixteen years old, the office boy for a Boston lawyer interested in renovation projects. The young man directed his boss’s attention to it. The boss got in touch with the president of the Peabody Construction Company and Peabody Properties, in Braintree, Massachusetts. “I’m doing something crazy,” he said. “Would you like to be my partner?”
They had no idea of what to offer- there was little of precedence to guide them—but after complicated reasoning decided on $27,050, just $2,950 less than what the legislature had allocated for construction in 1807. They sent the office boy with a 10 percentdown check to file their bid. He submitted it, the offer was accepted, and the kid went home with the news wearing his new “Windsor State Prison 1809-1975” T-shirt.
“The developers of olde I Windsor Village have fashioned, from an old Vermont JL. prison, one of the loveliest, most convenient apartment communities in New England. The classic Federalist architecture of the original buildings has been carefully preserved. What was originally the prison yard is now a beautifully landscaped courtyard garden. The complex offers a wide selection of floor plans, both one- and two-bedroom, and a limited number of specially equipped handicapped units are available. Surrounded by the Green Mountains of Vermont, Olde Windsor Village is truly one of the most beautifully unique apartment communities in New England. Care-free kitchen with refrigerator and electric range. Plush pile carpeting. Laundry rooms. Shades and drapery rods included. ”
Everything inside the massive buildings above the basement was gutted, but some old cells from the 1870s are intact down in the depths, used now for storage, the barred doors still in place. An empty guard tower looks down on the entranceway through whose vanished metal doors Francis Blair and his fellow escapee crashed the truck more than forty years ago. The window of the room in which Mary Rogers spent her last night, ninety years gone now, can instantly be picked out from old photographs, and the location of the scaffold in the yard. Where she danced on the ground old people now stroll, for most of the tenants are retirees helped with their rent by a HUD subsidy. They can see the mountains, for a portion of the great wall was knocked down to open up the view. One wing of Olde Windsor Village is reserved for low-income families. Some of the oldsters like having kids around; some grumble at the noise they make playing ball or building snowmen as they run over the lawn where the bodies of the unclaimed convicts lie below.