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The Nation’s First State Prison

John Hinson was 20 years old when the state convicted him of burglary in 1773. As punishment, he was sentenced to spend the next 10 years in New-Gate Prison in East Granby, a former copper mine that the Connecticut General Assembly transformed into early America’s first state prison. 

At the time, capital and corporal punishment included “whipping, cropping of ears, or branding with a hot iron,” but public opinion had become “more sensitive to the consequences of inflicting such pain and degradation on fellow human beings,” according to Connecticut History. A prison, therefore, was considered more humane and reformative.  

The defunct copper mines proved a suitable location as “colonial authorities figured the various tunnels bored deep into the hillside would be ideal for housing prisoners convicted of serious crimes like burglary, adultery, and murder,” according to “Today in Connecticut’s History.” Authorities also believed the new penal institution to be escape-proof since two shafts — both 25-feet and 67-feet deep — were the only routes to the surface from the prisoners’ quarters. 

On Dec. 22, 1773, Hinson officially entered the prison as its first inmate — but his stay would be short-lived. After 18 days at New-Gate, an accomplice (reportedly a woman) lowered a rope into the poorly guarded, non-gated deeper shaft, aiding Hinson’s escape. Although search efforts were undertaken, he was never captured 

His was not the only escape in New-Gate’s history; nearly 10 percent of its inmates did likewise until the prison closed in 1827. The largest breakout included Loyalists (or Tories), who sided with the British during the American Revolution, on May 18, 1781. 

While escape attempts were numerous due to relatively poor security, life at New-Gate was harsh. Historians have described it as “hell,” and the most “notorious prison to contain Tories.” This is the story of Connecticut’s first state prison. 

A Day in the Life of a Prisoner  

In 1705, a group of Simsbury residents founded the copper mines that eventually became New-Gate Prison. Two years later, the endeavor was the first chartered copper mine in colonial America. According to “Connecticut History,” the mine’s revenues paid for the town’s expenses and a schoolmaster; however, by 1773, “copper ore deposits became harder to find and mining profits disappeared.” That year, the Connecticut General Assembly purchased the “remaining years of a mining lease” since the mines were formidable enough to isolate prisoners from society. 

This new style of punishment that ended “bloody and violent forms of retribution” was influenced by the Enlightenment, a 17th and 18th century philosophical movement that fused the concepts of inalienable rights, reason and democratic government (all of which were foundational to the cause of American independence).  

Along with burglary, adultery and murder, New-Gate’s inmates were also convicted of counterfeiting/forgery, horse stealing, illicit trade, arson and ‘breaking in daytime’ — meaning a person “broke into a building belonging to another in the daytime. …with the intent to commit a felony in that building.”  

One of the more distinguishable inmates was Prince Mortimer, an enslaved man who went by the nickname, “Guinea.” According to “Newgate of Connecticut: Insurrections, Its Mines, Imprisonment of the Tories, In the Revolution” by Richard Phelps, Prince’s life “was a tale of misfortunes.” First captured by a slaver as a boy off Guinea’s coast, he was then shipped to Middletown, Conn., and purchased by Philip Mortimer. In the American Revolution, Prince was a servant to varying officers and even “sent on errands by General Washington,” such as providing shoes for soldiers. His master’s redrafted will would have freed Prince; however, his niece and her husband — Ann and George Starr — had it “thrown out on a technicality,” so Prince remained enslaved. Eventually, Prince was sentenced to life at New-Gate for the “alleged crime of poisoning his master,” who “noticed particles in his morning chocolate served by Prince,” according to Enslaved. Reportedly, the inmate lived to be more than 100 years old, dying at the Wethersfield prison in 1834. 

Overall, 800 men typically occupied New-Gate at any given time, peaking at 7,200 by 1827.  

For all New-Gate inmates, work began at daylight when they were summoned above ground until 4 p.m. Prisoners initially mined copper, but over time, they were tasked to make nails, and employed as “shoemakers, coopers, blacksmithers, wagon makers, cooks, and basket makers,” according to “Connecticut History.” Others were sent to local farms under surveillance.  

After hours of hard labor, convicts were sent back down into their candleless, damp, pitch-black quarters. They were often exposed to unsanitary living conditions, and even lacked proper bedding. Unexpectedly, prisoners had limited freedom to move about the mines — except for those chained in solitary confinement. But, as Phelps’ book notes: 

The horrid gloom of this dungeon can be realized only by those who pass among its solitary windings. The impenetrable vastness supporting the awful mass above, impending as if ready to crush one to atoms — the dripping water trickling like tears from its sides — the unearthly echoes responding to the voice, all conspire to strike the beholder aghast with amazement and horror! 

Like illumination, food was also scarce. In a documentary about New-Gate, Catherine Labadia, staff archaeologist for the State Historic Preservation Office, said, “Men were starving,” adding, “They had broken apart bones multiple times to get every bit of nutrition from the marrow, every little piece of meat that they could from those little scraps that they were given.” As seen below, Phelps charted the prisoners’ daily rations: 

In short, as the prison’s website suggests, New-Gate’s prisoners experienced an “unkempt environment, lack of oversight, and economic use of forced labor” that “created an oppressive atmosphere.”  

‘The Catacomb of Loyalism’ 

Though New-Gate had been mostly filled with criminals who violated another citizen’s property rights, the prison became a “catacomb for loyalism” during the American Revolution, according to Morgan Bengel, a museum assistant at the Old Newgate Prison and Copper Mine, in an episode of the podcast “Ben Franklin’s World.” 

At the time, as Phelps notes, public opinion was “very rigid” against Tories, with some colonies “authorizing any person even to shoot them if they were found beyond the limits of their own premises.” In February 1781, nearly six years into the war, legal retribution escalated as Gov. Johnathan Trumbull issued “An Act For Punishment of High Treason and Other Atrocious Crimes Against the State,” to deter further colonial allegiance to King George III and the English government. Under the law, Loyalists could be sentenced to death; additionally, they were not considered prisoners of war (POWs) because “the state recognized the prisoners as their own citizens,” preventing any POW exchanges with Britain, says Bengel.  

This was the case for Joel Stone. Imprisoned for raising a company of Loyalists for the British army, his petition to be treated as a POW was rejected. However, after several attempts, Stone successfully escaped New-Gate on July 23, 1778, where he and another prisoner “subsisted on Nurtle berries for two days until ‘the alarm subsided’ and some friends helped them get back to British lines,” according to the Journal of the American Revolution. 

Throughout the war, New-Gate not only imprisoned Tories from Connecticut, but across the colonies — a “move denounced as unnecessarily cruel by supporters of the King,” as noted by “Today in Connecticut History.” At first, only a few Loyalists were held at the prison; most, Phelps writes, were “confined in the dungeons for the crime of having a small quantity of tea and other articles of British import in their possession” or were “persons of character, property and great influence.” 

Prisoners often occupied their time in the quarters playing games, but the Tories “amused themselves in making poetry in derision,” including, Many of them in halters will swing/Before John Hancock will ever be king, according to Phelps’ history. 

Despite its political prisoners and heightened surveillance, New-Gate’s security was still dreadful, as evidenced by the largest mass break-out that involved two Loyalists: Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith. On May 18, 1781, the wife of a prisoner named Young was visiting her husband. When she was searched, two New-Gate guards were raising the hatch to admit her. At this opportunity, a group of 20 inmates “rushed out, knocked down the two officers, and seizing the muskets of nearly all the rest who were asleep, immediately took possession of the works, and thrust most of the guards into the dungeon after a violent contest.” A man named Gad Sheldon was killed, while six more were wounded. Of the twenty, a majority were recaptured; however, Hathaway and Smith escaped and made it past the British lines in New York City.  

Two years later, the war was over with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in September 1783. Since the start of the American Revolution, between 60,000 and 80,000 Loyalists fled America, settling in Britain, the Caribbean, Spanish Florida, or Canada.  

New-Gate thereupon ceased serving as a prison for Tories. 

Shutting Its Gates 

New-Gate survived several more decades until its prisoners were transferred to a then-new state prison in Wethersfield in 1827, and security concerns coupled with increased maintenance costs led to its closure. In the nearly 200 years since, the site has become a tourist destination, as the National Park Service designated it as a National Historic Landmark in 1973.  

Visitors are invited to roam the caverns and catacombs to see prison life in colonial America and the early years of the new republic (which you can also explore virtually, here). But what is the prison’s ultimate legacy? The landmark’s website offers this conclusion: 

Although today we can recognize the mistreatment and abuse that occurred within New-Gate’s walls, it’s crucial to contextualize its existence as an improvement for its time. Public spectacles of violence were no longer the primary means of punishing criminals. Despite this progress, New-Gate was no luxurious haven; its incarcerated population faced harsh conditions, enduring constant exposure to cold, wet, and dangerous surroundings within the mines. …It offers us insight into the United States’ approach to crime and punishment during that period, emphasizing a focus on breaking down offenders after their transgressions. 

Even today, debate over “crime and punishment” exists, especially regarding prisoners’ re-entry into society (as discussed in this episode of Y CT Matters). And even as total crime, violent crime and property crime decreased since last year, murders and car thefts have risen by 44.4% and 15.4%, respectively, since 2013, according to the Unified Crime Report.  

Although there is no clear-cut solution to crime (other than social adherence to the “Golden Rule”) New-Gate offers a fascinating insight into how early Americans imbued Enlightenment thought into all aspects of life, even incarceration. Though we have come far from locking men in copper mines, the philosophical debate between retribution and rehabilitation still impacts our correctional facilities today.   

For that alone, the first ever state prison is worth remembering. 

Till next time — 

Your Yankee Doodle Dandy, 

Andy Fowler 

Andrew Fowler

Andrew Fowler joined Yankee Institute in July 2022 after four years in the communications department for the Knights of Columbus international headquarters in New Haven. In that span, he managed the organization’s social media accounts and wrote for the company’s various publications, including COLUMBIA magazine, which is delivered to nearly two million members. Additionally, he is the curator of the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center’s online exhibit “K of C Baseball: An American Story,” that explores the intricate ties between the organization and the growth of the national pastime. He was also a production assistant for MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and the 2016 Dinesh D’Souza film, “Hillary’s America.” Andrew currently serves on the Milford Board of Education. He is an avid runner and basketball fan, cinephile, and an aspiring musician and author. He graduated from the University of Connecticut in 2015.

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