December 22: Newgate Prison Incarcerates Its First Inmate. But Not For Long.

 

Today in 1773, Newgate Prison, the first penal institution to open in Connecticut, received its very first prisoner: 20-year-old John Hinson, who had been convicted of burglary and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment. Newgate Prison was built on the site of a former copper mine in East Granby which had opened in 1705 as one of Connecticut’s first large-scale industrial ventures and the first chartered copper mine in the American colonies. After the mine went bust in the mid-18th century, 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.

This detailed engraving of Newgate Prison was made by Richard Brunton in 1799 while he was imprisoned there for counterfeiting. (Connecticut Historical Society)

Captain John Viets, whose family homestead was located across the road from the former copper mine, was the first overseer of the new prison. He and the colonial authorities who had constructed the prison were confident that the design of the converted mining tunnels – located below vertical shafts that were 25 and 60 feet deep — would render it impossible for inmates to escape.

Viets was quickly proven wrong, however, as John Hinson managed to escape only 18 days after he was admitted to Newgate Prison. In a letter to the General Assembly defending themselves, the prison’s three guards swore that Hinson must have had an accomplice lower him a rope down one of the mineshafts, since escape would be impossible otherwise. Viets was forced to place an ad in the Connecticut Courant offering $10 to anyone who could assist in the apprehension of the fugitive Hinson – an offer that ultimately went unclaimed.

Hinson’s escape led to a number of changes at the newly opened prison, including the hiring of more guards and the placing of larger, more extensive fences around the prison site. These included a 12-foot-high stone wall that can still be seen today.

Hinson was not the only prisoner to make a bold and successful escape from Newgate Prison; within a few decades, the institution had developed a dubious reputation for terrible security as prisoner escapes – and ads offering rewards for the escapees’ return – became common. In the 50 years Newgate operated as a prison, nearly 10 percent of its inmates managed to escape. Some inmates, like serial offender Richard Steel, managed to escape several times. During the American Revolution, Loyalists were held at Newgate Prison, a move denounced as unnecessarily cruel by supporters of the King. Increased concern about security issues and the rising costs of maintaining the old prison site motivated state officials to close prison operations at Newgate in 1827 and transfer all of its prisoners to a newly built State Prison in Wethersfield.

Overgrown ruins (now stabilized) of old above-ground structures at Newgate Prison

.

Today, the Newgate Prison and Copper Mines site is once again seasonally open to the public as a historic museum, after an extensive, nine-year restoration to help stabilize the old stone ruins above ground and old mining shafts below ground. The site is managed by the Connecticut State Department of Economic and Cultural Development.

________Researched by Eugene R. Jimenez

Further Reading

Old New-Gate Prison and Copper Mine,” Connecticut Office of Cultural Tourism (Official Site)

Sandy Csizmar, “Great Escapes: Some Prisoners Just Had To Get Out,Hartford Courant

Gregg Mangan, “Notorious New-Gate Prison,” connecticuthistory.org