Slavery, Liberty, and Revolutionary Connecticut

Author: Ryan Paolino

An enslaved man refused to work further and upon his master’s inspection lashed out with a knife. The slave killed his former master and wounded the master’s son in the cheek. Both the son and mistress escaped without further harm. The Connecticut Journal, as well as the New-Haven Post-Boy, reported that the captive stole the knife and an ax as he escaped into the woods. In 1767 the colony was eight years away from the beginning of the Revolutionary War. During the war, some slaves were offered a chance to fight for their freedom. Others seized the opportunity to runaway and join the British. What this article from 1767 provides is confirmation that the idea of freedom did not begin with the Revolution. The Revolution simply offered  a venue that did not make obtaining freedom a crime. Moreover, runaway slaves were not restricted to the southern colonies; many in the North attempted their escape as well.

The American Revolution became the fight for liberty and independence yet served as an ambiguous symbol for who received such benefits. Slaves in the revolution generally fought for the side of the their owners. While approximately 12,000 slaves defended the British Parliament with their loyalist masters in return for freedom, a large number resisted such “tyranny” fighting for the Patriot cause in the place of their owners. Connecticut struggled to meet its supply of soldiers for the quota of the Continental Army and filled the gap with black soldiers. Masters, on both sides, commonly promised their servants freedom after the revolution’s victory, yet such a promise never saw fulfillment.  Slaves challenged British rule for the hope that the liberty they fought for might include them, yet many others resisted their masters despite the possible reward, or for some, lack of an offer.

Slaves who fought in the revolution were betrayed by both sides. The patriots gained their liberty that was applied to only white males while the British and loyalists lost with little opportunity to compromise at the Treaty of Paris. Those captives who fought and survived for self-betterment received nothing. Often those who fought in place of their master’s went back to work and continued their lives as they did prior to the American Revolution.  Even men like Sharp Liberty, who was formerly enslaved in Wallingford and manumitted after the war, had trouble collecting wages that allowed them to live securely after the war. Connecticut struggled with the ways that slaves were handled as many white citizens disagreed about to whom liberty applied. Connecticut was far from abolishing slavery and the betrayed black soldiers and servants did not have another opportunity such as the revolution and the discussions about liberty. Many attempted an escape either stealthily or with violence although success was unlikely.

Simeon Olcott was a graduate of Yale law school and judge of Hartford County Court. Col. Sam A. Joley asked for his opinion about the law’s relationship to a runaway slave in the State of New Hampshire in 1788. Olcott looked to a similar case in New York where another slave deserted his master’s service. Upon capture he was prevented return by citizens who believed he was free. It was ruled the slave was freed based on the Constitution and a unanimous decision by the court. Yet, Olcott believed, according to State law and the Constitution, slaves were not liberated by the Constitution and disagreed with such results. His response was reflective of the divisions that existed in Connecticut even in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. Independence and liberty were achieved, yet several people disagreed about who was eligible to receive such liberties. Olcott’s letter currently remains in the collections of the Connecticut Historical Society.

The betrayal of allied slaves from the Revolutionary War was not absolute. Many freed slaves enlisted in the war, such as Liverpool Wadsworth, from Farmington, Connecticut, who took the name of his former owner, Thomas Wadsworth, after Liverpool was freed in his owner’s will. A Connecticut slave named Jack was owned by a patriot clergyman and asked his master about the hypocrisy of the language of liberty while he was a slave. His owner agreed that Jack also deserved liberty and after an additional year of service granted his freedom.

Connecticut was not in agreement about slaves and the concept of liberty. Some owners accepted that liberty was not for white men alone and granted their slaves freedom after the American Revolution. Freed slaves were uncommon due to the fact that the law did not state slaves had such liberties. While few were lucky to escape the lives of servitude an overwhelming majority were betrayed by the patriots and loyalists alike.

For Further Information:

Cooper, William Neil. The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution. Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1885.

Orcott, Samuel. Opinion on Freedom of African Americans in New Hampshire, 1788. Connecticut Historical Society. Hartford, Connecticut.

A Deeper Look at Loyalists in Newgate Prison

Author: Morgan Bengel

On May 12, 1781, one woman was permitted to visit her prisoner husband in the mine shaft of New-gate Prison. Upon entering, the door was unlatched and roughly twenty men rushed through in an attempt to escape their living “hell.” Killing six guards on their way, Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith led the group of prisoners to freedom. As Loyalists, these men were considered enemies of the state. Their escape on May 12 was the largest in New-gate’s history and although the details are intriguing and exhilarating the escape did not happen as a solitary event. Understanding the laws and events that took place months before the escape is crucial to the history of Loyalists in Connecticut and specifically New-gate Prison during the American Revolution. The laws instituted against Loyalists were put in place to assert Patriot dominance in America. The Loyalist’s actions against the United States were their assertion that the rebels did not govern them. 

When the United Colonies  declared war on the King of Great Britain they passed laws to punish anyone who treasonously aided the enemy. Individuals loyal to the King were persecuted, imprisoned, and sentenced to death for their beliefs and actions. New-gate Prison, in Simsbury, Connecticut, was the most notorious prison used to contain Tories. Prisoners were confined in an abandoned copper mine, 40 yards below the surface. Referred to as the “catacomb of loyalism,”  New-gate was a dark, damp hole. The repression of Loyalists was not constricted to poor treatment at New-gate. Prisoners were put in New-gate because of laws instituted to punish anyone opposed to the United States America.

In February 1781, the Governor of Connecticut and council of representatives issued, “An Act For Punishment Of High Treason And Other Atrocious Crimes Against The State.” In the midst of the war, this act sought to enhance punishment for those loyal to Great Britain. The law outlined that citizens or subjects of the United States who declared allegiance to the King of Great Britain, persuaded inhabitants to renounce their allegiance to the State, or aided the enemy would be guilty of high treason and sentenced to death or imprisoned at New-gate. In addition, those persons who joined the enemy, robbed, or plundered would not be considered prisoners of war, but convicted before the superior court and either sentenced to death, whipped, or imprisoned at New-gate. Loyalists were not considered prisoners of war, in order to prevent them from being exchanged and released. In 1781, the Patriots were cracking down on the Loyalists amongst them. Two months later, Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith were imprisoned at New-gate Prison, for “joining the enemy,” just as the law had demanded.

Hathaway and Smith were captured in Huntington Bay off Long Island on April 7th, 1781, while aboard their “Privateer Boat Adventure.” After their capture the men were tried before the Superior Court, where they were urged to plead guilty. Hathaway and Smith, however, claimed they were British subjects and refused to plead guilty or not guilty, because they rejected the United States legislative system. In an attempt to get them to plead guilty, their sentence at New-gate was “sentenced until pleads indictment.” They were imprisoned at New-gate, without bail until they recognized the Superior Court as law and pled guilty or non-guilty. The policy on Loyalists in America was another issue of independence for the Patriots. The Act for Punishment of High Crimes in 1781 was an attempt for Patriots to control Loyalists in America and judge them with their laws. Hathaway and Smith did not recognize the United States’ laws and therefore refused to identify as guilty or not guilty.

In only three weeks, Hathaway and Smith made their escape with twenty other Loyalist prisoners. The other men who participated in the escape were imprisoned for illicit trade, being a Tory, joining the enemy, or attempt to join the enemy; all crimes recognized in the February 1781 Act for Punishment of High Crimes. Their escape was the largest in New-gate history, and their joint effort to escape, demonstrated their resolve to join together in a common cause. Hathaway and Smith did not recognize the United States law, so escaping from New-gate Prison was not only about escaping the poor conditions of the prison. It was about fighting against their repression and unjust imprisonment.

Suggested Reading:

Calhoon, Robert McCluer. The Loyalist in Revolutionary America 1760-1781. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc., 1965.

Connecticut Journal

Crary, Catherine S. The Price of Loyalty: Tory Writings from the Revolutionary Era. New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1973.

Phelps, Richard H.  Newgate of Connecticut: A History of the Prison, its Insurrections, Massacres, & C. Imprisonment of the Tories, In the Revolution. Hartford: Elihu Geer, 1844.

State of Connecticut. Primary Sources Archives, Hartford, CT.

Taylor, Alan. American Revolutions: A Continental History 1750-1804. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

“Newgate: Connecticut’s First State Prison”

Author: Jessica Dabkowski

In 1773, Connecticut’s General Assembly chose the copper mines in Simsbury to be the state’s first prison, renaming it Newgate Prison. During the Revolutionary Era, Newgate Prison housed not only political prisoners criminals, such as loyalists. The goal was to create a prison where escape was impossible. However, the overseers soon found out that Newgate was far from inescapable.

At the time, corporal punishments were common for those convicted of crimes. Punishments could include branding with a hot iron, cropping of ears, or whipping. With views on corporal punishment starting to shift, Connecticut started to look for different ways to punish criminals. The isolation at the copper mines in Simsbury seemed like a perfect alternative.

John Hinson, sentenced to ten years for burglary, became Newgate’s first prisoner on December 22, 1773. Eighteen days later, he escaped. It is believed that a woman assisted his escape by dropping a rope down the sixty-seven foot eastern shaft. The first prison keeper, Captain John Viets, set a ten dollar reward for the return of John Hinson (Connecticut Courant, January 10, 1774). The advertisement was unsuccessful.   

This apparent security breach did not stop Connecticut from sending more prisoners to Newgate. The first half of 1774 saw five new prisoners at Newgate, John Roberts, William Johnson Crawford, and Zephaniah Ramsdale, David Humphrey, and James Williams. Crawford and Humphrey attempted escape by moving rocks in an abandoned ore shaft. Unfortunately, the rocks caved in and they were allegedly buried alive. This did not stop Viets from issuing a reward, in case they had somehow escaped (Connecticut Courant, April 12, 1774). Ramsdale, Williams, and Roberts later made successful escape attempts.

Newgate also housed Tories during the American Revolution. Even though Newgate had a number of escapes, it was thought to be secure. In fact, General Washington even sent prisoners to Newgate, believing it to be impossible for them to escape. Unfortunately, the treatment of Tories at Newgate was inhumane. Some historians believe that the poor treatment of Tories at Newgate led to the mistreatment of Patriots on prison ships by the British.

In 1776, a fire destroyed a blockhouse at Newgate. It was designed to help prisoners escape, however, none managed to do so. Due to the problematic situation of housing a large number of Tories at the prison, the Governor and Council of Safety sent a committee to Newgate. After an investigation the committee requested stationing a guard, after learning of the unease felt by the people. This request was later granted with two men, more if necessary, who watched the prison every night to prevent escape attempts.

Newgate saw one of its largest escapes in 1781. Earlier that year, it was reported that the General Assembly declared that those who acknowledged allegiance to the King of Great Britain during the course of the war would be imprisoned at Newgate (Connecticut Courant, March 20, 1781). On May 18, 1781, twenty-one prisoners managed to kill one of the guards and wound several others while they successfully escaped Newgate. Many of the twenty-one men were Tories. Not long after, sixteen of the twenty-one prisoners were recaptured and sent back to Newgate (Connecticut Courant, May 29, 1781).

Newgate had another fire in 1782, which allowed many prisoners to escape. Although most were recaptured in the surrounding area. However, after the fire Newgate was not repaired until 1790. After which, Newgate continued to operate as a prison until 1827. Even with all of the successful escape attempts, Newgate retained a reputation as the strongest prison in the newly formed United States.

 In 1968 the State of Connecticut purchased Newgate to serve as a museum and tourist attraction. Currently closed for restoration. Newgate has only opened for the public four times this year.

Newgate Prison and Copper Mines

Recommended Readings

Domonell, William G. Newgate: From Copper Mine to State Prison. Simsbury, The Simsbury Historical Society, Inc, 1998.

Phelps, Noah A. History of Simsbury, Granby, and Canton: From 1642-1845. Hartford: Press of Case, Tiffany, and Burnham, 1845.

Phelps, Richard Harvey. Newgate of Connecticut: A History of the Prison, Its Insurrections, Massacres, &c., Imprisonment of the Tories, in the Revolution. Press of E. Geer, 1844.


Sodomy Laws in Connecticut

Author: Nicole Fontaine

It is hard to imagine that the “Blue” state of Connecticut once utilized the death penalty for homosexual behavior. In the era of Puritan law, colonial Connecticut and New Haven used England’s 1533 statute against homosexuality as an example. With this statute, homosexual acts became a capital crime (Crompton 277). It was not until the post-revolutionary period that Connecticut and the other colonies loosened their sodomy laws.

The colony of Connecticut followed its English predecessors by making sodomy a capital crime in 1642 (Gay/Lesbian Almanac 85). The General Court of Connecticut had twelve capital crimes in this era.  Homosexuality was equated with crimes such as murder, rape, kidnapping, and treason (The Book of General Laws). The colony of New Haven even went a step further to include not only men, but also made women liable for committing such an “abomination”(True Blue Laws of Connecticut and New Haven). As a result of the Connecticut 1642 statute, four men were hanged: George Spencer on April 1, 1642, two unknown in 1655, and William Potter on June 6, 1662 ( Connecticut law followed British laws’ synonymous language for sodomy or buggery as bestiality. These four men were charged with not only sodomy, but also with bestiality. Equating the “crime” of homosexuality with murder, rape, and other higher crimes exemplifies the religious nature of this law.

William Potter was the last to be executed for sodomy in Connecticut, but the laws continued to make homosexuality a capital crime ( In 1672, the General Court of Connecticut clearly defined sodomy in their list of capital crimes. At this time, Puritanism consumed Connecticut. Laws were religious to protect the community’s salvation. However, the laws were beginning to loosen as exceptions were beginning to be considered. The famous 1677 trial of Nicholas Sension proved how lenient the General Court of Connecticut was when it came to men of prestige. Sension was a married man and one of the wealthiest men in Windsor, Connecticut (Gay/Lesbian Almanac 117). After his servant, Daniel Sexton, accused Sension of attempted sodomy, more eyewitness testimony followed.  Although sodomy was deemed a capital offense, Sension was let go on “good behavior,” most likely due to his place in society (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”).

Britain wanted the colonists to intensify their sodomy laws to include not only death, but other extreme measures. By 1718, death was not typically the sentence for sodomy in the colonies (Cromption 283). For an example, the last death for sodomy in Connecticut was in 1662, but that’s not to say homosexuals were free from punishment. Sodomy laws in the colonies became more lenient because of the Quakers in Pennsylvania. When England used stoning, whipping, and castration for those convicted of sodomy, the colonists were supposed to follow their lead. Yet on January 12, 1705, Quakers dropped “castration” from its Pennsylvania sodomy law (Crompton 283). Thus, this began the elimination of inhumane sodomy laws throughout the colonies.

By 1791, the original thirteen colonies made sodomy a criminal offense and limited sentencing ( Although, homosexuals were still considered “criminals” in early America, this could be seen as somewhat progressive. The American Revolution paved the way for the break in English law which helped many people who were accused of sodomy. If the colonists did not break from England, sodomy would have been a capital offense until Britain’s passing of the 1861 Person Act ( In 2017, Connecticut celebrates advancements in LGBTQ+ law. Marriage equality was passed in 2008 and, thereafter, political leadership has advocated for an inclusive society. It is important for Connecticut residents to acknowledge its darker history to reveal the true path towards equality.

Recommended for Further Reading:

Benenmann, William. Male-Male Intimacy in Early America: Beyond Romantic Friendships. Binghamton: Harrington Park Press, 2006.

Connecticut. General Court. The Book of General Laws, for the People within the Jurisdiction of Connecticut. Published by Samuel Green. Hartford: Connecticut State Library, 1673.

Connecticut State Archives. “Crimes and Misdemeanors, 1662/1663-1789.” Published by Effie Mae Pricket. Hartford: Connecticut State Library, 1913. See pages 365,366, 388.

Crompton, Louis. “Homosexuals and the Death Penalty in Colonial America.” Journal of Homosexuality 3, no. 1 (1976) : 277-293.

Dynes, Wayne R. and Stephen Donaldson, ed. History of Homosexuality in Europe and America. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992.

Foster, Thomas A., ed. Long Before Stonewall: Histories of Same-Sex Sexuality in Early America. New York: New York University Press, 2007.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians & Gay Men in the U.S.A. New York: The Penguin Group, 1976.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary. New York, Harper & Row Publishers, 1983.

Trumbull, J. Hammond 1821-1897. The True-blue Laws of Connecticut And New Haven And the False Blue-laws Invented by the Rev. Samuel Peters. Hartford, Conn.: American Publishing Company, 1876.


“Colonial America: The Age of Sodomitical Sin.” Out accessed October 7, 2017.

“Criminalizing Same-Sex Behavior.” Religious accessed October 7, 2017.

“Executions by State.” Death accessed October 7, 2017.

“Offences Against the Person Act 1861.” accessed October 7, 2017.


Women and the Law in Farmington

Author: Kevin Simon

When the founders came to Farmington they looked to create a pious paradise on Earth. With diligence and hard work they created a community in their own image, righteous, and upright.  But not everything was as perfect as the first families intended.  Some dark traits came with them to the new world.  By the turn of the seventeenth century some alarming events took place that would challenge their idyllic world.

A Two Sides of a Coin: What drives a Mother to Kill, and a Wife to Murder?

In the quiet little hamlet of Farmington there were two murders. One was a crime of necessity; the other, an act of passion.  Amy Munn murdered her child on the night of March 11, 1698.  As an unwed mother and a servant in the home of Samuel Wadsworth she was in no position to raise a child.  Beyond the financial responsibility of raising a child Amy knew she would be convicted of fornication, fined and whipped before the community.  Infanticide was a capital crime, but Munn was not executed. She was convicted of notorious negligence.  Her charges were reduced for a lack of witnesses, though the circumstantial evidence was damning.  What pushed a mother to such an extreme?  We will never know, but there were pressures on young people at this time to remain chaste.  Each small New England town had an interest in preventing illegitimate births, concerned that these new children to become a financial burden on the community.

Abigail Thomson was quite another matter. Described by her neighbors as quarrelsome and termagant she berated and abused her husband regularly.  On December 17, 1705, matters came to a head when in a fit of rage she flung a pair of tailoring shears at her husband, piercing his skull.  Poor Thomas clung to life for nearly twenty days, suffering from his wound, before he passed away.

“...Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband...” Quote from Abigail Thomson's indictment.

“…Thomson did threaten that she would kill her husband…” Quote from Abigail Thomson’s indictment.

During the depositions, Abigail’s harsh nature was exposed. She was known to threaten her husband and say she would be the death of him.  A neighbor, Joseph North, recalled on multiple occasions she chased him from the house and threw rocks at him.  At first Abigail denied throwing the shears in anger, but then when that story was not believed she claimed he had beaten her with a broom, and she struck him in self defense.  Not a single deposition was made in her defense. The court was not moved.

Abigail was sentenced to death, but received a stay when she claimed pregnancy. Hopefully, Abigail named her daughter Mercy delivered in 1706.  Mercy went into the care of her uncle who lived in Wallingford, but Abigail would not get a reprieve.  She was believed to be executed in May of 1708.  These women demonstrated rare instances of violence in a quiet community, but they were actors in their own right, however the final case was a victim of her circumstances.

A Person Before the Law: The Sad Case of Hannah Norton

When Hannah Norton came to court things did not go well for her. Her legal entanglements diminished her standing in her community and before the law.  Hannah Norton married Samuel North and started an uneventful life in Farmington.  Her quiet life unraveled after her husband died in 1683.  The widow North stayed with her neighbors, the Ortons, for several days, then returned home.  A few weeks later Thomas Hancox accused her of unclean acts with John Orton.  Hancox was her jilted suitor.

By North’s account she was assaulted. Orton’s story was different.  He testified that she took his hand and gave him rum.  Even Orton’s wife supported her husband, saying the widow North, “loved his company.”  Both Orton and the North were fined, twenty pounds and seven pounds respectively.  In what must have been an excruciating letter North begged for forgiveness from God and the court for her unclean acts, but did not budge from her claim of assault.

“...I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater...” Quote from Hannah North's deposition.

“…I Did not yield my consent and willingness in ye mater…” Quote from Hannah North’s deposition.


But this was not the end of the widow North. Just three years later another controversy arose.  Hannah’s new husband, John Rew, accused Matthew Woodruff of fathering her child.  Woodruff was an associate of her first husband Samuel.  Both Woodruff and Hannah denied this and so did the Court of assistance, dismissing the charges and Rew’s appeal.  One can only imagine how Hannah’s reputation must have suffered having a husband who publicly questioned the paternity of his child.

The new Mrs. Rew was not finished in court, though this final case omitted her name. When John Rew came home one night in October of 1719, he was in for one big surprise. His home had been completely cleared out.  The impressive inventory stolen included warming pans, a dresser, and cookware.  Rew, found his cupboards bare, and exclaimed they left him “not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers”  During the night Roger Orvis and Samuel Warner cleaned out his house, and divvied up the goods hiding them under the floor boards of their homes.

...not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on...” Quote from John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…not so much as a rag to wipe my fingers on…” Quote from John Rew’s lengthy deposition.

When the men were hauled in front of the judge they claimed Rew’s wife, Hannah, had given them permission to take the items. The argument John Rew made to get back his goods was a final blow to his wife, whom he claimed could not settle his debts, “for she is not a person in law.”  He argued that when bound to a man she did not have to power to dispense with his goods, even those brought as dowry.  The sad case of Hannah Norton, assaulted by her neighbor, disgraced by her husband, whose husband questioned her legal identity, is a story of both women’s oppression and women’s resistance.  One can only hope Hannah’s story had more happiness than the courts revealed.

...for she is not a person in law...” Quote form John Rew's lengthy deposition.

…for she is not a person in law…” Quote form John Rew’s lengthy deposition.


Farmington Overlay Map 3

Moving left to right, point 1 is the location of Thomas Thomson’s home where he was killed.  Point 2 is the location of the alleged assault on Hannah North.  The last point is the location of Samuel Wadsworth’s home, where Amy Munn lived.

Recommended Readings about Women and Crime in New England

  • Dayton, Cornelia Hughes. Women Before the Bar: Gender, Law, and Society in Connecticut, 1639-1789. 3rd ed. edition. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
  • Hearn, Daniel Allen. Legal Executions in New England: A Comprehensive Reference, 1623-1960. McFarland, 1999.
  • Hull, N. E. H. Female Felons: Women and Serious Crime in Colonial Massachusetts. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
  • Karlsen, Carol F. The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.
  • Mann, Bruce H. Neighbors and Strangers: Law and Community in Early Connecticut. 1st New edition edition. The University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
  • Roth, Randolph. “Child Murder in New England.” Social Science History 25, no. 1 (2001): 101–47.
  • Salmon, Marylynn. “The Legal Status of Women in Early America: A Reappraisal.” Law and History Review 1, no. 1 (1983): 129–51. doi:10.2307/744005.