“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.

 

Building Peace after the Revolution: William Spratts and Old Gate Mansion

Author: Teresa Lewis

 

Figure 1 Cowles House, built 1780-1782. Picture taken 1942, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

Today, many historians are attempting to revise Connecticut’s revolutionary history by presenting a more complete historical picture, including the plight of loyalists and prisoners of war in New England both during and after the conflict. During the war, many loyal Tories were imprisoned in jails located in central Connecticut, including one at Farmington (Gilbert, 287). One such prisoner was William Spratts. Unlike many other loyalists and British soldiers, however, Spratts stayed in the United States following the end of the Revolution. As an architect, he created many of the historic homes in Connecticut still in existence today. His story and architectural contributions reveal what happened to those left in the United States who were not a part of the patriot victory.

William Spratts was a Scottish soldier in the British Royal Artillery.[1]  Serving in General Burgoyne’s army during the Battle of Saratoga, Spratts was imprisoned in Hartford and Farmington after the artillery’s defeat. Following his release in September of 1780, William was contracted to complete the Barnabas Deane House in Hartford. Spratts was commissioned afterward to build an addition on a home on Main Street in Farmington in 1782. The first home on this site was originally built in 1690 by William Hooker, but the origins of the renovations that were finalized in 1782 were disputably commissioned by either Isaac Bidwell or by Solomon Cowles for his son Zenas (“Old Gate,” 8). Either way, Spratt’s architecture was known for its Georgian style, including a “seven bay façade” that is “decorated with an elaborate entry made up of four Ionic columns.” (“Old Gate,” 2). The house features a pedimented pavilion and ornate details, features that had not been widely used prior to this period (Elliot, 39).

Figure 2 The Gate at Old Gate Mansion, Courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute.

One significant aspect of Spratts’ work in Farmington is the gate that provided the namesake. On the gate, there is a Buddhist symbol for peace called a Manji, often mistaken as the Nazi swastika symbol. The choice of using the symbol reflects a growing popularity of Asian designs in architecture in the early 19th century. There are no records regarding the choice to add the symbol to the gate. Whether it was the decision of the homeowner or of Spratts himself, the symbol can be interpreted to represent the desire for stability and peace following the Revolutionary War, both between the loyalists and patriots, but also between British soldiers living in the colonies.Connecticut’s traditional revolutionary history highlights the heroic deeds that supported the patriot cause.

In addition to creating one of the best known houses in Farmington, Spratts is credited with having built the house of Julius Deming, a prominent merchant in Litchfield (“Julius Deming,” 1). Similar to Farmington’s Old Gate, “The Linden” features a post-revolutionary Georgian style that attempted to separate itself from the pre-Revolutionary simplistic and functional fashions.  Julius Deming was so impressed by Spratts’ work that his cousin Gen. Epaphroditus Champion hired him to copy Deming’s house in 1794.

In his personal life, William was married in 1782 to Elizabeth Seelye, daughter of Justuce Seelye, and had seven children (Elliot, 40). The architect went on to build several additional houses and public buildings in the years before his death including the Champion house in Colchester, the Litchfield courthouse which burned in 1886, and finally the Town Meeting house of Georgia, Vermont. Spratts subsequently married three times, had thirteen children and moved to Vermont, spending his final days there until he passed in 1810 (Georgia Town History, 260).

Spratts represents an overlooked perspective by contemporary historians. While most loyalists and British soldiers returned to England and other territories, Spratts stayed to create a new life for himself, becoming a successful architect and raising a family following the war. His imprint on American architecture is still present today throughout Connecticut. His story provides a glimpse into the details of what happened to those who did not win the Revolution.

For further reading, see:

“Prisoners in Farmington,” The Farmington Historical Society. Accessed November 12, 2017.
http://fhs-ct.org/1777/03/10/prisoners-in-farmington/.

Brandgee, Arthur L. and Eddy N. Smith. Farmington, Connecticut, The Village of Beautiful Homes. Charlottesville: Library of the University of Virginia, 1906.

Georgia Town History, Volumes 8-11. Town History Committee. Madison: University of
Wisconsin, 1974.

Gilbert, G. A. “The Connecticut Loyalists.” The American Historical Review 4, no. 2 (1899):
273-91.

Warren, William. William Sprates and his Civil and Ecclesiastical Architecture in New England. New York: Columbia University, 1954.

Elliott, Tom. “Master Builders/Planemakers of the Federalist Period Part 1: William Spratts.” The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc. 63, no. 1 (03, 2010): 39-41. https://ccsu.idm.oclc.org/login?url=https://search-proquest.com.ccsu.idm.oclc.org/docview/203681319?accountid=9970.

[1] Spratts’ name has been disputed by several scholars. The spelling used in this blog is based on the spelling from Joseph Loring’s letter to Governor Trumbull, where he is mentioned as “William Spratts of the Royal Artillery.”