To be a Tory in the northern colonies was to understand and fear the consequences of confinement at the infamous copper mine of Simsbury, Connecticut. Although already in use as a Loyalist prison, the mine gained official approval for use by the Assembly early in 1776. It quickly gained a reputation as a dismal environment where “the light of the Sun and the light of the Gospel are alike shut out from the martyrs.”[i] The assembly approved an original expenditure of 37 pounds to make the mine escape proof but they still had a good deal of trouble maintaining a lid on the prisoners below.
The mine dated back to 1737 when the landowner, Samuel Higley, started a copper coin operation. He dug copper and minted 3 penny coins for a number of years but the neighbors felt the coins were overvalued and subsequent devaluation caused Higley to cease production after a few years. Late in 1773 the colonial legislature needed a place to put Loyalists in need of confinement. They convinced the current landowner, John Viets, that he should modify the old mine and go into the prison business.[ii]
Viet built a guardhouse over the main shaft and capped it with a heavy iron grill. The underground was described by one of the prison’s more famous guests. “Here are copper mines. In working one many years ago, the miners bored half a mile through the mountain, making large cells 40 yards below the surface, which now serve as a prison, by order of the General assembly, for such offenders as they chuse not to hang. The prisoners are let down on a windlass into this dismal cavern, through an hole, which answers the triple purpose of conveying them food, air, and – I was going to say light, but it scarcely reaches them. In a few months the prisoners are released by death and the colony rejoices in her great ‘humanity’ and the ‘mildness’ of her laws. This conclave of spirits imprisoned may be called, with great propriety, the Catacomb of Connecticut.”[iii]
Newgate prison, at Simsbury Copper Mine, gained a reputation for losing prisoners right away and various improvements were made through the years to close off any physical openings. The upgrades failed to prevent escapes but each time investigations revealed bribes and unlocked gates rather than any way around the prison itself. In late 1775, George Washington was also convinced of its strength and requested confinement for some “atrocious villains, so that they cannot possibly make their escape.”[iv] The problem continued.
The Case of Joel Stone
In early 1776, the Committee of Safety of Connecticut pressed hard for loyalty oaths from the local Tories. The Loyalist leader, Joel Stone, refused the oath even though given to understand he “might expect to meet the utmost severity to [his] person from those in authority and an incensed public.” Stone immediately decided to “withdraw as soon as possible to the City of New York and there by joining his Majesty’s forces cast what weight I was able into the opposite scale.” Before he could secure any belongings word came of a warrant and that “a party of men were actually on their way to my house.” Very much alarmed, Stone “got away on horseback and, being in a dark night, happily eluded their search.” He lost his home and possessions to a “tumultuous mob” but Stone did manage to escape to Long Island.[v]
Two years later Joel Stone accepted a commission to raise a company of Loyalists for the British. The Committee men of Connecticut renewed their search and conducted a late night raid to Huntington on Long Island. A party of whaleboat men kidnapped Stone “whilst asleep”. They took him across the sound to Norwalk in Connecticut where the magistrate refused to grant Stone status as a prisoner of war. Instead, they insisted on “charging me with the enormous crime of high treason against the states.”[vi] He would face the death penalty from a waiting cell at Newgate.
Stone waited for trial 40 feet below ground in the Simsbury Copper mine. His situation was “so perfectly horrible, . . . it may easily be supposed I would meditate a recovery from a captivity so much to be dreaded.” Stone first tried sending a request for relief to the British commander at Kings Bridge. When nothing happened from that he “petitioned the Governor . . . that I might, agreeable to justice, be deemed a prisoner of war, treated as such and be permitted to appear before himself and Council in person to remove every objection to his request.” Unfortunately for Stone his “petition was rejected with the utmost disdain” and he was left to face his “approaching fate which was irrevocably fixed.”[vii]
As soon as Stone entered the mine, the captain and the guard provided evidence that escape remained a very viable alternative to remaining in the mine. Hanging on to his thin hope of being exchanged as a POW, Stone rejected their offer of “aid by pecuniary means.” However, “on my return to prison all my sanguine hopes vanished and left my mind in the utmost agitation.” Stone decided to rethink the situation. “I began to renew my contrivances and intrigues in conjunction with my friends and resolved to spare no expense in my power to regain my liberty. Many of my schemes, though they cost large sums, proved unsuccessful, yet I did not despair of gaining my point. The dungeon was truly dismal, the walls strong and the place perpetually guarded, yet being in the prime of my life my spirits were warm and my passions violent. I firmly determined to effect an escape” even if forced to go out in the world naked.[viii]
After several expensive yet unfruitful escape attempts, on July 23, 1778, Stone and another prisoner bribed their way past the door and disappeared into the woods where they subsisted on Nurtle berries for two days until “the alarm subsided” and some friends helped them get back to British lines. Newgate failed to hold its prisoners.
Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith
A very similar episode occurred in the spring of 1781. Ebenezer Hathaway served as Captain of the Loyalist privateer boat, Adventure. While anchored off Long Island in Huntington Bay he and another crewman (Thomas Smith) were captured by rebels riding at night in whaleboats. They spirited the two men across the Sound to Connecticut and into the Hartford jail. They went to trial on April 27th where a Superior Court ordered them “to Newgate gaol, or rather to that inquisition Simsbury Mines, which from the following description, exceeds anything among their allies in France or Spain.”[ix]
Hathaway and Smith “were taken from Hartford gaol, and marched under a strong guard to Simsbury, distant about 14 miles.” The two walked through the guardhouse and down a trapdoor to the kitchen where yet another large trap door waited. “Finding it not possible to evade this hard fate, they bid adieu to the world and descended the ladder about 38 feet or more, when they came to what is called the landing; then descending about 30 or 40 feet more they came to a platform of boards laid under foot. Here, they say, we found the inhabitants of this woeful mansion, who were exceedingly anxious to know what was going on above. We told them Lord Cornwallis had beat the rebel army (at Guilford Courthouse), with which they seemed satisfied, and rejoiced at the good news.”[x]
Once inside the prison, Hathaway found conditions unbearable. A ventilator shaft was intended to provide fresh air but charcoal pots burned constantly in an effort to clear the foul odors. The two men soon resolved to “avail themselves of the first opportunity to get out, although they should lose their lives in the attempt.”[xi]
About three weeks following their arrival, Hathaway and Smith joined with a another group of men desperate to escape. The men had been allowed into the kitchen for cooking. While there “they found the means to break the lock of the door which kept them from the foot of the ladder leading up to the guard room; they now doubly resolved to make a push should the door be opened, which fortunately was the case about ten o’clock at night to let down a prisoner’s wife who had come there and was permitted to see him.” Hathaway led the rush against the door and pushed his way in. A scuffle ensued in which he was wounded three times but managed to hold on long enough for Smith and the others to also get through. Approximately 20 Loyalist prisoners fought an equal number of guards and “took the whole prisoner, which was no sooner accomplished than they brought their companions out of the bottomless pit and put the guard down in their room; then marched off with their arms and ammunition but were soon afterwards obliged to disperse.”[xii]
After the prison break, the Connecticut Assembly appointed a committee of investigation to look into the situation. As usual, they discovered bribery and outside assistance at the heart of the matter. One of Hathaway’s cohorts was a man named John Young. His wife, Abigail, came to the prison that night with 52 silver dollars which John promptly used to pay Sgt. Lilly who “purposely left the door of the south jail unlocked” allowing the prisoners access to that crucial upper door. Once again, Newgate Prison failed to hold its inmates.[xiii]
Connecticut continued using the prison even with its wretched history of escape and reputation for inhumane treatment. Even with all the upgrades it got during the war for Independence, about 50% of the inhabitants held there managed to escape. In spite of all this, the narratives do indicate a certain measure of success convincing Loyalists to stay away from the state. The prison itself was so horrible the thought of return was enough to keep the Tories away from Connecticut.
UPDATE: The Simsbury Copper Mine (Newgate Prison)
was and will be an active tourist destination. Watch a 2007 video tour of the mine/prison by Louie Allessio, Dave Earl and Dave Ramsey. According to a comment on our Facebook page, the site is owned and operated by the State of Connecticut, but has “been closed to the public for the last few years for renovations, stabilization of the above-ground ruins, and installation of a new underground lighting system. It’s currently slated to reopen in 2014.” That said, this video is the best glimpse inside the mine for now.
[i] Peters, Samuel, General History of Connecticut, London, 1871, reprinted by D. Appleton & company, New York (1877), p 143.
[ii] General information on the mine and its history taken from; Phelps, Richard H., Newgate of Connecticut, American Publishing Company, Hartford, Conn. 1876 and reprinted by the same in 1895. See Also, an article published on the internet by the Colebrook Historical Society at http://colebrookhistoricalsociety.org/OldNewgatePrison.htm
[iii] Peters, Samuel, General History of Connecticut, London, 1871, reprinted by D. Appleton & company, New York, (1877), p 143
[iv] Crary, Catherine, The Price of Loyalty, New York, 1973, p 216, quoting a letter from Washington to the Connecticut Committee of Safety, December 11, 1775 published in Writings by Fitzpatrick, Vol IV 155-156
[v] Stone, Joel, Loyalist Narratives, Stone Narrative, page 323-325, reprinted in the collection, The Spirit of Seventy-Six, on page 876, edited by Henry Steel Commager and Richard B. Morris, and published by Da Capo Press in 1995
[ix] Hathaway, Ebenezer, and Smith, Thomas, Account of the Escape of Ebenezer Hathaway and Thomas Smith, Captain and Member of the Crew of the Privateer Adventure, from the Simsbury Mines on May 18, 1781, Rivington Gazette, June 9, 1781, reprinted in Crary, Catherine, Price of Loyalty, New York, 1973, p 218 – 219
If half of the prisoners were able to make their escapes through bribery or other means is there any indication of what happened to the others who remained in the prison? Were they freed at the end of the revolution or did this continue to act as a prison during the years following the war?
I did a quick search and found that the mine is open May-October for tours.
Michael, thanks for stopping by. Excdellent question about the prison. I don’t know exactly when the last loyalist was released. I doubt that any loyalists remained after the treaty in 1783. However, the prison itself remained in use. In 1790 it became the state prison for criminals and, if memory serves, it stayed in use until 1844.
Much is made of the cruel treatment of American prisoners by their British captors, putting them in overcrowded buildings such as the Sugar House in New York or squalid prison ships in New York Harbor. But Americans held some of their captives in a mine, and others on prison ships. In general, prisons were harsh places during that era and confinement could be debilitating if not lethal. Neither side treated their prisoners in ways that would be considered humane by today’s standards.
One of the more interesting items about the prison ships is the British did not really consider it their responsibility to feed or clothe the prisoners. Food and supplies were sent to Charlestown from Virginia during 1780 and 1781 for the care of prisoners. Apparently it didn’t really help. Mortality rates were horrendous.
I admit that I wold have signed any statement to avoid such a dismal imprisonment in a claustrophobic prison.