The Connecticut Captivity of William Franklin, Loyalist


November 1, 2017
by Louis Arthur Norton Also by this Author


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War, an odious invention of man, attempts to portray the enemy as subhuman, unworthy of normal sympathy. Civilized societies respected the sanctity of human life; but enemy prisoners were a byproduct of conflict and open to abuse via military policies designed to debase and dehumanize. Historically, prisoner-of-war internment facilities were harsher than those used for civilian populations.

Although it was generally agreed that prisoners of war possessed basic rights to be treated humanely and then to be released at the end of hostilities, the application of these rights frequently was not carried out and progressed to grievances and disputes. Inhumane and cruel treatment in unsanitary environments produced disease, as well as emotional and physical trauma. Atrocities committed by empowered men against helpless weakened prisoners resulted in callous indifference to human suffering, filth, uncontrolled disease and inhumane conditions; obnoxious stenches, vermin infestations, rotten food, polluted water and despicable living situations; of waiting for someone to die to gain their space closer to better ventilation avoiding bodies of the retching or recently dead to gain access to an overflowing “necessary bucket” in the dark.[1]

Toward the beginning of the American Revolutionary War, George Washington issued orders known as the Laws of War regarding captives or prisoners of war. On September 14, 1775, Washington wrote to Col. Benedict Arnold stating that: “Should any American soldier be so base and infamous as to injure any [prisoner] … I do most earnestly enjoin you to bring him to such severe and exemplary punishment as the enormity of the crime may require.”[2] Washington became appalled at the treatment of American captives, particularly those who were extradited to Canada. They were taunted, abused and subjected to starvation often resulting in wretched deaths. He wrote, “The inhuman treatment of the whole, and murder of part, of our people, after surrender and capitulation was … a flagrant violation of faith, which ought to be held sacred by all civilized nations, and was founded in the most savage barbarity. It highly deserved the severest reprobation.”[3]

In spite of Washington’s order, Americans at the local level incarcerated some prisoners in a dank copper mine known as Old Newgate Prison in what was then Simsbury (now East Granby), Connecticut.[4] This grim facility largely housed Loyalists who did not support independence and a few prisoners of war. Loyalists (Tories) were often treated more like common criminals than POWs, depending on the state or township. The members of each colony intensely debated whether Loyalists should be treated as enemy soldiers or treasonous citizens.[5] Some thought that the Tories presented an even greater danger to the revolutionary cause than soldiers because of their potential for sedition, real or imagined.

A poignant example of ill treatment of Loyalists by the Rebel government is that of William Franklin.[6] During his early life William Franklin was a frontiersman, soldier, a captain in the Pennsylvania militia, and aide-decamp to his father. He ventured into the Ohio Valley where Indians and whites waged an expansionist war. At this time William and his father Benjamin Franklin had shared interests that included Franklin’s inventions and provincial politics. William’s parental influence helped get him appointed as Philadelphia’s postmaster and comptroller of the North American postal system. In 1758, at age of twenty-one, he elected to pursue a legal career and became a lawyer. King George III appointed Franklin as Royal Governor of New Jersey in 1762.

During the 1770s, when the colonies political opinions became divided between loyalties to the king or open rebellion, William remained loyal to the Crown. Benjamin visited his son in New Jersey to inform him that the Americans were uniting behind George Washington against the British. The elder Franklin assured William that he would be welcome to join the armed rebellion and would likely be offered a generalship in Washington’s new Continental Army. William Franklin affirmed his loyalty to the king and felt that the majority of Americans would not support the Revolution. Thus his actions put father and son at odds. As the war with Britain gained momentum, the animosity between them grew.

In January 1776 the Continental Congress ordered the disarming of all potential threats to the patriotic cause. The provincial Congress ordered all royal governors removed. On July 15, 1776, the provincial congress of New Jersey declared that William Franklin was a “virulent enemy to this country, and a person that may prove dangerous.”[7] Franklin was to be arrested, but the congress suggested that he be handled “with all the delicacy and tenderness which the nature of the business can possibly admit.”[8] He was sent to Connecticut and consigned to the authority of Gov. John Trumbull. Franklin, however, made a defiant speech at his subsequent June 21 trial that a judge described as “every way worthy of his exalted birth,” referring to his illegitimate origin rather than his well-known paternity.[9]

On July 4,1776 Franklin was led to a small outbuilding of the Connecticut War Office and became an official prisoner of the Rebel government. He was confined first to a rented room in the house of an unnamed officer in Wallingford, Connecticut. Then, as a parolee, he was sent to the Connecticut River town of Middletown and the home of Jehosaphat Starr. The obstinate governor-in-exile refused to be a compliant prisoner. Instead he gathered intelligence and passed it on to Loyalists. This was used by Connecticut Tories to protect their property as royal pardons issued by the authority of a colonial governor appointed by the king.

Because of abusing his parole while in Wallingford, Franklin was sent to the “Litchfield Gaol” in May of 1777. This notorious facility was crowded with Loyalists, many of whom were condemned to death. On May 2, 1777, an armed escort took Franklin to Litchfield’s jail, considered only a slightly better fate than Simsbury’s Old New-Gate prison.

Litchfield, in a hilly rugged inland region of Connecticut, was far from any navigable river, presumably to deter potential rescuers.[10] The jail was an unpleasant place. At the time, rehabilitation was not the purpose of a jail, thus prisoners were made to suffer in horrid accommodations. Author Willard Randall described the Litchfield jail as “a long squat log building of two stories, almost obscured when [William Franklin] first saw it by a huge Elm tree.”[11] The elm tree served as a whipping post and nearby was a sturdy gallows.

Up on Franklin’s arrival, Sheriff Lynde Lord had the prisoner incarcerated in a second floor cell for the condemned. “The smell hit him first, then the darkness,” Randall wrote. “There was only a small window with bars, the floor was covered with straw long since matted with the wastes of earlier prisoners. There was no chair to sit on, no bed to lie on, no toilet facilities.”[12] Franklin was ordered to speak with no one except the sheriff.

Franklin subsequently wrote, “They hurried me away about 40 Miles to Litchfield, where I was thrown into a most noisome filthy Room of I believe, the very worst Gaol in America.”[13] Shortly after his arrival, he was placed in a solitary confinement cell that contained a straw mat on the floor and nothing else – no bed, no seat, no toilet facility. In September, he wrote a complaint to Governor Trumbull stating,

I feel myself in a sensible Decline and am already so much reduced in Size, and become so weak and relax’d, as to render it extremely improbable that I shall ever recover my health and Strength again … I suffer so much in being thus, as it were, buried alive, having no one to speak to Day or Night, and for the want of Air and Exercise, that I should deem it a Favour to be immediately taken out and shot – a speedy or sudden Death being, in my opinion every Way more eligible than such a miserably lingering though equally sure one as I seem at present doom’d to.[14]

In a subsequent writing Franklin described his surroundings:

In this Dungeon, for I can call it no other, it having often been appropriated to condemn’d Criminals, I was closely confined for about eight Months, overrun and molested with the many kinds of Vermin, debarred of Pen, Ink, and Paper and of all Conversation with every Person, except now and then, a few Words with the Sheriff, Gaoler, or Centries. In short I was in a manner excluded human Society, having little more connexion with Mankind than if I had been buried alive. My Victuals was generally pok’d thro’ a Hole in the Door, and my servants but seldom permitted to come into the Room, and then only for a few Minutes in the Presence of the Goaler and the Guard.[15]

Franklin also sent a plea to General Washington, requesting to visit his ailing wife, Elizabeth Downes, in New York. Washington replied that only the Continental Congress could grant a furlough order. Washington passed the request to Congress, but they refused. Franklin’s wife died while he was imprisoned. His general health had declined as a result of his ordeal in solitary confinement, perhaps abetted by malnutrition.[16] On December 31, 1777, William Franklin was released from the Litchfield Gaol after serving eight months. He was still a prisoner, but kept more humanely in the East Windsor house of Capt. Ebenezer Grant. The poor conditions in his confinement in Litchfield had taken their toll.

While William Franklin languished in prison, his father did not intervene. In the autumn of 1778, Franklin, whose health was now partly recovered, was exchanged for Delaware’s Rebel governor, John McKinley, who was held by the British in New York. Franklin entered New York City on November 1, 1778, where he continued to work for the British during the war and remained loyal to the king throughout his life.

While living in London in 1784, William received a letter from his father who was still pained by the rift between them, but unwilling to forgive. Benjamin Franklin felt pain in his old age, having been being deserted by his only son who took up arms against the revolutionary cause. He wrote that he attempted to understand William’s position, but could not find a father’s natural forgiveness.[17] When the elder Franklin died in 1790, he left nothing to his Tory son.

Surprisingly, William Franklin may have been a fortunate man. Capital punishment was the probable fate for Connecticut Loyalists found guilty of treason or spying. Moses Dunbar was briefly imprisoned under a charge of disloyalty for several weeks. He escaped, fled across Long Island Sound and enlisted in the British Army, receiving a commission as a captain. Dunbar subsequently returned to Connecticut and tried to recruit some other young men to enlist in the Royal Army. He was recognized as an escapee, arrested, and, when his royal commission as captain was found in his possession, was indicted for high treason. He was tried in a Hartford court, found guilty and then executed by hanging on January 23, 1777.[18] Two other Connecticut Tories, William Stone of Stamford and Robert Thomson of Newton, were convicted and hanged for the offenses of espionage, sedition and treason, as was Daniel Griswold later in the spring of 1777. On November 3, 1778 John Blair and David Farnsworth were similarly hanged for espionage and sedition.[19] On the cold morning of February 8, 1779, Edward Jones was convicted of espionage and put to death by a firing squad. Hostile attitudes of the Rebels toward Tories in some communities grew as the war progressed.

When the Treaty of Paris 1783 ended the conflict in 1783, many Tories (sometimes forcefully) immigrated to places of refuge such as Britain or Canada to escape the excoriation and humiliation they endured from their neighbors. The treatment of Loyalist captives of the Americans has little historical coverage, but evidence of William Franklin and others held in Connecticut suggests that their plight during the Revolutionary War was appalling.


[1] Thomas Dring, Recollections of Life on the Prison Ship Jersey. Edward Swain, ed. (Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing), 2010.

[2]  The writings of George Washington: Being his correspondence, addresses, messages, and other papers, official and private, Jared Sparks, ed. (Salt Lake City, UT: Benchmark Books, 1847), 90.

[3] Washington to the president of Congress, July 15, 1776, in The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 5, 16 June 1776 – 12 August 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase, ed. (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1993), 325.

[4] Old Newgate prison was variously known as “Hell” and other damning epithets such as “the catacomb of Loyalty,” “Inferno,” and by some “the prison of the Inquisition,” “Sepulcher,” and “the living tomb.”

[5] Charles H. Metzger, The Prisoner in the American Revolution (Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1962), 31-63.

[6] William Franklin, born in 1760, was the illegitimate child of Benjamin Franklin. His mother has never been determined, but he may have been born from an illicit encounter with a prostitute or Franklin’s later common-law wife, Deborah. William was raised by Ben and Deborah whom he called mother.

[7] Walter Isaacson, The First American: The Life and Times of Benjamin Franklin (New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2003), 525.

[8] Sheila Skemp, William Franklin: Son of a Patriot, Servant of a King (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1990), 308.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Peter C. Vermilyea, Hidden History of Litchfield County (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2014), says that the jail was on East Street, but a map in the Litchfield Historical Society, depicted in the same book, shows the location as Meeting House Street.

[11] Willard Sterne Randall, A Little Revenge-Benjamin Franklin & His Son (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1984), 446. Only one reference to the colonial jail appears in Alain Campbell White, The History of the Town of Litchfield, Connecticut, 1720-1920 (Litchfield, CT: Litchfield Historical Society, 1920).

[12] Randall, A Little Revenge, 446.

[13] William Franklin to Lord George Germain, November 10, 1778, in Vermilyea, Hidden History of Litchfield County.

[14] William Franklin to Jonathan Trumbull, September 15, 1777, Litchfield Gaol, in Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society, vol. III, no. 1, 1918, 47.

[15] William Franklin to Lord George Germain, November 10, 1778.

[16] Franklin remained in New York and fought against the Americans, but left for refuge in England in 1782. His motto, Pro Rege & Patria, amply demonstrated his devotion to the British crown and country.

[17] Randall, A Little Revenge, 486.

[18] J. Francis Ryan, Plymouth Conn., 1776–1976 (Plymouth, CT: privately printed, 1976), chapter 17.

[19] Daniel A. Hearn, Legal Executions in New England (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1999), table of victims of execution.


  • As I suspect you are aware, Franklin subsequently devoted great energy to the Tory effort. He assisted in raising Tory military units as well as establishing spy networks for the British. And, he played a role in Arnold’s efforts to defect to the British. His incarceration apparently did not harm his health a great deal, while perhaps reinforcing his zeal to defeat the enemy.

    You may also be aware of John Jay’s efforts, for a brief period, to apply judicial procedures to counterintelligence charges and resulting penalties.

    Thanks for an interesting article.

  • Is it true that William also had an illegitimate son, Temple, who was eventually abandon by William and thereafter raised by his grandfather, old Benjamin Franklin?

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