Chauncey Judd


The old copper mine in what is now Granby, part of the ancient town of Simsbury, used for about half a century as a state prison, and named from the more noted debtors' prison in London Newgate, was long famous in the annals of Connecticut.

It is situated on the western slope of that greenstone mountain range which traverses the whole breadth of New England, and separates the Farmington from the Connecticut River Valley. How early copper was discovered here is not known, but it is mentioned in the proceedings of a town meeting of Simsbury in 1705, when a committee was appointed to make explorations, and report to the town. Two years later a contract was made with three persons, named Woodbridge, for working the mine and smelting the ore, with the stipulation that one-tenth of the product should belong to the town. It is a curious fact, as indicating what class of persons in that day were supposed to have sufficient knowledge to carry on such a work, that the three contractors were all clergymen; also, that, of the portion that was to come to the town, two-thirds should be applied for the maintenance of an able schoolmaster in Simsbury, and one-third to the endowment of the Collegiate School, founded five years before, now Yale College.

Mining operations were continued here, from time to time, until the Revolution, but probably without bringing any satisfactory returns to anybody. The ore was not rich, containing only from ten to twelve per cent of metal, and the work of reducing it, in the existing state of scientific knowledge, very difficult. The same jealousy, before spoken of, lest there should be any rivalry to the productions of the mother country, which restrained the introduction of manufacturing into the colonies, operated as a check to successful mining, the business of smelting and refining being prohibited by acts of Parliament. The proprietors, therefore, were compelled to ship their ore to England to be reduced, involving, of course, great expense and risk. One cargo was wrecked in the English Channel, another captured by the French.

The copper produced from these mines was said to be of a superior quality. Some of it was coined in the shape of money, called, from the name of the maker, Higley's coppers, which passed current in the vicinity. They bore on one side the inscription, I am good copper, and on the other, Value me as you please. They are said to have passed for two shillings and sixpence, currency, – about forty-two cents, – which must have exceeded their real value. These were much sought after, and used in melting up with gold for the making of pinchbeck and other base metals, employed in the manufacture of jewelry.

At the time it began to be used as a prison, the mine consisted of two shafts sunk perpendicularly through the solid rock – one thirty-five, other seventy-five feet in depth. From the bottoms of these, extensive caverns, excavated for ore, descended several hundred feet into the mountain, in a sloping direction, according to the lay of the vein, terminating in levels or drains, which had been pierced through to the surface, further down the mountain, for the purpose of freeing the mine from water.

In May, 1773, the first steps were taken by the legislature of the colony for the establishment of a prison at this place. A committee, appointed to visit and examine it, reported that, in their judgment, by an expenditure of about thirty-seven pounds, the caverns could be so secured that it would be next to impossible for any person to escape from them. Whereupon the same committee were invested with full power to agree with the proprietors of said mines, or the lessees thereof, to receive, keep, and employ in said mines such criminals as may by law be sentenced to such punishment, or to purchase in the remaining term of said lease for such purposes, and according to their best discretion, effectually to secure said mines suitably to employ such persons as may be there confined by order of law.[1] In October following, the committee reported that they had purchased the remaining term of the lease – nineteen years – for sixty pounds; that, by blasting rocks, they had prepared a well-finished lodging-room, about fifteen feet by twelve, in the cavern, and had fixed over the west and shorter shaft a large iron door, etc. The eastern shaft was left open, its depth and bare perpendicular walls of rock being judged sufficient to prevent escapes. There were no buildings upon the premises, nor any walls to prevent external access to the shafts.

Such was the place provided by the colony foremost on this continent, if not in the world, for its regard for Christianity, – the home of churches and schools, – for the punishment of her criminals. Let it be imputed, not to her inconsistency with her professions, but to her ignorance of what the prison system of a Christian state should and might be, that she established one that might, almost without a figure, be styled infernal. Thrust down into subterranean caverns, dripping perpetually with water from above, where no ray of sunlight could ever penetrate; compelled to sleep on straw in damp and moldy bunks, and left to contaminate each other by endless recitals of past crimes and endless plottings of new, – it is no wonder that its inmates, instead of being reformed, emerged more hardened in all evil, to become the scourge and terror of the community.

At that time nothing was known of our modern prison discipline. Howard, Mrs. Fry, and other philanthropists had not disclosed to the world the horrors of European prisons, and roused the benevolent to undertake some measures for their reform. The sole considerations which seem to have influenced the legislature of Connecticut one hundred years ago, in constructing a prison, were the safe-keeping of the prisoners, and the smallest expense to the colony.

The first convict received at the mine was sent there in December, 1773. He escaped three weeks afterward through the eastern shaft, being drawn up by a rope, assisted, it is said, by a woman to whom he was paying addresses. In February, 1774, three prisoners were received, all of whom escaped in less than two months; in April, another who had been there but four days. It is to be remembered, that, beside the open eastern shaft, there were other parts of the caves which had not been properly secured. The men, too, were at first employed in digging the ore of the mine, and found their tools not only adapted to that labor, but to open for themselves the way of escape.

Notwithstanding the proved insecurity of this prison, it had the reputation abroad of being superior in strength to any other in the country. Two years after its first occupancy, General Washington sent thither a number of culprits for confinement. They are, he says, such flagrant and atrocious villains, that they cannot by any means be set at large, or confined in any place in this camp. Congress too, in 1781, applied to Governor Trumbull (the Brother Jonathan, so called affectionately by Washington, from whom the appellation has passed to the entire American people) for the use of the mines as a prison for the reception of British prisoners of war, and for the purpose of retaliation. Happy was it for all the parties concerned that the war itself came to a close before the negotiations for this purpose were completed.

In 1774-5 the eastern shaft was closed, and a blockhouse of logs built over the western one, which admitted entrance to the caverns through a heavy iron door. This, with the keeper's house adjacent, was soon burned. New buildings were then ordered to be erected, among them a work-shop above ground. These were not completed till November, 1780, the prisoners, meanwhile, being confined in Hartford Jail. In 1781, the premises were first inclosed with a picket fence, with bastions at the corners for security. But this and the other buildings were again destroyed by fire, and for a time the idea of successfully maintaining a prison here seems to have been abandoned. At last, taught by experience, the legislature passed a new act, more perfect in its details, providing not only for the repair of the old fixtures, but the building of suitable work-shops, a keeper's house, etc., all to be enclosed within a strong stone wall. The work was completed at an expense to the state of over three thousand dollars. The prison was now found to be secure, and was thenceforth maintained until the completion of the new State Prison in Wethersfield in 1827.

The work of mining was subsequently renewed by parties who had purchased the premises from the state, the old work-shops being used as founderies for smelting the ore. It is now, however, abandoned, though the old wall, the guard-house, and many of the other buildings remain. The whole is worth a visit by those who would get a full idea of the changes which have been effected in the half century past in the prison discipline of New England.

It was not until November that the work of repairing and refitting at the prison was completed, so as to be ready for the reception of the convicts. Meanwhile, pursuant to their sentence, they were detained at the jail in Hartford.

Newgate was now in a much better condition than ever before. It was kept under a strong military guard, consisting of a lieutenant, a sergeant, a corporal, and twenty-four privates. The whole number of prisoners was about twenty, of whom the greater part were tories. A law had been passed, the spring before, authorizing the superior court to sentence to Newgate persons convicted of acts of disloyalty to the state. Courts-martial were clothed with similar power in cases occurring under military jurisdiction. These persons were of a higher class than ordinary criminals. being frequently men of education and property. One of them was a clergyman named Baxter, who preached a sermon to his fellow convicts from Judges 15:2, entitled, Tyrannicide proved Lawful, from the practice of Jews, Heathens, and Christians. A Discourse delivered in the Mines at Symsbury, in the Colony of Connecticut, to the Loyalists confined there by order of the Congress, on September 19, 1781, by Simeon Baxter, a Licentiate in Divnity and voluntary Chaplain to those Prisoners in the Apartment called Orcus. It was dedicated to Washington and Congress and the Protestant rebel ministers in the thirteen Confederated Colonies in America, and printed both in this country and England. The doctrine it advocated was the rightfulness and duty of killing all usurping and rebel magistrates. It is garnished with Latin and numerous quotations from Greek and Roman authors, and displays considerable learning and literary ability.

The confinement of such persons as these with common burglars, horse thieves, counterfeiters, and other felons, shows how intense were the feelings of indignation existing in the minds of the patriots against those who were regarded as enemies to their country's liberties.

Previous to this time the prisoners had been kept as labor in digging ore in the mines. A work-shop having now been built above ground, they were henceforth employed in mechanical labor, chiefly in making nails. The machinery by which nails are now produced had not then been invented; hence all that were used, of every size, had to be made by hand, in consequence of which they were scarce and expensive.

  1. Phelps' History of Newgate, p. 11.