Richard Brunton was a Connecticut artist who engraved his way not only into the homes of the wealthy with his prestigious prints during the time of the American Revolution, but also into the notorious Old New-Gate Prison where he lived after being convicted of counterfeiting.
Brunton, believed to have been a deserter from the British army, earned a legitimate living making memorial prints and bookplates as well as engraving jewelry, according to Nancy Finlay, curator of graphics at the Connecticut Historical Society in Hartford.
But like many an engraver in his day, Brunton couldn't resist the temptation to make his own money. After all, there was no federally issued currency when the states were just being united.
"It was a great temptation, if you were an engraver, to become a counterfeiter, I think, because of the lack of currency and a lack of good control," Finlay said.
Deborah Child, who is working on a book entitled, "Soldier, Engraver, Felon: Richard Brunton's life on the fringe in America's New Republic," says that "counterfeiting was by no means an easy undertaking."
"In the wake of the American Revolution, not only was legitimate currency in such short supply; so were the raw materials required for counterfeiting — paper, copper, gold, and silver," she said in an email to the Courant.
New-Gate in Granby was renowned for its insurrections and escapes despite prisoners being housed underground in an old copper mine. While many prisoners there since have been forgotten, Brunton's legacy lives on in memorable artworks, including an engraving of the prison and portraits of the warden and his wife.
The copper engraving has been destroyed. But one of the few known prints made directly from it, as well as Brunton's portraits of Major Reuben Humphreys and his wife, Anna, are in the collection of the Connecticut Historical Society.
"Old Brunton," as he was called, was a transient who in the late 1700s lived in West Suffield with the family of a resident named Gad Rose, according to a 1906 book by Albert Carlos Bates, a librarian at the Connecticut Historical Society.
While Brunton engraved a bookplate for Rose, the engraver was known as a "counterfeiter of paper money printed from plates cut by himself," Bates wrote in "An Early Connecticut Engraver and His Work."
Records from Superior Court in Windham County show that Brunton also etched coins, according to Bates. The papers state that Brunton was in the custody of sheriffs in March 1799 because on Feb. 1, 1799, in Woodstock, he "wittingly & feloniously with force and arms, made sundry instruments called Types & dies for the purpose of counterfeiting the True Silver Coin which was passing within this State..."
Brunton apparently managed to maintain his sense of humor after his room had been raided.
"It is related that officers once searched his room at Mr. Rose's house in search of counterfeit bills or plates for their manufacture, but without success," Bates wrote. "It is also said that Mr. Brunton remarked after the search that the officers came too soon, as he had completed only the plate for one side of some bills.
"In spite of this bravado, it is possible that his departure from Mr. Rose's was a sudden one aided by the strong arm of the law; else why should he leave numerous of his engraved plates at Mr. Rose's house?"
Once arrested and charged with counterfeiting, Brunton pleaded not guilty. But he was found guilty at trial, and ordered to do hard labor for two years at New-Gate.
"The term of the penalty may seem today to be a short one for the crime of which Brunton was convicted, yet an examination of the records will show that it was fully up to the average sentence at that period for that crime," Bates wrote. "Counterfeiting, apparently, was not frowned upon as sternly then as it is today."
That may have been true in Connecticut, but, at the time, according to Child, counterfeiting in New York and Rhode Island was punishable by death, "often by hanging."
Whether he served hard labor or not, Brunton had plenty of time while behind bars to create an intricate work of art on a heavy copper plate known as "A Prospective View of Old Newgate, Connecticut's State Prison." The copper was apparently mined from the "dungeons" of the prison, according to an article published in the Hartford Daily Courant on Sunday, May 25, 1924.
"Brunton was one of the few prisoners during a fifty-year period, who found other employment than conspiring in the hollow recesses of the dungeon, fighting with the guards and getting tipsy on the cider which old Guinea, a former slave convicted of murder, brought to the prison," a caption under a rendering of Brunton's engraving of the prison yard read.
The newspaper continued, "General Washington sent a number of prisoners to be confined in the dungeon under these walls, describing them as 'flagrant and atrocious villains.'"
Coincidentally, Brunton's earliest known engraving is a portrait of George Washington, published in 1781, according to Finlay. Bates called it "the most important example" of Brunton's engraving.
But that was done well before Brunton landed behind bars.
It is the engraving he did at New-Gate of the prison itself that's by far Brunton's largest and most elaborate, according to Bates. It measures 20.5 inches square, he notes. And it tells a story of the time.
"It shows the prison yard and buildings with the prisoners performing their various duties ... all of the prisoners are shackled, the officers wear swords, the guards carry guns and one of them seems to be hastening a prisoner's steps with the point of his bayonet ... a prisoner is tied to a post while an officer applies the whip to his naked back."
Bates notes that the plate ultimately "fell into the hands of some one who did not appreciate its interest and value and was cut up and used for other purposes."
It's clear Brunton has earned his place in history not only as a counterfeiter, but as an artist as well. There's an entry on him in "The New-York Historical Society's Dictionary of Artists in America, 1564-1860." Besides noting his portrait of Washington and his silver and bookplate work, it says Brunton served several jail terms for counterfeiting.
Bates describes how Brunton's elaborate engravings — with hatched lines and scroll work —- made their way into the homes of doctors, lawyers, ministers, politicians, merchants and Yale College graduates in the form of engraved silverware, ornaments and watches, as well as bookplates. The painstaking work was done by hand, with the help of a steel-cutting tool called a burin, Finlay said.
Brunton presumably tried to ingratiate himself with Humphreys, who was appointed superintendent of the prison in 1796, with the oil-on-canvas portraits he painted of him and his wife, Anna, holding their infant daughter Eliza. Brunton depicted the couple's wealth and social status through their clothing — full military dress for him, a plumed hat for her — and through objects shown in the paintings, including leather-bound books and a china tea set.
The Connecticut Historical Society's collection also includes numerous examples of family registers, decorative printed papers to record names as well as dates of birth, marriage, and death, made from metal plates etched by Brunton.
"He's pretty much the first person who's doing this in America," Finlay said.
Despite his sterling work, Brunton died in the poorhouse in Groton, Mass., in 1832, according to Finlay. More than 150 years later, the details of his life continue to unfold.
Child said her upcoming book, which is expected to be published next spring, will reveal "startling new details" about Brunton's service in the British army during the Revolutionary War and his life from prison to death.
"My book will introduce many previously unknown works by his hand and will provide an authentic glimpse into life on the fringe in America's new Republic," she said.
And like those at New-Gate who mined copper, Child continues to mine for tidbits about Brunton. She invites those with more information to contact her through http://www.deborahmchild.com.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun