The state's first prison, Old New-Gate, built in 1773, was a former copper mine where the worst criminal offenders were sent to do hard labor. Convicts were kept in the mine's two shafts, one at 25 feet and the other more than 60 feet below ground. Escape seemed highly unlikely.
But the depth of the mine shafts didn't prevent breakouts. The first prisoner escaped just 18 days after the prison opened.
Over the half-century Old New-Gate served as a prison, about 10 percent of its 950 prisoners freed themselves. Some were caught and returned, rewards paid. Others got away.
Prisoners' yearning to be free hasn't abated in modern times. Since 1968, more than 950 escapes have been recorded from the state's 19 prisons.
'Cunning As A Viper'
In 1773 Capt. John Viets, who had worked in the New-Gate copper mine, was appointed the first master of the prison in what was then part of Simsbury — now East Granby. The same year he also was granted a tavern license. Viets sometimes allowed certain prisoners to leave their cells and have a drink at his tavern, just across the road.
John Hinson was unlikely to get such special treatment. On Dec. 22, 1773, the 20-year-old burglar and con man was the first criminal confined to New-Gate prison. According to the Colebrook Historical Society, when Hinson was turned over to Viets, the judge warned that "he is sly, ornery and cunning as a viper. If there is any way of breaking out of Simsbury jail, Hinson will find it."
Eighteen days later, Hinson did just that.
On a snowy January evening, Viets checked on his prisoner and found only an empty bed. Hinson's personal belongings were gone, and so was he.
A letter to the General Assembly dated Jan. 17, 1774, from the prison's three overseers described the escape: "We the subscribers, overseers of New-Gate Prison, would inform your Honors that New-Gate prison is so strong and secure that we believe it is not [possible] for any prisoner out there to escape, unless by assistance from abroad: yet it so happens that one John Hinson … has escaped by the help of some evil minded person at present unknown, who in the night … drew the prisoner out of the shaft."
Hinson's departure led to another Connecticut first: a classified ad offering a reward for an inmate's escape from a state prison. The week after Hinson's escape, The Courant published an advertisement placed by Viets, offering $10 to anyone who "will take up said fellow and return him to the subscriber … of said prison, or shall discover those that aided him in his said escape, so that they may be brought to conviction."
No record of Hinson's return to New-Gate was found. Hinson's escape, and the ad that followed, wouldn't be the last.
Record-Setting Escape Artist
Richard Steel once appealed to the state legislature to be put to death rather than sentenced to hard labor at New-Gate. He had chosen a life of crime, he said, to avoid hard labor and would rather die than live against his principles.
Steel believed in those principles enough to set a state record, escaping from prisons all over Connecticut, including three times from New-Gate.
Steel was a repeat offender. He was already known as a "notorious burglar" in the earliest Courant reports of his criminal exploits in April 1771. An ad placed by Hartford County Sheriff Ezekiel Williams offered a 40 shilling reward for the return of Steel, who had again escaped from irons, having "been twice crop'd and branded" previously.
Steel was recaptured later that month in Fairfield, having put up a "vigorous resistance and wounded the person in the head … who took him in," The Courant reported.
He evidently escaped again, as he was returned to Hartford from a jail in Boston in September 1774. The Courant published the sheriff's list of valuable items found with Steel, so that they might be returned to their rightful owners. Among them: "a black horse colt 2 years old… a good saddle; with a saddle cloth almost new… a neat pair of pocket pistols… a fine ruffled shirt…a single cased silver watch."
Steel was confined to New-Gate, but not for long. On Nov. 21, 1774, he escaped with five other men. Rewards were offered and four of the men were quickly returned. Advertisements ran in the Courant on Nov. 28 and Dec. 5, 1774, for the fifth prisoner. It was Steel.
A typical advertisement for an escaped prisoner in the 1770s included a physical description of the missing inmate. The ads for Steel's return that ran in The Courant said he was "so well known as to need no description."