01 March 2011

Crimes & Law Enforcement: Colonial Prisons

Anna C. Bowling

As of this date, I've been in two colonial prisons. Before anybody suspects me of time travelling misdeeds, let me state up front that the prisons were museums at the time I visited, and the purpose was research, not correction. Old Newgate Prison, built in 1775 in East Granby, CT, began its tenure as a copper mine, and when the mining proved unprofitable, became a holding facility for Tories and captured British troops during the American Revolution. This particular tidbit perked my colonial-loving ears, and throughout the tour, I kept my ears open for any future characters who might want to share their stories of time spent in such a place.

The tour included both the mine itself--very dark, very slippery and not for the claustrophobic--and the cells where the prisoners slept. Standing in the low-cielinged cells, with stone on three sides, bars on the other, I could well imagine what could have gone through the minds of the men housed there, including a desperate need to escape. Which, as our guide informed me, was extremely common at this particular facility.

The first prisoner to call Old Newgate "home" arrived in December of 1773 and escaped eighteen days later, and one prisoner, listed as Richard Steele, holds the record for escaping from this facility a grand total of three times. After the war, the prison housed serious criminals such as rapists and murderers instead of political prisoners, admitting women starting in 1824. The prison closed in 1827, and an attempt to revive the mining failed. The property served other purposes before being declared a national landmark.

Old Newgate was not my first exposure to the colonial correctional system. That came on a school field trip to the Bedford Historical Society in Bedford Village, NY,. One of two original jail cells from the 1780s remains now at the society's museum. Prisoners housed in the Bedford cell would find their walls of wood rather than stone, and escapes would be trickier, as they shared a building with the courthouse, which has also been preserved.

I have to confess making multiple trips to revisit the courthouse and jail cell over the years, which inspired similar locations in MY OUTCAST HEART, though the preserved sites date from several decades past the 1720 setting of the story. The entire town of Bedford was burned to the ground by British troops during the American Revolution. Though I have no idea if any of the soldiers involved in that were captured and housed at Old Newgate, the storyteller in me has to wonder what if....

Have you ever visited a historical prison? What prison do you think would be perfect for a historical version of Prison Break?

Writing historical romances allows Anna C. Bowling to travel through time on a daily basis and make the voices in her head pay rent. Her current release, ORPHANS IN THE STORM, is available from Awe-Struck E-books.