Castle On the Cove: the Connecticut State Prison and Wethersfield

The Connecticut State Prison located on State Street overlooking the Connecticut River opened for operation on October 1, 1827 with 121 inmates under the care of Warden Moses Pillsbury. This new Prison replaced the outdated Newgate Prison in Simsbury (presently East Granby) that had operated from 1773 to 1827 in the subterranean copper mines. The new Prison was a brownstone edifice built with convict labor that occupied 16 acres.

The new prison was founded on the correctional method called the Auburn system, a regimen of strict silence for prisoners at all times, allowing them the social solitude to reflect on their crimes. Inmates were employed in prison trade shops during the day and confined to their cells at all other times. Wethersfield was not considered a place for punishment, but instead an institution on the cutting edge of prison reform. French political author and historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited the institution in 1831 and called it a model institution with extreme mildness.

The Prison soon became overcrowded, and female convicts were not being properly housed there. The Connecticut General Assembly granted the funds to build an addition to the Main Hall building providing 64 new cells for males, 48 cells for women, a kitchen, female hospital and new yard wall. Women were present at the Wethersfield State Prison under the care of a Matron for 103 years, from 1827 until their transfer to Niantic Correctional Institution in 1930.

In the early years of the prison, a political scandal caused Warden Amos Pillsbury, son of the former warden, to be placed on leave. He was replaced with Gurdon Montague for nine months (1832-1833). Pillsbury was investigated for mismanagement of the Prison and mistreatment of the inmates. One of the main proponents of Pillsbury’s removal was Martin Welles, a member of the Board of Directors of the Prison and driving force for having the institution placed in Wethersfield, his hometown. Due to Pillsbury forceful reinstitution Martin Welles no longer served as a Director after 1833. The Prison was originally organized with three Directors that oversaw the management of the institution and the Warden. The Board of Directors was later increased to seven members.

During the time of Montague’s tenure night watchman Ezra Hoskins, an elderly guard who was partially deaf, was murdered by three inmates in an unsuccessful escape attempt. On September 12, 1835, inmate Harvey Griswold attempted to murder Warden Pillsbury by stabbing both him and a guard with a knife. Griswold, a lifer, was unsuccessful, only wounding both men. Four officers and two wardens were murdered by inmates during the prison’s tenure. Warden N. Daniel Webster was murdered by Gerald Toole with a shoe knife when he was confronted by the Warden as to why he refused to work in the shop. Webster’s replacement, Warden William Willard was murdered in 1870 by inmate David Kentley with a sharpened end of a cane while the Warden was making his nightly rounds.

As the 1870s and 1880s progressed, the prison infrastructure was greatly improved in the areas of overcrowding, sanitation and utilities. Warden Hewes, Warden Sargant and Warden Chamberlain were responsible for overseeing the installation of water pipes, fire hydrants, better drainage, 11 new female cells and 72 new male cells, ventilation of cells, raising the roof of the 1827 Hall, constructing of steam pipes to heat all the buildings, a drying room, coal sheds, construction of the North Brick 400 man cell house, new steam boiler house, new kitchen, new chapel, new hospital, new laundry room, purchase of the Solomon Welles House for a Warden’s residence, additional acquisition of land surrounding the prison, a water closet in each cell, new three story brick workshop and establishment of a new prison cemetery. These massive changes allowed for improved health of the inmates and transformed the prison into a modern institution.

Renovations at the Prison continued in the 1890s with 32 steel cells installed in the original 1827 building, new heating, new steam apparatus in the laundry to kill germs, six underground cells under the Warden’s office for solitary confinement referred to as the dungeon, a new hospital and insane ward, new cell house with 208 steel cells, an 800 man dining room, new boiler house, steam chimney, kitchen, bakery, women’s laundry, women’s exercise yard, officers dining room, cold storage room, and a new execution house.

In1893, a new Connecticut State Law was passed that required the State Prison to handle the execution of condemned prisoners. In 1894 the Gallows House was constructed, and John Cronin was the first of fifty-five men to be executed by hanging there. Hanging was the official means of execution in Connecticut until death by hanging was abolished in May 1936 and replaced with the electric chair. Joseph McElroy of New Haven was the first of eighteen men to be executed by electrocution between 1937 and 1960. Joseph L. “Mad Dog” Taborsky and was the last prisoner to be executed in Connecticut until Michael Ross was lethally injected in 2005 at Somers Prison.

It was not until the twentieth century that Wethersfield the Prison modernized is correctional method and abolished the Auburn system in 1914 and lifted the ban of communicating with other inmates. At this time the shift was also made from self-sustaining prison labor to dependency on the State Treasury for funds. An act of the State Legislature of 1927 requires all revenue made from convict labor to revert to the State Treasury and the prison must operate on appropriation from the State of Connecticut. Consistently after 1927 in the biennium reports of the Prison, Directors and the Warden complain about the issue of not having enough funding to adequately run the institution. Prior to this statute, the Prison would use the funds garnered from convict labor to run the institution and reduce appropriations from the State. Only seven years after this law was passed, the Hawes-Cooper Bill became effective, not allowing convict-made goods to be sold outside of the State. This ended contracts from large firms like the New York Shirt Company. Warden Reed compensated for the loss of the out-of-state contracts by switching the convict labor to the “state-use” system. The “state-use” system saves the state money with diversified goods for the state producing license plates, highway signs, concrete construction barriers, printing, etc. The shirt shop closed and was replaced by smaller shops for concrete work, tailoring, canning goods from the Osborn Farm (an offsite low security correctional institution in Somers), sign shop requiring additional space and more overseers.

Overcrowding was an ongoing issue and in 1916 the East Wing was built with 72 additional cells. Sentenced men who were residing in county jails were now housed in the prison. On June 24, 1930 all fourteen female prisoners were transferred from Wethersfield to the new women’s prison in Niantic. The women’s section of the Wethersfield prison was converted into Segregation, more commonly known as Death’s Row. Two years later Wethersfield’s insane prisoners were removed to Norwich State Hospital.

Demonstrations and major inmate violence became much more common in the twentieth century and began to escalate with a riot in 1918 in the dining hall. This caused the prison to change from crockery to stainless steel eating implements. On February 24, 1956 100 inmates staged a sit down strike followed a few months later on July 28th when 391 inmates refused to leave the recreation yard. Warden Cummings resigned after being pelted by rocks during his speech from the tower at that time. Less than a year later on November 16, 1957 500 inmates staged a sit down demonstration in sympathy for inmate Joseph Del Gobbo, who died in his cell. Prisoners involved in the demonstration remained in their cells and refused to eat dinner as they felt that Del Gobbo died due to inadequate medical attention. On January 6, 1960 four hundred inmates staged a destructive riot in the east and north cell houses. Inmates broke windows, pipes, heating equipment and tore apart their cells, pelting debris on the responders to the riot. The Wethersfield Volunteer Fire Department and the Connecticut National Guard responded to aid the guards. A few months later, in October, six inmates held three guards hostage in the prison hospital for seven hours before surrendering. Fortunately this was the end of large-scale prison violence at Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield.

Continued overcrowding along with State pressure led to the Connecticut State Prison’s closing on November 6, 1963, after 793 inmates were moved to the new prisons in Somers and Enfield. Somers was a high security prison, while Enfield was a lower security facility. It is said that the decision to build a new prison in Somers was based partly on the 1960 riot which convinced officials that they needed a larger and more open space for inmates. The Connecticut State Prison at Wethersfield lay vacant after November 6, 1963 until the State began demolition January 25, 1967. All that physically remains of the Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield is the cannery (now State Surplus Auction House), the Solomon Welles House (Owned by the Town of Wethersfield), the Pumping Station (used as storage for the State), the Concrete Garage (used by the DMV for car repair), the Prison Cemetery and the flagpole. The State of Connecticut sold part of the land, including the Warden’s former residence to the Town of Wethersfield for a recreational area named Cove Park for $1 with the stipulation that they would care for the property, maintain the cemetery in good condition and have an open space for Wethersfield residents to congregate. The State of Connecticut built the Department of Motor Vehicles on the other part of the property. Today some residents recall the Prison in Wethersfield, but many younger generations and visitors would never know that Cove Park was the site of the Connecticut State Prison for 140 years.

 

Castle on the Cove: the Connecticut State Prison and Wethersfield exhibit is open at the Wethersfield Museum at the Keeney Memorial Cultural Center for self-guided tours. Admission is free, but donations are appreciated. Please visit here for more information on visiting the museum.

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