John Lee Powell’s Workbox

Thumbnail image for powell workbox-thumb-200x150-1.jpgIf a picture is worth a thousand words, have you seen an image of one of our new accessions at the Wethersfield Historical Society? The image is of an 1875-1876 Workbox (jewelry box) created by a loving husband to express his undying love for his wife Letitia. In examining the box, it is evident that John Lee Powell was a master craftsman, truly skilled with woodworking. The actual woodworking and artistic qualities are not what makes this work box remarkable, but rather where it was made and where it was when Powell died.

John Lee Powell left home in 1860 to make something of himself. He found himself skilled with woodworking and apprenticed under Samuel Hoyt in Trumbull, Connecticut as a carriage framer. As with almost all sections of the nation, the Civil War interrupted his life in 1861 and he served with the Connecticut Ninth Regiment. After the war, Powell returned to Trumbull to advance his trade as a carriage body maker, beautifying the luxury transportation. Powell was a successful craftsman, married to Letitia Burr and had a four year old son, Irving, when everything changed in 1875.

Thumbnail image for powell johnlee-thumb-150x213-5.jpgIn the summer of 1875, Powell and a few of his fellow Civil War veterans were intoxicated on a train ride from Bridgeport to Trumbull. Somehow Powell had managed to pay the full fare to Hartford, when his destination was only Trumbull (Beers Mill). As the drinking continued so did his confidence, which led to an argument with the conductor. The conductor would not return the unused fare and the gentlemen exited the train disgruntled. As a result of the failed argument, Powell placed railroad ties and other obstructions on the track. Powell was caught, arrested and placed on trial where he pled guilty per his lawyer’s advice, unaware that a new law dictated a twenty-year minimum prison term for placing obstructions on railroad tracks. On August 25, 1875 Powell was sentenced to twenty years in State Prison and entered the town of Wethersfield two days later.

While in Wethersfield’s State Prison, he was the model prisoner with no record of misconduct and a friendly respectful relationship with guards, who were also Civil War veterans. Powell began crafting a jewelry box for his wife. He worked on the gift for fifteen months and, as it neared completion, he received the upsetting news that his father had died. On November 11, 1876, Powell’s father died unexpectedly of typhoid fever. Prison Chaplin Wooding began visiting the grief-stricken inmate. Two weeks later Letitia petitioned for divorce, sending Powell into a deep depression.
powell workbox3-thumb-200x150-8.jpgOn December 3, 1876, John Lee Powell took a cord that tied the shoe leather bundles out of the prison shop and returned to his cell. During the night, John tied one end of the rope to his bunk hook on the ceiling and created a noose in the other end. He wrote a suicide note between the lines of the divorce papers and placed the note in his pocket. The cell was 3 ½ by 7 feet, too short for a man of his stature to successfully hang himself, therefore he voluntarily bent his knees. The next morning he was found by Deputy Warden Frank A. Arnold hanging from the cord in his cell, bleeding out both of ears and cold. Charles Allen, a prison hospital attendant, found the note.

Oh my dear wife, is this the way you treat your poor Lee. I certain can’t tell what this is for. I tell you truly for the last time, that I love you with all my heart. You are too cruel. I die for you Good Bye -forever- good bye little Irvie- poor Papa will never see you again on earth – good bye Charles, Kattie and mother. Don’t think me too rash for I can’t live and have Letitia leave me. Charlie come and get me. Take me home and lay me by the side of my poor father. Tell father and mother Burr and Henry good bye for me. It se me hard it is terrible vengeance she has taken for what I used to do. I never would do so again.


You look at the bad side. We have had lots and lots of good times together, and my hopes have been that we would again – but my hopes you have blasted forever. For all you have done this, I love you with all my heart. Whatever I have written to you, I have done it thoughtlessly I would not have done it for all of this world if I had thought this ever of you, my dear wife.

Letitia, never think of me. Don’t think that you ever have done wrong with me, but enjoy yourself as much as you can. Good bye. As wicked as I have been, I never could serve you in this way. I thought it was hard to be shut up here, but it is nothing to this. You are too cruel. How many good times we have had together. I always knew your heart was hard, but I never thought it was as hard as it now. You was untrue to me in the first and the last.
Captain Hewes, please give my brother Charlie that work box I made for my wife and what few tools I have. Mr. Clark will know the box. Please send for my brother at once. Direct to Charles H. Powell Stepney depot, Conn.

powell workbox2-thumb-220x293-11.jpgNewspapers throughout New England and New York reported on the suicide at the Connecticut State Prison, publishing parts of his suicide note. The work box that was meant for his wife sat inside his small cell as he hung himself and was then returned to his family. This May, John Lee Powell’s ancestor donated this treasure to the Wethersfield Historical Society. The society is honored to preserve, display and care for a jewelry box made in the Wethersfield’s Connecticut State Prison by a man who just wanted to show his wife he loved her regardless of his circumstances.

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