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not over ten years for the first conviction of burglary, robbery or counterfeiting and life imprisonment for the second conviction. To maintain the discipline of the prison the keeper was authorized to punish ortences by moderate whipping not exceeding ten stripes, and by putting shackles and fetters upon the offenders. Later, neglect of duty or rebellion were punished by the treadmill, severe flogging, confinement in the solitary cell and in the stocks with bread and water, double and treble sets of irons, hanging by the heels and the like. The system then in vogue tended to harden the criminals rather than to restore them, and appeals were seldom or never made to their reason nor to their better feelings.
The history of Old Newgate prison falls into three distinct periods. It was first established as a colonial prison fitted for the most desperate and dangerous class of criminals. Then, during Revolutionary times it was selected as a suitable place of confinement for tories. And when the war was ended and the colonies had secured their freedom, it was retained as the state prison of Connecticut till the completion of the new prison at Wethersfield in 1827.
The number of persons confined in the caverns at one time occasionally exceeded one hundred, and not a few noted convicts served terms of imprisonment there. Many are the legends that cluster about the crumbling walls, and every turn in the underground passages suggests some story of one or another of the convicts who have been confined in their dark recesses. As he leads the way from point to point the guide delights to recall these
tales, and before you leave the place you feel that you have added to your circle of acquaintance a number of more than doubtful characters. Among them are the negro Jake, Dublin the incorrigible, Henry Wooster the daring tory, "'Priest" Parker and "Old Guinea," with many others of less note. Some of the most interesting of these legends are given definite and permanent form in the chapters that _ follow.
Jake was a negro, very large, very black and very powerful. His surname has not been preserved in the prison lore of Newgate, nor is it to be found on the pages of more exact history. To his fellow prisoners and his keepers, as well as to succeeding generations, he was known merely as "Jake."
Neither do we find recorded the particular crime that brought Jake to Newgate. Indeed that is little matter, since his crimes and wrong doings were numerous. His had been a wild and reckless life, and his fierce disposition and terrible temper,especially when intoxicated, made him the terror of the town in which he lived. His complete life history would include many a tale of desperate assault and of vindictive acts such as the burning of buildings and injuries done to horses, cattle or dogs to spite their owners. It may have been for a number of these that he was at length condemned to spend twenty years in the prison mine.
However that may be, he quickly became almost as great an object of terror within the prison as he had formerly been without. His great strength and ferocity made it extremely difficult for the officers of the prison to control him and keep him in submission to the regular order of prison discipline. Every day witnessed some new revelation of his criminal instincts and character. Among the convicts he held undisputed sway because of superior brute force; nor was he wholly unpopular, since he readily entered into any scheme for mischief or rebellion that promised trouble for the keepers. In fact he seemed to possess a most extraordinary faculty for devising new schemes and inciting his companions to constant insubordination. He was a ringleader also in the scenes of riot and debauchery that so often turned the underground caverns into a perfect pandemonium, and more than one of his fellows barely escaped being murdered by him in these midnight brawls.
On entering the prison he swore that he would escape at the first opportunity even though he should kill half the keepers in the attempt. And he was constantly on the alert to make good his threat. Hardly a month had passed from the date of his admission when a chance seemed to offer as he was working one afternoon in the cook room.
According to the usual custom, the main body of convicts, having completed their day's labor at three o'clock in the afternoon had been marched into the "stone jug," as the basement of the warden's house was called, there to remain for an hour or two before being ordered down into the mines for the night. When they were thus secured, the outer gate of the prison yard was thrown open for admission of teams and of persons who had business with the
prison officials. A few convicts who acted as cooks and waiters were permitted to remain at their tasks under the surveillance of guards, and Jake was one of these. The guard in the cook room was a very pious man more intent on reading his Bible than attending to his duty. Watching his opportunity, Jake caught up a stick of wood intended for the fire, struck the guard a terrible blow upon the head which felled him to the floor, and started on a run for the open gate.
The captain of the guard, more watchful than his subordinate, was on duty in the yard, and seeing his levelled gun, the rebellious negro turned and fled back into the kitchen, jumping into a half empty meal chest and shutting down the cover. From this place of concealment the captain soon dragged him well powdered over with the meal, and he was severely flogged and put in irons. The guard of the cook room never fully recovered from the effects of the blow upon his head, and Jake received an additional sentence of five years for murderous assault upon a prison official. This failure with its added penalties only served to increase the surliness of his disposition and to make him more refractory than before.
In efforts to escape or in plots for evil no labor appeared too hard for him to undertake with alacrity; but the regular work of the prison, however light, seemed to arouse all the evil spirit of the man. To shirk his task or to injure his tools or destroy his working material was almost a mania with him. Again and again he was flogged or otherwise punished. Many were the hours spent by him on the treadmill; but all were alike unavailing. His spirit seemed utterly untamable.
During the third year of his imprisonment, Jake was one day given a task in the shoe shop, and leather supplied him for the work. Long before the time for quitting, and when his own task was scarcely half done, Jake was seen to be idle. His overseer, expecting trouble, as the black was clearly under the influence of liquor, came to him and told him to go to work and finish his job. In a sulky tone he replied that he had no more leather. The truth of this statement was self evident as there was not a scrap of leather on his bench. Being questioned he at first declared that the supply given him in the morning was insufficient and that he had used it all. When this was disproved, he accused the other convicts at work in the same shop of stealing his leather for their work. But a thorough investigation disclosed the fact that from time to time throughout the day he had cut his leather into small pieces which he had smuggled into the prison stove and burned.
This was a serious offence and called for severe punishment. Flogging and the treadmill, however, seemingly had little terror for Jake, and it was at length decided to place him in the solitary cell for a week with bread and water diet. This would at least restrain him from active rebellion for that period and would give the prison authorities a much needed respite from the constant anxiety resulting therefrom. So, heavily ironed, the culprit was taken down into the mine and led to a cell at the remotest end of the caverns cut off from the rest of the mine by a thick stone wall and
heavy iron door of oak and iron. Here he was chained to the solid rock with double fetters about his wrists and ankles, a single day's rations were placed within his reach and he was shut up in total darkness with nothing to do.
For a person of Jake's temperament the solitary cell was a more terrible punishment than the treadmill or the whipping post. He had but limited mental resources, and he craved society even though he were not allowed to talk. To be shut up in this impenetrable darkness with no one near him and nothing to occupy his hands or mind was unendurable.
The first moments, perhaps hours, of his incarceration were spent in the vain endeavor to break or unlock his fetters. Every part of the staples, chains and manacles were carefully examined with the tips of his fingers for some flaw, but without success. Then he tugged and jerked and pounded one part upon another until both wrists and ankles were sore. Still nothing was accomplished. The smith who forged the fetters and fixed the staples had done his work well and even the gigantic strength of the burly negro was not sufficient to loosen them at any point.
At length convinced of the futility of further efforts in this direction, he gave himself up to loud cursing; and as his deep bass voice awakened the echoes of his resonant cavern a new turn was given to his thoughts and for the time wrath gave place to childish curiosity. He spent some time amusing himself with the hollow sounds which he evoked, now singing, now shouting till he grew hoarse and at length tired of the novel experience.
Finally he sat down on the hard seat roughly hewn out of the solid wall of the cell and, groping about with his hands, found the bread that had been left with him, which he eagerly devoured. Whatever his temper or misfortunes, Jake always had a good appetite, and so long as he was hungry and food was within his reach, he never stopped to consider what he should do when the next meal time came and no food remained. The last crumb of food gone, he began to plot new schemes of revenge upon the guards who had shut him up in this dark place; but even that could not interest him long. Then he began to play with his fetters and to slide them up and down upon his legs. In a thoughtless moment he even drew the ankle irons up over the calves of his legs, supposing, if indeed he thought about the matter at all, that he could replace them at will. To pull them up was not an easy task; but by dint of persistence he finally succeeded, for he had no lack of time. But when he tried to Teverse the process and restore them to their original position he found that quite another matter. No most careful working, though with untiring perseverance, could force the rigid iron rings over the large muscles of the calves; and the fetters that hung loosely about the ankles were uncomfortably tight when placed just below the knee.
Of course Jake was conscious of the discomfort. More than this he was angry at his inability to push the fetters down. But beyond that, he had no thought of serious results to follow. Many a time he had been less comfortable, so, weary with his self-imposed labors, he soon laid
him down upon the hard floor and quickly fell asleep.
Conscience had long ceased to be a factor in Jake's make-up, therefore we may safely assert that for a few hours he slept peacefully and dreamlessly as any weary man might sleep. No need of quieting draught after the tremendous exertions of the preceding hours. Though his bed was hard he was not unaccustomed to such resting places; and there was no noise to disturb his slumbers.
Towards morning he had a fearful dream. He had been at work in an old sawmill near his early home and had quarrelled with his fellow workmen. Overpowering him by force of numbers, they had bound him upon the car on which logs were placed for sawing, and he was gradually being drawn forward while the upright saw slowly cut off his legs just below the knees. Most horrible of all was the fact that while the saw kept continually cutting and tearing at the flesh it made no perceptible progress and the agony was prolonged with no prospect of coming to an end. How long this dreadful nightmare continued he did not know; but very early in the morning he awoke with the perspiration standing in great beads upon him to discover that the reality was unspeakably worse than the dream.
From the knees upwards excruciating pains were shooting through the muscles of both legs, while he was not conscious of possessing any feet. As soon as he was fully aroused to the situation, he discovered that the stricture of the fetters had caused the legs to swell, entirely cutting off the blood supply from the extremities. He felt his calves. They were hard and cold. He Struck his feet with his iron handcuffs, and the blow caused no sensation. So far as any feeling was concerned they might have been of wood. On the other hand, the slightest motion of the knees or the most gentle pressure upon the flesh above the fetters caused intense pain.
Frantic with terror and anguish the lonely prisoner screamed for help and tore at his fetters to get them free. His cries were, however, as fruitless as his struggles since his fellow prisoners could not have heard him had they been in the mine, and it was now more than an hour since they had "heaved up" for duty in the shops above. Gradually the appalling truth dawned upon Jake's mind that he was alone in the heart of the solid rock nearly one hundred feet underground, and that there was no help for him until his keeper should come with food.
Then he settled down to helpless waiting. How slowly the hours dragged along, every hour seeming an age to the miserable victim of his own thoughtlessness enduring tortures surpassing the most fiendish inventions of the Spanish Inquisition. At length even his massive strength could endure no more, and Jake found a blessed relief in unconsciousness.
Hours passed. It was late in the afternoon, only a short time before the sending of the convicts below ground, when the warden brought the day's rations to the solitary cell. Cautiously he undid the fastenings of the door, and quickly stood back with drawn pistol ready, in case by any means his prisoner had freed himself from his shackles. The guards had learned to take no
chances with Jake. But this time care was unnecessary. Imagine the surprise of the warden on finding his hitherto unconquerable prisoner lying apparently lifeless upon the floor of the cell. Still he suspected a trick and approached with extreme caution. Letting the full light of his lantern shine upon the man's face he was quickly assured that here at least was no deception. The usual ebon black had turned to an ashen gray and the eyes were closed as if in death. Clearly the man was unconscious, while his legs, bare for some inches above the knees were horribly swollen and completely covered the fetters from view.
Hastily calling for help he carried the unfortunate fellow above ground and summoned Dr. Buck, the prison physician. Every effort was made to remove the fetters, but without success. As a last resort and as the only means of saving the prisoner's life, both legs were amputated above the fetters, and for many weeks Jake was kept in the hospital. For a time it was doubtful whether he could recover, but at length his iron constitution triumphed over the fearful strain that had been put upon it and the man came out of the hospital walking on a pair of wooden stumps.
The experience of that terrible night wrought a complete transformation in the spirit of the negro. Those long hours of indescribable suffering wholly subdued him as nothing else had been able to do. In less than twenty-four hours his hair had turned a snowy white and his fierce disposition was perfectly tamed. During his stay in the hospital he received the care of the attendants with genuine gratitude.