Podcast 351 – Escape from the Haunted Old Newgate Prison

What began as a copper mine in 1709, eventually turned into Connecticut’s first state prison. After multiple escapes and deaths, the ruins are now haunted.

In Episode 351 Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger explore the ruins of Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut. The prison got its start as a copper mine back in 1709. After the mine closed, Connecticut believed they found the perfect place for their first state prison. After multiple escapes and riots, a more formal building was constructed on the site. It was a place the inmates simply called: Hell.

Read the episode transcript.


Produced and hosted by: Jeff Belanger and Ray Auger
Edited by: Ray Auger
Theme Music by: John Judd

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The ruins of Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut.

The ruins of Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut.

The old copper mine tunnels of Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut.

The old copper mine tunnels of Old Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut.

Old Newgate Prison courtyard circa 1890.

Old Newgate Prison courtyard circa 1890.

*A note on the text: Please forgive punctuation, spelling, and grammar mistakes. Like us, the transcripts ain’t perfect.

RAY: Wow… these are some very cool ruins.
JEFF: Aren’t they, though?
RAY: We’re standing by a complex of old buildings. There’s brick walls with bars in the windows. There are stone structures, and in the middle is a brick building that looks like it’s in good shape.
JEFF: This complex has been here a long time.
RAY: it looks it! What’s it doing way out here in the middle of nowhere in East Granby, Connecticut?
JEFF: Originally it was a copper mine that dates all the way back to 1709, but later it became Newgate Prison.
RAY: Ahhh so the bars in the windows make sense. This was a prison. Are we here to do some hard time?
JEFF: Sort of, but the good news is if history is any indication, this won’t be a tough prison to escape. The other thing about Newgate Prison in East Granby? They say it’s haunted.
JEFF: Hey, I’m Jeff Belanger.
RAY: And I’m Ray Auger. Welcome to Episode 351 of the New England Legends podcast. Thanks for joining us on our mission to chronicle every legend in New England one story at a time. We’re glad you’re with us! And we’d love you to be with us twice a week as we bring you stories of ghosts, monsters, roadside oddities, true crime, and other high strangeness, so please hit the subscribe button wherever you listen to your podcasts. It’s free! And it’s one of the ways you can support what we do.
JEFF: We’ll explore this haunted mine and prison right after this word from our sponsor.
RAY: If you’re not familiar, East Granby, Connecticut, is located right up on the northern border of state right near the famous Connecticut border notch. The area was first settled by colonists in the year 1664, but it wasn’t long after that copper was discovered in the hills.
JEFF: In 1709, a copper mining company was formed. They invited men from nearby Simsbury, Connecticut, to invest their money and labor in exchange for shares in the company. 64 people agreed, and began to dig. Two shafts were dug, one almost 80 feet deep and the other 35 feet. Other caverns were dug into a network off of those main shafts in the mine to get to more ore. They pulled copper ore out of the ground by the bucket.
RAY: One of the problems this company faced was a British law that prohibited smelting in America, so the copper was broken from the ore by hand, sent to Hartford, then on to New York, where it was shipped to England for smelting.
JEFF: All of that transportation added a lot of time and expenses to the operation, and minimized the profits. After four years, the business went under.
RAY: Then in 1714, the mine was resurrected with an infusion of money and skilled miners instead of locals with picks and shovels. Slave labor was also brought in from nearby farms. Though production was up, it still wasn’t enough to sustain, so the mine closed up and sat empty for years.
JEFF: Decades later in 1773 the Connecticut General Assembly were eager to build a central prison for its convicted criminals. After learning about the mines, they thought this could be the perfect solution. A deal was struck, and so that’s where we’ll begin. So let’s head back to 1773, and explore this prison.
RAY: It’s May of 1773 here in Granby, Connecticut. Colonel William Pitkin, Eratus Wolcott, and Captain Jonathan Humphrey are scouting the old copper mines on behalf of the Connecticut General Assembly.
JEFF: Though the tunnels are more than 60 years old, they appear sound. The men see an opportunity for a prison unlike any other. They figure if a 15 by 12-foot chamber is dug by the first shaft, they could have lodging here. The main 80-foot shaft can be used for ventilation, and the 35-foot shaft can be used as the only way in and out.
RAY: So it’s decided, this place will be Connecticut’s first state prison.
RAY: A blockhouse is constructed over the main 35-foot shaft, and a ladder is lowered to serve as the only way in or out of the prison.
JEFF: That’s a smart design. Pull the ladder up and the prisoners are stuck in the mine.
RAY: Straw is provided as a bed for the prisoners. The only thing they need now is a warden. That’s when Col. Pitkin spots a tavern just up the road.
JEFF: Here here! Should we head inside?
RAY: Uhhhm yes!
JEFF: Two beers please! Thanks!
JEFF/RAY: Cheers!
RAY: So the scouts from the Connecticut General Assembly get to talking to the tavern owner. A man named Captain John Viets.
JEFF: After a chat, they figure he’d be perfect for the job, and Captain Viets agrees.
RAY: It’s December of 1773 when the prison receives its first inmate. A man named John Hinson.
JEFF: Hinson is a career criminal. He’s been robbing people since he was a teenager and has served time in several county jails. Hinson settles in to his new subterranean home. No sunlight. Straw to sleep on. It’s not exactly luxury accommodations. He’s facing a ten-year sentence in this new life.
RAY: It’s Day 18 of Hinson’s sentence. A big snow storm is dropping piles of snow on the area. It’s late. Around midnight when Warden Viets thinks he hears some commotion coming from the tunnels. But the snow is falling so thick he can’t see much. So he calls down in the tunnels, but receives no answer. He calls down again but hears only silence. Viets lowers the ladder.
RAY: And descends into the tunnels.
JEFF: Warden Viets finds Hinson’s straw bed, but there’s no sign of the prisoner. The tunnels are empty.
RAY: Back at the surface, it doesn’t take long for Viets to figure out what happened. His prisoner had an accomplice who lowered a rope down the 80-foot ventilation shaft and Hinson simply climbed out in the night.
JEFF: Soooo it took the first prisoner 18 days to escape an inescapable prison.
RAY: Embarrassing.
JEFF: Definitely embarrassing.
RAY: So changes are made. First, an iron grate is secured over the main ventilation shaft. And second, it’s decided at least two guards need to keep a night watch at the prison at all times.
JEFF: Pretty soon, more prisoners are brought in to the now-secure Newgate Prison. And they’re put to work.
JEFF: The state figures the prisoners can keep working the mine. It’s free labor, they can make the prison larger for the state, and the copper still has value.
RAY: Right! What could go wrong giving prisoners mining equipment in their prison?
JEFF: Don’t be so negative, Ray….
RAY: Sorry.
JEFF: As months pass, the prison continues to serve its function. Expanding, taking in criminals, and hopefully serving as a deterrent to others to not commit crimes or you’ll end up down here. (PAUSE) The prison has only been in service about a year and a half when the world suddenly changed.
JEFF: It’s April 19, 1775 when the shot heard round the world rings out from Lexington and Concord. America is at war.
RAY: Suddenly, it’s not just criminals being sent to Newgate Prison. British loyalists are now highly suspect. Their homes are being burned, they’re being attacked in the street, and some are finding themselves imprisoned at Newgate.
JEFF: The mining operations have stopped. Now it’s about hard labor.
JEFF: From 4AM until 4PM each day, shackled inmates are expected to build iron nails for construction. Fall behind in your work…
JEFF: And you get lashes.
RAY: Life inside the prison is hard. It’s more than some of the men can take. It’s Spring of 1776 when several prisoners spend weeks collecting dry straw and bringing it below. Once they’ve gathered what they believe is enough. They get to their plan.
JEFF: The prisoners gather their straw and set it by a wooden door blocking one of the exits.
JEFF: With the hay ignited, the plan is to burn their way through the door.
RAY: What the prisoners hadn’t figured was how damp it is down here. The hay burns, but the door just smolders, filling the tunnel with smoke.
RAY: Not only does the escape attempt fail, but one prisoners dies from the smoke.
JEFF: More years pass, and the prison continues to expand. It’s May of 1781. There are now 27 soldiers guarding this facility. One night, two guards are pulling up the ladder for the night when suddenly…
JEFF: The prisoners scramble up the ladder with rocks and homemade weapons attacking the guards on duty. One of the guards is killed in the assault. The prisoners round up the night guards, and the soldiers sleeping and send them all below. With the guards out of the way, the prisoners escape en masse.
RAY: It’s November of 1782 when fire is set to some of the wooden buildings at the surface allowing another escape.
JEFF: It’s clear to Connecticut’s General Assembly that this place is dangerous. Working here is dangerous, and being a prisoner here is dangerous.
RAY: After the Revolutionary War ends, a proper prison is constructed above-ground. The walls are made of brick and stone, with iron bars in the windows. The prison capacity is now 50 inmates.
JEFF: Escapes happened much less often in a building designed to be a jail. But life for prisoners wasn’t much better than when they were housed below ground. Part of daily life is being chained up to a post and forced to march on a long cylindrical treadmill that drives a wheel to grind grain and other engines. The prisoners referred to this place simply as: “Hell.”
RAY: It’s September 28th, 1827. Tomorrow the last of the prisoners is being transferred to the newer Wethersfield State Prison. That’s when inmate Abel Starkey makes his move. He still has 17 years left on his sentence for counterfeiting. He’s desperate to escape. So he bribes a guard with $50 to leave a rope and water bucket hanging down the 70-foot shaft. With the grate already removed, freedom lies just a short climb away. The guard agrees. Abel climbs the rope hand over hand, inching closer and closer to daylight. But just as he nears the top, the old rope snaps.
RAY: And Starkey falls to his death below. And that brings us back to today.
RAY: There were attempts to reopen the copper mine between the 1830s and 1850s, but none of those efforts worked out.
JEFF: Then something pretty amazing happened in the 1860s.
RAY: What’s that?
JEFF: Folks in the region were curious about the old prison and the mine, so the landowners began offering candle-lit tours into the mines, and tours of the old prison buildings.
RAY: So basically the ruins of this mine and prison have been a tourist attraction since the 1860s?
JEFF: Yeah, crazy, right? The State of Connecticut acquired the land in 1968 and made more formal efforts to build a proper interpretive center. It’s gone through periods of renovations and things like that, but the site has endured. It’s now a national landmark. Also, we only highlighted some of the escapes. Back when prisoners were held in the mine, some disappeared, others slipped by the few guards on duty. It was a different time.
RAY: And today they say this place is haunted?
JEFF: They do. We know about the three deaths we covered. It’s possible there were others. There could have been suicides, or death by natural causes. Either way, this facility has earned a haunted reputation.
RAY: It’s got the history, it’s got the deaths, and I can only imagine what it must have been like to be imprisoned down below in these tunnels like some kind of animal.
JEFF: Right?! So visitors have claimed they’ve experienced apparitions, heard voices, and sometimes visitors have felt nauseous for unexplained reasons when down below. After they get back up to the surface, they’re okay again.
RAY: There is a feeling to these haunts. You see the ruins, the bars in the windows, you imagine what life in here must have been like for those inmates, add in those centuries of history, and you’ve got a place where maybe a few prisoners are stuck here… forever.
JEFF: We hope you’ll stick around just a little longer because we’ve reached After the Legend where we take a deeper dive into this week’s story and often veer off course.
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To see some pictures of the Old Newgate Prison ruins, click on the link in our episode description, or go to our Web site and click on Episode 351.

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