Wethersfield Prison Blues
September 8, 2020 • Crime and Punishment, Law, Wethersfield
Aerial view of Connecticut State Prison

Aerial view of Connecticut State Prison, ca. 1945 - Connecticut Historical Society

In September 1827, the newly constructed Connecticut State Prison in Wethersfield opened its doors to 81 inmates once housed at Newgate Prison. The prison was modeled after a state-of-the-art penitentiary in New York, and the prison’s administration stressed prisoner rehabilitation during incarceration: prisoners labored by day to learn a trade, were allowed plenty of fresh air and exercise, and were offered religious services and Sunday school classes.

Cell block for women prisoners, Connecticut State Prison

Cell block for women prisoners, Connecticut State Prison, ca. 1910-1920 – Connecticut Historical Society

Both male and female prisoners were housed in separate parts of the prison. Incarcerated women cooked, cleaned, and repaired clothing used in the prison, as well as made cigars. Male prisoners worked as carpenters, coopers (makers of bound wooden vessels, such as barrels), tailors, and blacksmiths, among other things. Until 1880, prison labor supported the cost of running the facility.

Many prisoners served long or life sentences at this maximum security facility. The incarcerated served time for everything from stealing horses, to arson, to murder. Seventy-three prisoners were executed at the prison between 1894 and 1960, with 55 being hanged before the method was stopped in the 1930s. The others were executed by electric chair. On May 17, 1960, the last inmate executed was infamous Connecticut murderer Joseph Taborsky, convicted of killing six people.

Violence was common at the prison, and during its 136-year history inmates killed 2 wardens and 3 guards. The prison closed in 1963 when the Connecticut State Prison was moved to Enfield. The complex was demolished a few years later. All that remains on the former grounds is a small marker commemorating the site of the prison’s burial yard.

For the curious:

  • Package stores in Connecticut were once open until 11:00 p.m., but in the 1960s legislature set closing times to 8:00 p.m. after Joseph Taborsky went to the electric chair at the prison. He was convicted of a series of murders and robberies, which included package stores.
  • Jabez Woodbridge of Wethersfield patented the Automatic Gallows (#541,409) on June 18, 1895. Not only was he a town resident, he was the prison’s warden from 1893-1899.
  • Amy Archer Gilligan (who was purportedly the murderess portrayed in Arsenic and Old Lace) served time at the Connecticut State Prison.

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