Prisoner escaping colonial jailStories

The first jailbreak in the Colony, March 30, 1662

In 1652, the Boston jail was the only prison in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and it was ordered that a new one be built in Ipswich.

No drawing is available of the first Ipswich jail, but by its description it may have been similar to the Old Barnstable Jail, built in 1690.
No drawing is available of the first Ipswich jail, but by its description it may have been similar to the Old Barnstable Jail, built in 1690.

Thieophilus Wilson was assigned as keeper, his compensation being £3 a year, plus 5 shillings for each prisoner. Prisoners were required to pay for “board and attendance,” and if they were not capable of doing so, they were given bread and water. The selectmen provided the house of correction with flax and hemp to provide the prisoners with gainful work.

The old jail building was twenty feet long and sixteen feet wide, with “3 floors of Joyce thick set and well boarded, with partitions above and below. There is no mention of a chimney for a fireplace in the description of the building. In 1659, the keeper was instructed to “gett locks to secure the prison & what is wanting else to make ye doors.”

Thomas Franklin Waters wrote that “On the morning of the 30th of March, 1662, the worthy constable and jailer and the community generally were astonished to find that a prisoner had escaped, by jail breaking, the first offense of this nature committed in the country.” Soon a second prisoner escaped, and when he was recaptured he said he was very cold in the unheated jail, so he removed some floor boards to effect his departure. There was suspicion however, that someone had tinkered with the latch.

Mr. Wilson the jailer was questioned about the first escape in court and deposed that he “put him in prison and lockt the dore fast, and put the hasp on to the staple in the outsyde of the dore, which none within can unhasp, and left no tooles or meanes of light in the prison.

The Court issued a decree: “Forasmuch as several escapes have been made out of prison by the prisoners with the aid and assistance of some ill affected persons, it is ordered that noe person shall presume hereafter to come within the prison yard nor within 20 foote of the prison on the west side thereof, where there is no fence, upon any pretence whatsoever, without particular leave from the keeper while any prisoners are in the prison, upon paine & penalty to be proceeded against as contentious of authority, and abettors of malefactors. “

Court Held at Ipswich, March 29, 1664

Regarding Stephen Godwin, the second escapee

Mr. Daniell Epps complained against Stephen Godwin, George Stimson, John Beaver and John Palmer for stealing and killing two hogs, for breaking his house and stealing several goods and for threatening his servants and children if they discovered it. The jury found Stephen Godwin guilty of all three particulars in the indictment and George Stimson and John Beaver guilty of the two former. They were all ordered to pay treble damages for theft, to be severely whipped and to allow their master more for loss of time, Stephen Godwin a month and the others a fortnight each and said Godwin to be bound to good behavior. John Palmer, because he confessed at first, was given liberty to redeem his whipping by paying a fine of 40s. Said Godwin was committed to prison, for want of security, for good behavior. Court ordered that upon security given for his departure out of this jurisdiction by two members of this court, he was to be released from his sentence of imprisonment. Court adjourned to May 5.


Court held at Ipswich, May 5, 1664, by adjournment

Location: Sparke’s Tavern

Hearing and testimony:

  • John Gidding deposed that the “last second day Thomas Wilson came to my house & told that the prisoner was found again. I said, ‘but are they found that let him out? He answered no, nor I hope never will! I said I doubt you are one of them. He said no, I am as clear as you. I said no I doubt not so, how could you then tell your cousin Nathaniel Treadwell that the prisoner was at the barn of Goodman Grave the Thursday after he was let out? He said, I told him, but he was a rogue for telling you, & he then turned about and cried.” Sworn in court.
  • James Ford deposed that “on Monday last, being at Thomas Wilson’s house, he asked him what news, and he told deponent that Stephen Godwin was caught again. Deponent asked him who let him out of prison, that he had no better instructions how to get away, and Thomas said it was himself, John Pindar and Zachary Debel. That they had bound themselves not to discover anything, and whoever discovered the matter first was to bear all the damage that should come to all or any of them by that act. Deponent said that Thomas told him that the cocks had crowed six times on Tuesday night before he went to bed, and that day broke as he was going home when he was near Thomas Burnham’s house. Thomas further said that he went into Goodman Graves’ house at the back door to wake Zachary, etc.”Sworn in court.
  • Anne Chote deposed that “Thomas Wilson was at the rails on Thursday night and she asked him if he knew what had become of Stephen and he said that if there were a fair wind Stephen would not be long in Ipswich. That Stephen was not twenty rods from the meeting house all that while and that he was over the scaffold in Goodman Graves’ barn.” Sworn in court.
  • John Dille, aged about twenty-one years, deposed that “being in Mr. Hubbard’s lane with Jonas Gregory on lecture day, Thomas Wilson told deponent that Stephen was in Goodman Graves’ barn and asked deponent if he would help convey Stephen away to the eastward. He told him that he would have no hand in any such thing, and Wilson said his father had examined him as to whether he had anything to do with letting out the prisoner, and he had told him that he was at home in bed at the time and that his wife would swear to it. Zachery, Goodman Graves’ man, was he who let him out.” Sworn in court.
  • William Downing, aged about twenty-four or five years, deposed that “Thomas Wilson came to his ground when he was planting, and he told deponent where Stephen was and said that Good man Graves had no hand in the matter. “Sworn in court

Ruling of the court:

  • Stephen Godwin, for breaking prison, was ordered to be severely whipped and committed to prison.
  • Zachary Debell and William Newman, for being accessory abettors and conveying the prisoners away, were ordered to be severely whipped, fined and committed to prison until they paid it, and also bound to good behavior, Zachry Debell and Samuell Graves bound.
  • Thomas Willson, for being an abettor and concealing the prisoners’ escape from prison, was ordered to be whipped.
  • Thomas Treadwell, Jr., Nathaniel Treadwell and John Pindar, for concealing the prisoner, were admonished.
  • Samuel Graves, for suspicion of concealing the prisoner and carelessness in his trust in searching for him, was bound in 50 li. to appear at the next Ipswich court.
  • Charges allowed to Walter Roper, Caleb Kimball, Richard Coye, George Abbott and Thomas Johnson in prosecution of the prisoner.
  • Ordered that Mr. Symonds and Major General Denison take order about the security for the good behavior of the prisoners and the charges.
  • Ordered: “For as much as several escapes have been made out of the prison by the prisoner with the aid & assistance of some ill- affected persons, It is ordered that no person shall presume hereafter to come within the prison yard, nor within 20 foot of the prison on the west side thereof, where there is no fence, upon any pretense whatsoever without particular license from the keeper, while any prisoners are in prison, upon pain & penalty to be proceeded against as contemptors of authority and abettors of malif actors.”

References and further reading:

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