The “Dungeons of Ipswich” during the War of 1812

On June 17,1812, President Madison declared war with England. The New England states were bitter in their opposition, because of the trade embargo and their vulnerability to British war ships. The Town of Ipswich adopted a resolution on June 25, 1812 declaring its alterable opposition to the embargo and “Mr. Madison’s War.”

Ironically, the reputation of the town was tarnished by an order of the President during the war. On October 7, 1813, the keeper of the Ipswich jail was instructed by the District Marshal (who had received orders from the President) “to receive into his custody and safely keep in dungeons, in the gaol aforesaid, 16 British prisoners of war, as hostages to respond for any act of violence which may be inflicted on them.”

This was in retaliation for 16 Americans supposedly being confined in a dungeon at Halifax, which turned out later to be untrue. It was later learned that the Americans had been kept in “comfortable apartments” in Halifax. Although the Ipswich jail had been built only six years earlier, it had already become notorious for its lack of any source of heat or comfort.

A scathing letter to the editor signed by “Howard” appeared in the Salem Gazette on January 14, 1814:

“It is time that the public should be correctly informed on the subject of the unfortunate prisoners at Ipswich. Seventeen of our fellow beings have been immured in dungeons in our own neighborhood three months, and the public attention has not been called to their sufferings. These men have ever since been kept in dungeons as dreary as Mr. Madison could desire. The goal is a gloomy stone building. The dungeons are 7 ft. by 10 on the ground floor, of rough stone at top, bottom and on all sides. There are narrow openings of two or three inches wide, through the upper part of the stone walls, to admit the little light and air which these unfortunate victims are allowed to enjoy. In damp weather the water runs down the walls and drips from the stone ceiling over the floors.

On some of the late cold nights, several were chilled almost past recovery, notwithstanding they had received a supply of warm clothing from some charitable individuals, and medical aid was necessarily called in to restore the perishing, and it is only by the charitable relief and the attention of the gaoler’s family not warranted by the orders of Government that these poor Prisoners are not dead.

The Old Stone Jail in Newburyport is probably very similar to the Ipswich Stone Jail.
The Old Stone Jail on Auburn Street in Newburyport was built in 1824 and was more hospitable than the Ipswich Stone Jail, with fireplaces and chimneys.

The District Marshal replied that he was ordered “not to suffer them to go from without the dungeons without leave of the President.” The Boston Patriot and other newspapers published similar accusations, and on January 23, 1814, the Marshal removed all prisoners to “comfortable apartments,” except one who was sick, and a fellow prisoner to attend him.

The action of the Federal government in assuming authority over local jails inflamed the Legislature, which on February 7, 1814 passed “An Act to provide for the safe keeping all prisoners committed under the authority of the United States in the several gaols within the Commonwealth.” All jail keepers were ordered to “discharge from said gaols all such prisoners of war after the expiration of thirty days from the passing of this Act, unless they shall be sooner discharged by the authority of the United States.” The prisoners were soon removed to Fort Sewall in Marblehead, and were later sent to Halifax.

The summer of 1814 brought more troubles for the town. Nine armed British vessels were spotted in Ipswich bay on Wednesday on June 8, and several local ships were sunk. Ipswich residents living along the coast were vulnerable to attack, and they worried that at any moment their houses and farms might be looted. The following tale is related by Thomas Franklin Waters in his book, Ipswich in the Massachusetts Bay Colony:

An amusing episode is told by Mr. Spofford in his Reminiscences. Robert Pitman, a light-witted lad, lived with Capt. Eben Sutton on Plum Island. One day a boat from a British vessel, manned by five or six men, landed on the beach. They shot a cow in the pasture and proceeded to dress it, Bob, meanwhile, calling them all the vile names to which he could lay his tongue and threatening that Captain Sutton “would bring down a parcel of trainers and kill em all.” The officer in command at last ordered a man to fire at him, but Bob took to flight and escaped unhurt. Spying a gathering of men on Great Neck, the officer ordered a retreat, leaving the booty on the ground.

Sources and further reading:

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