Every once in a while it’s cool when you uncover some historical fact just by accident. This happened to me a few months back when I was meeting with a teacher in my office, discussing the possibility of collaborating on some programs for the upcoming school year. He was curious to find out about any inventions that may have come from the town he teaches in: Wethersfield. So I showed him the usual way I begin investigations of town inventions, by using the Connecticut Patents Project database we have here at the museum and on our website. The results came in and showed a number of inventions patented from Wethersfield up to about 1890. I figured there must be more that came in subsequent years so then we went onto Google Patents search and that’s when something very interesting and in a way a bit disturbing showed up in the search results.
You may or may not know that Wethersfield was home to a large state prison from 1827-1963. This, like most prisons was not a nice place to spend some time. But in its time this was a state of the art prison, located on landscaped grounds that were actually a destination for Sunday visitors who would stroll the grounds under towering elm trees. (Imagine trying to do that today… “Come on kids let’s take a Sunday drive to Super Max in Somers…..!”) Prisoners were held in cells that were arranged four stories high in some blocks in cells measuring 7 feet long and three and a half feet wide. (Huh, that’s about the size of my office. And I’ve got bars on my windows too…..)
Violence periodically occurred within the prison walls, sometimes with dire consequences for prison employees. In fact two wardens lost their lives due to inmate violence, Daniel Webster in 1862 and William Willard in 1870. Housing some of the state’s most violent offenders, capitol punishment was carried out as sentenced and seventy-three prisoners were executed at the prison between 1894 and 1960. The last, Joseph Taborsky was executed after being convicted of killing six people.
Fifty five of these men here hanged until this form of punishment was abolished in 1936. Gruesome stuff, but a part of our history. So imagine my surprise when the Google Patent search showed up with this result from Wethersfield:
Jabez Woodbridge of Wethersfield patented this “Automatic Gallows” in 1895. I thought it was interesting that someone from Wethersfield, home to the prison, had invented a gallows. But even more interesting that Jabez Woodbridge was Warden of the prison from 1893-1899! I guess you could say he had an intimate knowledge of the business……..