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Mortimer, Prince (1724-1834), slave and prisoner, was born in Guinea, on the West Coast of Africa, around 1724, although the precise year cannot be determined. He was captured by slave traders as a boy of six or seven and was transported to Middletown, Connecticut, then a slave colony. His early years are not documented, but he was probably acquired by a Middletown farmer and spent his early decades tending crops and farm animals. Sometime around 1760, Prince was acquired by Philip Mortimer, an Irish gentleman who had recently settled in the area and established a rope factory in Middletown, then prospering as a river port and shipbuilding community. Prince labored the next several decades as a spinner in Mortimer's ropewalk, although he reputedly spent some time in the service of the Continental Army during the War for Independence.
Philip Mortimer died in 1794. In his last will and testament, he freed all seventeen of his slaves. The will, however, was successfully challenged by George Starr, a wealthy Middletown merchant who had married Ann Carnall, Mortimer's niece, shortly before the war. Ann and George had two children, Martha and Philip. Mortimer's will essentially bypassed Ann and left the bulk of his estate to young Philip, on the condition that he abandon the surname "Starr" and adopt "Mortimer" in its stead. George stood to lose a sizable fortune if Mortimer's will was accepted; under the colonial laws of coverture, a woman's husband gained complete control over his wife's property. By advancing the spurious argument that the witnesses to the will were not competent to act as such, Starr managed to have the will set aside. The result was that Mortimer's estate was probated as though he had died intestate (without a will), and this entire estate passed to Ann, Mortimer's only heir at law. An incidental aspect of the will's invalidation was that Mortimer's slaves were not freed and were made slaves again; Prince became Starr's servant.
In 1811 Prince, well in his eighties and still a slave, was accused of attempting to murder Starr by lacing his chocolate drink with arsenic. On 21 December he was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment in Connecticut's notorious Newgate Prison, a colonial-era copper mine that had been converted into America's first state prison shortly before the Revolution. Prisoners were kept in a dungeon, some fifty to sixty feet below ground, in a five-foot-tall crevice chiseled from the stone hillside. In 1815 an above-ground cellblock was built, but living conditions did not improve, as the prisoners were crowded into congregate cells and were constantly subject to varying forms of corporal punishment, including severe whipping, for even minor violations of the prison's rules. Despite his age and infirmities, Prince Mortimer was still alive, at the approximate age of 103, when Newgate finally closed its doors in 1827.
Prince was transferred to the Wethersfield State Prison, located on a cove off the Connecticut River, just south of Hartford. Supposedly the most modern and enlightened prison in the world when its doors opened in 1827, Wethersfield was built on a design known as the Auburn Plan, named after the New York prison where the idea was first conceived. The Plan involved a combination of severe living conditions coupled with an extremely rigid behavioral regime. Except for that period of the day during which they were required to work, the prisoners were kept in solitary confinement in a 3−1/2' × 7' cell with no heat, water, or sanitary facilities other than a bucket. During the day, the prisoners labored, in perpetual silence, in several shops in the work yard. The warden let out their services to various businesses that paid the prison for the value of the labor. In this way, the prison sought to defray the cost of the prisoners' incarceration.
In 1830 a scandal arose over the deplorable conditions at the prison. Amos Pilsbury, the warden, was accused of systematically starving the prisoners, working them to the point of death, and denying them access to the prison physician. Although the legislature ordered an inquiry into these conditions, it proved to be a whitewash, and despite strong evidence of the warden's culpability, the board of inquiry unanimously exonerated him.
Prince died at Wethersfield Prison in 1834 at the reputed age of 110. He is interred in an unmarked grave in the prisoners' cemetery on the banks of Wethersfield Cove.
Prince Mortimer's story does not derive its meaning from a series of defining events; its meaning lies in their absence. This is a story of a man who faced a never ending series of indistinguishable days, each one filled with yesterday's privations and suffering. His life shows that even the lowliest of men can lead noteworthy lives from which all of men can derive meaningful lessons.
Prince Mortimer's life has been essentially lost to history for nearly two centuries. His only mention is in a brief passage in Newgate of Connecticut, an 1844 book by Richard Phelps. More recently his life was explored in A Century in Captivity: The Life and Trials of Prince Mortimer, a Connecticut Slave (2006), by Denis R. Caron.
Denis R. Caron
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Denis R. Caron. "Mortimer, Prince";
American National Biography Online October 2008 Update.