Great Escapes

great escapes

Stories of famous captures are rivaled only by stories of famous escapes at Williamsburg’s Public Gaol. Tom Hay shares his favorites.

Learn more: The Public Gaol


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on This is "Behind the Scenes" where you meet the people who work here. That's my job. I'm Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions.

Eighteenth-century farmers, craftsmen, investors, and politicians were tempted by the prospect of sailing to the New World, there to begin a life uncluttered by mistakes and failures. For no one was this fresh start more important than for the criminals who made the long journey to Virginia.

I'm here today with Tom Hay, who is site supervisor in the Courthouse, Capitol, Gaol ensemble. Tom's here to talk with us about how many of those criminals ended up: in jail.

Not necessarily though. A lot of them got out.

Tom Hay: Yes. That's kind of surprising. For many of our visitors who come to the gaol, you look at it, and there are stout tall brick walls, and very, very thick iron bars on the windows and doors. It looks like it would be nearly impossible to escape. But I think at times, the place was more like a sieve or a colander than a holding facility.

Lloyd: How many of them actually got out?

Tom: We know of 29 escapes. There may have been more. Twenty which were criminals, and then the remaining nine were POWs: one Frenchman during the French and Indian War, some British soldiers or loyalists during the Revolution, and escaped slaves, who you really can't consider criminals.

Lloyd: Of the escapes, do you have a favorite?

Tom: Yes, I do. I think it's the first one that we know about. It's a fellow by the name of Henry Davis. It comes from the summer of 1742. Now, he's tried up at the General Court, and found guilty. But he must have been a likable fellow, because two other people who are also tried –Thomas Pope and Thomas Hicks – decided that even though they had been acquitted and released, they were going to come back to the gaol and break out Henry Davis. They did that. They also broke into a stable to get the getaway horses. They rode out some miles out of town to an unnamed woman who's only remarked in the newspaper as being a woman of ill fame. That part, they showed a lot of competence.

But shortly thereafter, the whole thing fell apart. During the following hue and cry, which is when you get the posse comitatus out to get the escaped prisoners, the two helpers – Pope and Hicks – were recaptured. Then the very next day, Davis turns himself in after a successful escape. He was under sentence of death. So, the death sentence was shortly thereafter actually carried out. Hangman, we don't know a whole lot about him, either mis-tied the knot, or the rope broke. So when Davis was turned off the cart, instead of hanging in the air, he fell down and hit the ground. He turned around to the hangman and said "You are not fit to be valet de chambré to the devil." 

He then either re-fixed the noose or retied the knot himself, put it around his own neck, stepped off the cart himself. The paper said that he distinctly snapped his fingers three times, and then expired. So he had great self-control toward the end.

Lloyd: Yeah, but you wonder at his intelligence level for turning himself back in to face the death penalty.

Tom: You would think that if he was that aware, that he should have been able to get away. Who knows what his mental perspective was. After all, it looks like the escape idea wasn't his, but his two friends'. Of course, gaolbreaking is a felony. So even though those two were originally acquitted of the felonies that put them there, I'm sure that they were found guilty in their second visit.

Lloyd: They got to go this time, for sure.  Is there any record that they broke out, or tried to break out, or were ever actually in?

Tom: Well that's the fascinating thing about this. During the American Civil War, we lost the records of the General Court. So these stories mainly appear to us out of the Virginia Gazette. Because they are such good stories, that's why the various editors of the subsequent Virginia Gazettes saw fit to print them, and tell us about them.

Like John Sparks, who made his escape in the 1760s by, at the end of the day when the gaoler apparently was opening up and checking on everyone in the cells, he hit the gaoler with a quart bottle. We don't know what was in the quart bottle, or if there was anything still in the quart bottle. Having knocked out the gaoler, he made his escape. So that scene that you've seen in so many different grade B cowboy movies over the decades actually has a basis in fact.

Lloyd: Who else got out?

Tom: Well, there was a Frenchman: Peter LaForce. This, of course, would be during the French and Indian War. He was a prisoner kept in the gaol. We're told – and this story is from the Maryland Gazette, the Virginia Gazette may have been a little bit embarrassed about this – but he somehow managed to make obviously a man-sized hole in the prison wall. Since it's a brick wall, we're not quite sure, you know, that must have taken him some time. Then again, if you're a prisoner of war, I guess you have a lot of time. He escaped from the gaol here in Williamsburg, and on foot, got all the way out to King and Queen County. That's at least a day's journey, if not two, before he was recaptured. The only thing that we're told is that he was re-secured in such a manner as to make any further attempt at escaping impossible – probably shackled.

Lloyd: That sounds like shackled. Digging your way out is still being done in modern time.

Tom: Yes, it is. We also know, the first mass escape we know about was in 1768, of four prisoners who managed to obtain iron bars. Presumably, that would be out of the windows or the doors. They, again, knocked out the person who was coming to check in on them, and then were pursued. One of them got, the paper said, got peppered in the legs with small shot. Then they were recaptured. An awful lot of them, the majority of them, tend to get recaptured, but some of them don't.
Lloyd: And of course if they don't get recaptured, we have no way of knowing what happened to them or where they wound up.

Tom: That's absolutely true. I mean, in the first place, if you are a successful criminal, you never end up in the record book.

Lloyd: Yeah, number one.

Tom: Or, if you're a successful escapee, we don’t know anything about you. Now, the largest break we know about was during the American Revolution. That was in 1779, toward the end of the year. Eight prisoners escaped. They appear to be mainly loyalist and British POWs. It is at that time that the only female escapee that we know of actually broke out of the gaol. A woman who gloried in the interesting name of Leticia Fitzgerald, and was noted to have been a British subject and a large woman of bold countenance. She got out with all eight. As far was we know, they never got recaptured.

Lloyd: The loyalists certainly would have had local friends, if they were local people. I would think it would be more difficult to capture those than it would be to capture a thief that nobody liked to begin with.

Tom: I think you might be right, although we don't know that these were local loyalists, because they could have been from anywhere in Virginia. But there was such a case. Now, strictly this isn't an escape from the gaol, except perhaps through cronyism.

There's the case of John Chiswell, Colonel John Chiswell, a member of the Virginia aristocracy. He ended up getting in a fight in one of the central counties with an Englishman, who he insulted by calling him a "vile Scotch fellow." He sent his servant out of the tavern room with instruction to return with his sword. The servant brought back his sword, and then he stabbed this other fellow – by the name of Routledge – across the table while friends of Routledge were holding Routledge back from the fight. That obviously struck most people as a murder, and we know that Colonel Chiswell – even second degree, because they were having an argument at the time, I suppose – but Colonel Chiswell obviously had friends.

When it came time for him to go through his preliminary investigation at the local court out there, the king's attorney, deputy king's attorney, found reason to be out of town. So they appointed someone. Colonel Chiswell was bound over for trial here in Williamsburg. When he comes to Williamsburg, four leading members of the general court bench – that is high court justices – intercepted the county deputy sheriff bringing him in to town, and they took control. Now the deputy sheriff was supposed to turn him over to the gaoler. But instead, these four leading gentlemen of the colony intercepted. They, on their own hook, decide to bail out Colonel Chiswell until his trial.

He was bailed, and then it was reported some weeks later that, at his home here in Williamsburg, he had died of nervous fits, and was generally thought to have been a suicide. It turns out that there was such a high degree of suspicion about that, when the coffin was being transported for the funeral, it was actually interrupted by a mob who demanded that the coffin be opened so that they could satisfy themselves that Colonel Chiswell was actually in the coffin, and dead. Which he was.

Lloyd: Ah, you know, that’s one of those things that proves what you've always suspected was true: that station does have a certain benefit to it.

Tom: I can't think of a time in history where money and influence doesn't help. You know, another good story also comes from the Revolution. In 1778, a deserter by the name of John Bates, here in Williamsburg, was sentenced by a court martial, not the general court, and he was sentenced to be shot for desertion and encouraging other soldiers to desert. Not only did he manage to escape from the gaol, but he escaped from the gaol in fetters, in irons. We don't know how he did that.

Lloyd: Little short steps.

Tom: A lot of little short steps. As far as we know, he was not recaptured, but he was regarded as a notorious villain. The offered a $100 award, and all reasonable expenses.

Lloyd: That's a lot of money in those days.

Tom: Yes it was. Maybe luckily for Private Bates that was right during the beginning of Virginia's hyperinflation toward the end of the Revolution. Very shortly thereafter, $100 wasn't worth very much.

Lloyd: Which probably explains why he was never turned in. 

Tom: Perhaps so.

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