An Escape from Old Mill Prison

In the chapter on Navy Officers in Privateers mention was made of the capture of the armed brig Pomona, commanded by Captain Isaiah Robinson, of the navy, who had as his first officer Lieutenant Joshua Barney, also of the regular service. The experiences of the latter officer in British prisons were so extraordinary as to be deserving of special mention.

On the capture of the Pomona, Barney was placed in one of the prison ships at Wale Bogt. The arrival of Admiral Byron, who relieved Lord Howe as the commander in chief of the British naval forces on the American station, did much to improve the condition of these prisoners. A few days after taking command, Byron visited the prison ships and ordered several large, airy vessels to be fitted for the Americans, special accommodations and better food being reserved for the sick. Those officers who belonged to the regular navy were taken aboard the warships, and some of them enjoyed the freedom of the flagship Ardent. Admiral Byron made it a point to personally inspect the prison ships regularly every week, accompanied by his fleet captain and secretary, and to inquire minutely into the conduct of the prisoners and listen to any complaints they had to make.

Among the American officers who had the good fortune to come under the ministrations of Admiral Byron was Lieutenant Barney. This officer was transferred to the Ardent, and one of his duties was to visit the prison ships and report on their condition to the admiral. Barney had a boat placed under his command, and was permitted to go ashore whenever he pleased, being required only to sleep aboard the Ardent. It was on one of his trips on shore that Barney found he was safer in the hands of his captors than among the townsfolk.

He had been invited to breakfast ashore with Sir William Tevisden, one of the admiral’s aids, and had landed for that purpose, when he was roughly seized by a mob of men and boys. It seems that a large fire had broken out in New York and was raging at the time the lieutenant landed. Being dressed in the full American naval uniform, a crowd immediately set upon him, and, accusing him of having originated the fire, proceeded to throw him into the flames. The threat undoubtedly would have been carried out had it not been for the intervention of a British officer. Even then the mob declared that the lieutenant’s explanation of having just landed for the purpose of breakfasting with Sir William Tevisden was a hoax, and it was not until, at the suggestion of the British officer, they had proceeded to the aid’s house and heard the story from his lips that Lieutenant Barney was released.

Unfortunately for the American prisoners Admiral Byron was soon superseded by Admiral Rodney, who, in December, 1780, ordered the 64-gun ship of the line Yarmouth, Captain Lutwidge – the same that blew up the Randolph two years before to transport seventy one officers to England, Barney being among them. From the time these Americans stepped aboard the Yarmouth their captors gave it to be understood, by hints and innuendoes, that they were being taken to England to “be hanged as rebels”; and, indeed, the treatment they received aboard the Yarmouth on the passage over led them to believe that the British officers intended to cheat the gallows of their prey by causing the prisoners to die before reaching port. On coming aboard the ship of the line these officers were stowed away in the lower hold, next to the keel, under five decks, Here in a twelve-by-twenty-foot room with upcurving floor, and many feet below the water line. and only three feet high, the seventy-one men were stowed for fifty-three days like so much merchandise, without light or good air, unable to stand upright, with no means and with no attempt made to remove the accumulating filth! Their food was of the poorest quality, and was supplied in such insufficient quantities that whenever one of the prisoners died the survivors concealed the fact until the body began to putrify in order that the dead man’s allowance might be added to theirs. The water served them for drink was so thick with repulsive matter that the prisoners were compelled to strain it between set teeth.

From the time the Yarmouth left New York till she reached Plymouth, in a most tempestuous winters passage, these men were kept in this loathsome dungeon. Eleven died in delirium, their wild ravings and piercing shrieks appalling their comrades, and giving them a foretaste of what they themselves might soon expect. Not even a surgeon was permitted to visit them. Arriving at Plymouth the pale, emaciated, festering men were ordered to come on deck. Not one obeyed, for they were unable to stand upright. Consequently they were hoisted up, the ceremony being grimly suggestive of the manner in which they had been treated- like merchandise. And what were they to do, now that they had been placed on deck? The light of the sun, which they had scarcely seen for fifty-three days, fell upon their weak, dilated pupils with blinding force, their limbs unable to uphold them, their frames wasted by disease and want. Seeking for support they fell in a helpless mass, one upon the other, waiting and almost hoping for the blow that was to fall upon them next. Captain Silas Talbot was one of these prisoners.

To send them ashore in this condition was “impracticable” so the British officers said, and we readily discover that this “impracticable” served the further purpose of diverting the just indignation of the landsfolk, which surely would be aroused if they saw such brutality practised under St. George’s cross. Waiting, then, until the captives could at least endure the light of day, and could walk without leaning on one another or clutching at every object for support, the officers had them moved to Old Mill Prison. Nor must it be forgotten that these weak captives were thus moved with a “strong military guard” – certainly not to prevent their escape; probably to guard against the curious gaze of the people. First they were taken before a certain tribunal – whether military or civic the prisoners did not know – where a number of questions were put to them, the words “revolt”, “allegiance”, “rebels” predominating, after which they were taken to the prison.

Mill Prison was a massive stone building in the centre of an extensive court. The court was surrounded by a high wall, and twenty feet beyond that was another wall, parallel to the first, completely surrounding it. The only apertures in these walls were a gate in each, the inner one being formed with massive iron bars eight feet high. The outer gate during the day usually was left open so as to allow free communication between the keepers and their dwellings which were placed just outside the outer wall. Between eight o’clock in the morning and sunset the prisoners were allowed the privilege of the inner court, but at night they were securely locked in the prison house. Many sentinels were stationed among the prisoners in the inner court and in the prison itself, besides the regular patrols on the two encircling walls and at the gates.

To the unfortunate Americans who had just arrived from the Yarmouth this place seemed a paradise, for at Mill Prison they could at least get light, air, and exercise. Yet even here there were many causes for complaint, for the American prisoners seem to have been picked out for severe treatment. It was shown that they were “treated with less humanity than the French and Spaniards, they had not a sufficient allowance of bread, and were very scantily furnished with clothing”.  In 1781 the Duke of Richmond presented a memorial to the House of Peers. “Several motions were grounded on these petitions, but those proposed by the lords and gentlemen in the Opposition were determined in the negative; and others, to exculpate the Government in this business, were resolved in the affirmative. It appeared upon inquiry that the American prisoners were allowed half a pound of bread less per day than the French and Spanish prisoners. But the petition of the Americans produced no alterations in their favour, and the conduct of the administration was equally impolitic and illiberal”. 

Many attempts to escape were made by the Americans during the period of their confinement in Mill Prison, and some of them were successful. On one occasion a number of them volunteered to attempt escape through the common sewer that emptied into the river. Several days and nights were spent in sawing the iron bars that guarded the entrance to the sewer, and when an opening was made it was agreed that a few of the prisoners should endeavour to escape through it, and if they did not return in a given time it was to be understood that they had been successful and that others might follow. The pioneers in this attempt were lowered into the foul hole, and had waded several hundred feet in the dark passage, when they found a double iron grating, which they in vain endeavoured to remove. They returned to their companions more dead than alive, and that method of escape was abandoned.

Barney soon came to be suspected as a bold and dangerous prisoner, and at one time was placed in heavy double irons and confined thirty days in a dark dungeon for a “suspected”, attempt to escape. This solitary confinement determined him to effect his escape at the earliest moment possible. Realising that he was watched more than any of the other prisoners, Barney resorted to a ruse to deceive his keepers. When the common liberty of the yard was allowed the prisoners, it was their custom to while away their time with athletic games. Indulging in a game of leapfrog with his companions one day Barney pretended to have sprained his ankle, and for some time after that walked about with crutches. This seems to have thrown the jailers entirely off their guard, and, indeed, so well was the deception kept up that only a few of Barney’s most intimate companions knew of the trick.

Among the soldiers who had been detailed to guard Mill Prison at this time was a man who had served in the British army in the United States. It seems that he had received some kindness from the Americans, and he now delighted in showing civility to the prisoners from that country. Barney soon discovered this, and managed to hold several conversations with the soldier, which resulted in a warm friendship springing up between them. On May 18, 1781, it was this soldier’s turn to mount guard between the two gates of the inner and outer walls of the prison, already described, his hours being from noon till two o’clock. Some kind of an understanding had been reached between them, and on the day mentioned Barney, hobbling about on his crutches, gradually drew near the gate, and, observing that no one was near, he whispered interrogatively through the bars, “Today?” to which the soldier replied, in a low tone, “Dinner”. From this answer Barney knew that one o’clock was meant, for at that hour all the jailers took dinner, leaving only the sentinels on guard.

Hastening to his cell Barney put on the undress uniform of a British officer, which he had secured from the friendly sentinel, and threw over it his greatcoat. This coat he had been wearing about the prison since the “spraining” of his ankle, so that he would not “catch cold”. As a matter of fact, Barney had worn the coat so as to accustom the jailers at seeing him in it, for it reached quite down to his heels and entirely concealed any dress or uniform that he might choose to wear. Having made this change, Barney stepped out of his cell, though still using his crutches, and sought the confidential friends who were to assist him in his escape. At a given signal these friends repaired to different parts of the yard and engaged the various sentinels in conversation so that they would not see what was going on at the gates.

Observing that everything was ready, Barney cast aside his crutches, entered the court, and boldly walked toward the gate. Here he exchanged a wink with the English sentinel, from which he knew that all was right. Beside the gate stood a tall, muscular man, a prisoner, an accomplice of Barney’s. With the agility of a cat, Barney sprang upon this man’s shoulders and then over the wall. It took him but an instant to whip off his greatcoat and throw it over his arm, and thrusting four guineas into the hand of the friendly sentinel he started toward the outer gate, which, as usual, was standing open. The back of the guardian of the outer gate was turned, so that Barney passed through unchallenged. Walking leisurely down the road he, in a few minutes, arrived at the house of a well-known friend to the American cause.

Barney’s escape from Mill Prison

The sudden appearance of a man dressed in the uniform of a British officer at the door of this house startled the inmates, which was not lessened when Barney explained who he was, for to harbour an escaped prisoner was high treason, especially when the American sentiments of that family were so well known to the officials. Notwithstanding this, the good people consented to hide the prisoner for the day. Contrary to their fears, no inquiry was made for Barney that day, for his absence had not yet been discovered. With a view of having his escape unknown. to the prison officials as long as possible, Barney had arranged with a slender youth (who was able to creep through the window bars at pleasure) to crawl through the aperture so as to answer to Barney’s name in his cell every day at roll call. In the evening Barney was taken to the house of his host’s father, a venerable clergyman of Plymouth, where it was customary for Americans, whether free or in bondage, to resort. Here he found two friends from his native State, New Jersey, Colonel William Richardson and Dr. Hindman, who, with their servant, had been taken as passengers in a merchantman, and were awaiting an opportunity to return to America.

Arrangements were soon made to purchase a fishing smack, in which they were to make their way to France, where they had a much better chance to secure passage to the United States. A suitable craft was secured, and the two gentlemen, with their servant, slept in it that night. Among the effects of the servant Barney found a suit of rough clothes, which he put on over his uniform, as being better adapted for carrying out the role of fisherman he was about to assume. Then with an old overcoat tied around the waist, a tarpaulin hat, and a “knowing tie” made with a handkerchief around his neck, he looked fairly like a fisherman, and at daybreak he joined his countrymen in the smack.

No time was lost in getting under way, for at any moment Barney’s escape might be discovered, and as the alarm would immediately be given to Admiral Digbys fleet, which was anchored in the mouth of the river, the closest inspection would be made of every craft passing out. As not one of Barney’s companions knew how to handle a rope, all the work of navigating the craft devolved upon him, but as he was a thorough seaman he soon had the smack standing down the river. With a fine breeze and ebbing tide the adventurers were soon in the midst of the formidable fleet of war vessels, the frowning batteries of which yawned at them in sullen silence, while the sentinels paced to and fro, casting unsuspicious glances at the innocent-looking craft. With the fleet safely behind him, Barney boldly stood out to sea and made for the French coast. His companions were more helpless now even than before, as they were prostrated by sea- sickness, So that the entire safety of the party was in the hands of the lieutenant.

Just as the shores of England began to fade, and the adventurers were congratulating themselves on their escape, a sail loomed up on the horizon, and was soon made out to be a swift-sailing vessel evidently in pursuit of the smack. In a few minutes she had come alongside, and, after ordering the craft to heave to, sent a boat aboard with an officer. The sail proved to be a privateer, out from Guernsey, and to her officer’s demand of what was on board the smack, and where she was bound, Lieutenant Barney replied:

“I have nothing on board, and am bound to the coast of France”

“Your business there?” asked the officer.

“I can not disclose to you my business” and untying the rope that bound his greatcoat around him Barney showed his British uniform. The sight of the uniform had its desired effect. The privateersman instantly changed his commanding tone to one of respect and touched his hat. Following up his advantage Barney said, in a severe tone:

“Sir, I must not be detained; my business is urgent, and you must suffer me to proceed or you will, perhaps, find cause to regret it”. To this the boarding officer politely replied that he would immediately go aboard and report to his commander. This he did, but in a few minutes the captain of the privateer himself came aboard, and, though very polite, he desired to know what business could carry a British officer to the enemy’s coast:

“I should be very sorry to stop you, sir” he said,” if you are on public business; and if this be the fact it must surely be in your power to give me some proof of it without disclosing the secrets of Government, which I have no desire to know”.

Barney replied that to show him such proofs would be to hazard the success of his mission, which depended entirely on its being kept absolutely secret from all save those entrusted in its execution.

“Then, sir” replied the privateersman, “I shall be under the necessity of carrying you to England”

“Do as you please” said Barney calmly, “but, remember, it is at your peril. All I have to say further, sir, is that if you persist in interrupting my voyage I must demand of you to carry me directly on board Admiral Digby’s flagship, at Plymouth”.

The American officer well knew that this was an unpleasant request for the privateersman, for if he ventured in the fleet he might expect to be relieved of some of his crew by the admiral’s press gangs, who were constantly on the lookout for men. Barney hoped this would induce the privateersman to let him go, and in fact the Englishman did hesitate for a few minutes. Barney followed up the stroke by commenting on the fine, manly appearance of the privateer’s crew. But all to no purpose, the Englishman deciding to take them to Plymouth. 

All that night the two vessels were beating their way back to the English coast, and on the following morning entered a small port about six miles from Plymouth. Here the English commander, leaving Barney aboard the privateer, went ashore to make his report to Admiral Digby, and under pretence of keeping out of the way of press gangs nearly all the crew went ashore also. The few that remained aboard treated Barney with the respect due to his assumed character and he was allowed every liberty save that of going ashore. Seizing a favourable opportunity, when those aboard were at dinner, Barney slid down a rope over the stern and got into a boat. In doing this he badly injured his leg, but unmindful of the pain he rapidly sculled ashore unseen by any of the privateersmen.

As he approached the beach many of the idlers came to the landing to watch him, but made no attempt to interfere. Boldly jumping ashore he called for aid to haul his boat up. Several responded, when Barney was startled by a loud voice calling out:

“Hollo there! Where did you catch her? What has she got aboard?”

Looking around Barney saw that he was addressed by the custom house officer.

He soon satisfied that important person that he had nothing of a contra band nature, and complaining of the hurt on his leg – the blood now plainly oozing out from his stocking – he made that an excuse for hurrying away to get “something onto it”. Before leaving, however, he dispelled whatever suspicions might have been lingering in the custom house officer’s mind by asking:

“Pray, sir, can you tell me where our people are? 

“I think, sir, you’ll find them all at the Red Lion, the very last house in the village”.

“Thank you, sir. I wish you a very good morning”; and with that the American walked off in the direction indicated.

It was the least of Barney’s desires to meet any of “our people” but he found that there was only one street in the village, So that he was compelled to pass the Red Lion. He passed the tavern unperceived, as he thought, but just as he had turned the corner he heard a gruff voice calling after him:

“Hollo, lieutenant! I’m glad you’re come  ashore. We was just some on us to off arter you”

“And what for, pray?” asked Barney with considerable uneasiness.

“Why, may be as how some on us might ship if we knowed a thing or two”

Barney saw at once that his assumed disguise had gained full credence among the sailors in the privateers, and that some of them believed, through his interest, they could get better berths in Admiral Digby’s fleet. Engaging the man in conversation, and at the same time walking rapidly away from the Red Lion so as to get away from the rest of the men, Barney gave encouragement to the seaman’s idea of shipping in the fleet, when the latter suddenly asked:

“Where are you going?”

“To Plymouth. Come, you might as well go along with me”

The sailor hesitated a moment, seemed to think better of his plan of entering a navy noted for its cruelty to seamen, and finally said he’d go back to his old shipmates.

As soon as the tar was out of sight, Barney quickened his pace into a run lest he be overtaken by others of the crew. Realising, also, that as soon as the captain of the privateer had explained his capture to Admiral Digby his escape from the prison would in all probability be discovered, and a guard be sent to secure him, he deemed it advisable to jump over a hedge and seclude himself in a private garden. This precaution was doubly necessary, as the high way on which he was traveling was the direct route from Plymouth, and the one a guard would take in coming for him.

On leaping over the hedge he found himself in the superb private grounds of Lord Edgecombe. Wandering about in search of the servants house, he was discovered by the gardener, who was much incensed by the intrusion. Barney pacified him by explaining that he had injured his leg and was seeking the shortest way to Plymouth. Giving the gardener a tip, Barney was conducted to a private gate opening on the river, and hailing a butcher who was going by in a small wherry with two sheep to market our adventurer got aboard. By this means Barney avoided the necessity of crossing the river by the public ferry, and also that of passing by Mill Prison and of a chance of meeting the guard.

Immediately on receiving the report of the privateer’s commander, Admiral Digby caused an inquiry to be made in all the prisons and places of confinement in or near Plymouth, and at the time Barney was sliding down the rope over the privateer’s stern to get into a boat his escape from Mill Prison was discovered ; and at the moment he passed through Lord Eagecombe’s private gate to the riverside the tramp of the soldiers – all of whom were familiar with Barney – was heard passing the very hedge he had just vaulted over on their way to take him back to prison.

That night Barney gained the house of the venerable clergyman that he had left only the morning before. The same evening Colonel Richardson and Dr. Hindman arrived at this house also, having been released from the privateer after the guard from Mill Prison had inspected them. While these fugitives were seated at supper laughing and joking over their hapless adventures, the bell of the town-crier was heard under the windows, and the reward of five guineas for the apprehension of Joshua Barney, a rebel deserter from Mill Prison, was proclaimed. For a moment it was thought that the proclamation was addressed to this particular house, and that a military guard would follow to search the premises; but in a few minutes the bell and voice began to die away in the distance, and finally could be heard no more.

Three days longer the fugitive remained in his place of concealment, by which time a fashionable suit of clothes was procured for him and a post chaise was engaged to take him to Exeter. At midnight Barney, accompanied by one of the clergyman’s sons, repaired to the secluded spot where the vehicle was in waiting, and bidding farewell to his friends stepped in and was rapidly driven away. Reaching the gate of the town they were brought to by a stern “Halt!” from the sentry. The driver obeyed, and in a moment an officer thrust a lantern into the carriage and began reading aloud the exact description of the person and dress Barney had worn in his escape from the prison. Of course the dress had been changed, and Barney succeeded so well in distorting his features that the facial description did not fit, So with an apology the officer allowed the post chaise to proceed. At Exeter our adventurer took the stage to Bristol, and from there made his way to London, France, and Holland.

In Holland Barney secured passage in the armed ship South Carolina, Captain Gillon. 

Two years after the miraculous escape of Lieutenant Barney from Mill Prison he again visited Plymouth, then as captain of the United States frigate General Washington. He took occasion to give a dinner aboard his ship, at which his friends who aided in his escape, besides all the British officers in the town and on the station, attended. Barney learned that the manner of his escape still remained a mystery to the prison officials, and no suspicion had attached to those who aided him. He also visited the gardener who unconsciously had been instrumental in saving the fugitive from recapture, and gave him a purse of gold.

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