Monday, January 14, 2013

Keeper Augustus T. Wright: First Prison Employee Killed in the Line of Duty in New York State

Augustus Tyrannus Wright, brother of Stephen S. Wright, and son of Tyrannus Augustus Wright, and my first cousin four times removed, was the first prison employee killed in the line of duty in the State of New York. He was a farmer in the town of Denmark, Lewis county, New York, and a prison guard at the Clinton State Prison in Dannemora. His wife’s name was Louisa, but I do not know her maiden name, and they apparently had no children at the time of Augustus’s murder. They had had a boy, Frank, who “died early”.

As I have mentioned previously, the first reference I encountered to Augustus was in Hough’s History of Lewis County, New York, with no reference to his parentage. His name made me suspect that he was likely a son of Tyrannus Augustus Wright. The following newspaper article in The New York Daily Reformer  dated July 10, 1861 offered a clue:

MURDER OF A PRISON KEEPER—Augustus T. Wright, Esq., late of Lewis County, brother-in-law of Addison M. Farwell of this village, and recently appointed keeper in the Clinton State Prison, was murdered yesterday by a convict. The full particulars of this horrid deed have not been received. Mr. Wright was most estimable man, and will be mourned by a large circle of friends and acquaintances.

When I looked into Addison M. Farwell, I discovered that he was married to a Mary Irene Wright. I found a reference in The Farwell Family: a history of Henry Falwell and his wife Olive (Welby) Farwell, which stated that Addison M. Farwell was married to Mary Irene Wright, who was “the daughter of Tyrannus  and Mary (Fitch) Wright”. It also states that Mr. Farwell built the “public waterworks in Brooklyn, N.Y.” It appears that he was also a railroad contractor and bank president during his life. These two clues helped me to establish that Augustus was therefore the son of Tyrannus, and then later had this confirmed when I received a genealogy of the Wright family.

The complete story was told July 17, 1861 in the New York Herald:

The Convicts Escaped from Clinton State Prison. Murder of One of the Keepers. (From the Albany State Journal July 15.) On Friday last we received and published a dispatch from Plattsburg announcing the escape of six prisoners from Clinton Prison and the killing of Mr. Wright, one of the keepers. It appears that a few days previous to this an attempt to break out of prison by several of the inmates was frustrated by the repentance of one of the gang, divulged the secret. The discovery of the plot does not seem to have intimidated some of the desperate characters engaged in it, among them James Sewall, a convict sentenced from Troy for larceny and highway robbery; and on Thursday evening last they had so far reorganized to make a decided stand against the keepers, and by murdering one of them and knocking down a guard succeeded in escaping from the prison. The outbreak occurred at midnight--the men in the rolling mill working during the summer nights, instead of days. The keeper, Mr. Augustus S. Wright, of Watertown, Jefferson County, was struck a blow upon the head by a bar of iron, supposed to be in hands of Sewell, and was instantly killed. the guard, at the same time, was knocked down by another convict, and as he attempted to rise, a third was preparing to give him a fatal blow, but was prevented by a fourth convict, who told the keeper outside to go and give the alarm while he guarded the door to prevent escape. In a few minutes the officers of the prison arrived, and found that six had escaped and seven remained with the trusty convict, who had raised the dead body of Mr. Wright. The murderer of Mr. W. took his gold watch and revolver and escaped. The party consisted of Alexander Payouette, convicted in St. Lawrence county, April 3, 1861, of the crime of burglary and petit larceny, second offence; William Judd, convicted in Renssalaer county, January 13, 1860, of the crime of grand larceny; George Pettit, convicted in Albany county, June 24, 1861, of the crime of forgery, in passing counterfeit notes; James Sewall, convicted of robbery in Renssalaer county, June 2, 1859, and sentenced to Clinton Prison for the term of fifteen years; Patrick Brady, convicted of burglary in the third degree in Albany, September 28, 1859, and sentenced to Clinton Prison for the term of two years; Daniel L. Baker, convicted in Essex county, December 20, 1860, of the crime of burglary, and sentenced to Clinton Prison for the term of four years and six months. Pursuit was immediately given to the convicts who had escaped, and we learn that all of them have been recaptured. Sewall is a desperate character, and previous to his incarceration in Clinton, had been engaged in many outrageous proceedings in Troy. Mr. Wright, the murdered man, was about thirty-five years of age. He leaves a widow to mourn his untimely death. He was greatly esteemed in all the relations of life.

Sewall and two others were sentenced to death by hanging, but their sentences were commuted to life in prison due to New York repealing capital punishment. Sewall died in prison. Brady was set free nearly thirty years later due to executive clemency as it was argued that he had not directly participated in the killing of Wright.

Augustus T. Wright continues to be honoured on pages of corrections-oriented websites for his service and loss of life in the line of duty.

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