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Prince Mortimer

Prince Mortimer (c. 1724 - 11 Mar. 1834), enslaved man, ropewalk worker skilled at creating ropes used on ships, and servant to officers in the Revolutionary War, was captured on the coast of Guinea by a slaver when a boy and made a Trans-Atlantic journey aboard a “filthy slave ship” (Phelps, p. 18) Prince was purchased by Philip Mortimer, a young man from Waterford, Ireland, who arrived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony with his older brother James and his younger brother Peter around 1737. While in Boston, Philip married Martha Blin, a woman from a prominent Connecticut family, in 1742. Sometime after they moved to Middletown, Connecticut, around 1745, Mortimer purchased Prince.

Around 1754, Philip Mortimer opened a ropewalk in Middletown; a facility used to make ropes for managing sails on ships. Middletown was a port town, home to ship builders and captains, most of whom were involved in the Triangular Trade. The Ropewalk successfully served the area's needs. Prince was trained as a spinner, a laborious but important artisanal role in creating rope. Further details of his early years in Connecticut are unknown, but during the Revolutionary War, Prince Mortimer was said to have been a servant to several American officers and had been sent on errands by General George Washington. Prince is quoted as saying he had “straddled many a cannon while fired by the Americans at the British troops,” (Phelps, p.18). 

On February 27th, 1773, Philip Mortimer’s wife died.  Less than 6 months later, Philip Mortimer's two brothers James and Peter along with James’ wife Hannah also die, all within 5 days of each other while living together in Boston.  It is not known why they all died around the same time, but it may have been due to a smallpox outbreak which was common.  Philip’s brother James was a wealthy man, owning a candle making business and multiple properties in Boston including Apple Island in Boston Harbor, now part of Logan International Airport (Stark, p. 15).  All of James’s wealth would go to his brother Peter’s surviving wife Mary, who would remarry in 1779, thus all of James’s property would leave the Mortimer family.

Having no surviving heirs living in colonial America, Philip Mortimer sent for his sister Katharine’s daughter Ann who lived in Waterford, Ireland (Murray, p. 3).  Philip adopted Ann as his daughter.  Ann would soon marry George Starr, a prominent local politician and tailor. George Starr’s successful business in tailoring would eventually play a role in the Revolutionary War when General George Washington wrote to him requesting that he provide shoes for Army troops during the 1779 military campaign (Huggins, p. 589-590).  George and Ann Starr would later become an extreme impediment to Prince Mortimer’s desire for freedom.
After the war, Prince remained enslaved, but he had reason to believe his prospects of freedom were improving as several northern states, including Connecticut passed gradual emancipation laws. Nevertheless the 1790 federal census notes that 11 enslaved people and no other white people were resident in Philip Mortimer’s home. In 1792, Philip Mortimer drafted his will; he decided to free the majority of those he enslaved upon his death, giving some of them money and property, but made an exception for Prince, who was to be freed three years after Philip’s death. He continued to labor at spinning for those three years. While delayed, freedom appeared to be approaching.
Moreover, in 1794, Philip Mortimer had a change of heart and redrafted his will. Prince was now to be freed upon Philip’s death, aligning with what he had granted the other people he enslaved.  Five days after updating his will, Philip Mortimer passed away. The following year, Philip Mortimer’s will was contested by his niece and adopted daughter, Ann Starr, and her husband, George Starr.  Through a savvy legal strategy, George and Ann were successful in having Philip Mortimer’s will thrown out on a technicality, thus all of his assets were now theirs.  After over a half century in bondage, Prince remained enslaved, now to George Starr.
In 1796, the Inventory and Appraisal of Philip Mortimer’s estate listed Prince Mortimer as being worth £0 pounds, suggesting he had no value.  The text next to Prince Mortimer’s name in the Inventory stated, “Sick with the Yaws”, a highly contagious skin disease that may also affect the bones.  Yaws develops into skin ulcers and nodules, affecting a person’s appearance and potentially their ability to move. It can also cause deformities of the legs and face.  Many online sources have used this estate inventory reference to conclude that Prince likely never had a mate, thus no children due to his supposed unpleasant appearance.  Contrary to that perspective, the 1803 records of “Baptisms of Negroes”from Christ Church in Middletown, Connecticut lists a Prince Mortimer and Ann Mortimer as parents of three children; Samuel, Zilpah and John, who were baptized on June 10. Also, later medical records contain no reference of Prince having any skin or bone issues.  Therefore, it is in question whether Prince truly had Yaws.
In 1811 Prince was believed to be 87 years old; he had spent the last 17 years enslaved by George and Ann Starr.  On the morning of August 5th, George Starr noticed particles in his morning chocolate served by Prince. Starr went to the authorities, accusing Prince of attempting to poison him with arsenic.  Prince was immediately arrested, spending the next four months in the local jail.  On December 21st, the trial concluded. Prince was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to life in prison.  He was sent to Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut, which was the state penitentiary and considered the worst prison in America. Newgate was built on an old copper mine, and many inmates were housed over 50 feet below ground in old caves and caverns.  During the day, prisoners worked above ground.  Prince was sometimes commissioned by inmates to leave the prison gates, crossing the road to purchase spirits for them from Viet’s Tavern (Phelps, p. 14-15); an indication Prince may have been granted more freedoms than most. Considered a burden due to his age and ailments, Prince is said to have been encouraged by guards to leave and not come back.  He once obliged, traveling back to Middletown.  Unable to find any people he once knew, however, he traveled back to the prison and begged to be readmitted (Phelps, p. 18).
In 1827, when Prince was said to be 103 years old, Newgate prison was closed, all prisoners transferred to the new state prison in Wethersfield, Hartford county.  With many prisoners suffering from poor health, the State Board of Directors appointed a Prison Physician, responsible for reporting prisoner wellness beginning in November of 1829.  In January of 1831, prison records show Prince, along with others, suffered from ailments of the bowels caused by the prison food provided by warden Amos Pilsbury. On September 5th, 1831, Prince was admitted to the prison hospital, the cause listed as “Old Age.”  In the September 14th, 1831 hospital record, the physicians prescription for Prince suggests he be provided “Better Food.” The United States federal census for that same year states that there were 25 enslaved people in Connecticut, eight of them men and only one enslaved person in Hartford County. Whether this was Prince Mortimer is unknown.   
After 22 years in prison, Prince died on March 11th, 1834.  In the attending physicians report, Dr. Alonso Rockwell says he died of old age, stating, “no bodily disease at the time of his death sufficient to produce such a result.”  Dr. Rockwell also stated, “He was supposed, from all that could be gathered relative to his age, to have seen between 110 and 120 years.” (Rockwell, p.37) Very few men have been verified to have lived longer than 110 years, so this figure is likely an overestimate.
Wethersfield prison was closed in 1963.  It is now the location of the town’s Department of Motor Vehicles.  The former prison cemetery exists under neighboring Cove Park, a stone marking the location of the prison cemetery; but there is no certainty Prince is buried there.  In 1824, ten years prior to Prince’s death, Connecticut passed a law allowing bodies of prisoners to be at the disposal of the professors of anatomy in the medical institution of the state (Yale Medical School).  This was in response to outrage generated when a 19 year old white woman named Bathsheba Smith was stolen from her grave by Yale medical school students on January 11th, 1824. While grave-robbing was common practice of the time, this particular incident sparked outrage and two days of riots.  Governor Oliver Wolcott was so disturbed, he brought it up in the 1824 Connecticut General Assembly May session.  A law was passed a month later making it illegal to disinter a body, but allowing medical institutions to acquire bodies by making it legal for prisons to send them to Yale.
Identifying what became of the remains of Prince Mortimer is an ongoing collaborative effort between Yale Medical School, the state of Connecticut and independent scholars.
Prince Mortimer spent most of his life in the shadows, unknown and undocumented, all while contributing during key historical times and events.  His story is one of hope, survival and perseverance, representing the contributions and challenges of the enslaved.


Huggins, Benjamin L. The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series. Vol 22. Virginia: University of Virginia Press, 2013. 

Murray, Thomas Hamilton. The Recorder. Bulletin of the American Irish Historical Society. Vol I, No. 4. Boston: The American Irish Historical Society, 1901.

Ofgang, Erik. When Yale Medical Students Robbed a Grave for Science, New Haven Erupted in Fury. New Haven: Connecticut Magazine, April 2018.

Phelps, Richard Harvey. Newgate of Connecticut: Its Origins and Early History. Being a Full Description of the Famous and Wonderful Simsbury Mines and Caverns, and the Prison Built Over Them. To which is Added All the Incidents, Insurrections, and Massacres, Connected with Their Use as a Prison for the Tories During the Revolution. Also. An Illustrated Description of the State Prison at Wethersfield. Hartford: American Publishing Co., 1844.

Rockwell, Alonso. To the Directors of the Connecticut State Prison, the Physician begs leave respectfully to Report. Connecticut State Library Archives, Record Group 002, Box 21, Folder 9, 1834.

Stark, James H. Illustrated History of Boston Harbor: Compiled from the Most Authentic Sources, giving a Compete and Reliable History of Every Island and Headland in the Harbor, From the Earliest Date to the Present Time (First Edition). Boston: Photo-Electrotype Company, 1880.


John Mills

Baptism of Prince and Ann Mortimer's children, Christ Church, Middletown, CT, June 10, 1803

Key Events

c. 1724

Prince is born in Guinea, Africa, and captured as a boy by slavers.

c. 1737-1742

in 1737 Philip Mortimer, Prince Mortimer’s eventual enslaver, arrives in the Massachusetts Bay Colony from Waterford, Ireland. In 1742 Philip Mortimer marries Martha Blin, a prominent woman from a wealthy Connecticut family. Philip would soon after move with Martha to Middletown, Connecticut.

c. 1754

Philip Mortimer begins his Ropewalk business in Middletown. It is at some point after this that he would purchase Prince Mortimer.

June 25th, 1775

Philip Mortimer’s niece and adopted daughter Ann marries local politician and tailor George Starr.

c. 1775 - 1781

Prince Mortimer serves during the Revolutionary War. He later claims to have been sent on errands by General George Washington. Multiple Connecticut regiments served under George Washington during the Revolution, including the Winter of 1777 at Valley Forge.

1792 - 1795

Philip Mortimer’s will, written in 1792, promises to free Prince three years after the enslaver's death. In 1794, Philip rewrote his will, this time indicating Prince is to be freed immediately upon his enslaver’s death. Five days later, the enslaver died. In December 1795 Philip Mortimer’s will is contested by Ann and George Starr. They would ultimately succeed and Prince remains enslaved, now owned by George and Ann Starr.

June 10, 1803

Samuel, Zilpah, and John, three children of Prince and Ann Mortimer were baptized at Christ Church, Middletown. Ann Mortimer was baptised the same day. There is no record of Prince’s baptism.


Prince Mortimer is convicted of attempting to poison George Starr with ratsbane (arsenic) and sentenced to life in prison at Newgate Prison in East Granby, Connecticut.

c. 1825

Now considered a burden due to his ailments, prison staff convinced Prince to leave. He would find his way back to Middletown, but unable to find those he once knew, he returned to the prison and begged to be readmitted.

March 11th, 1834

Prince Mortimer passes away, having been moved c. 1830 to Wethersfield prison. Whether he was buried in the Wethersfield prison cemetery, or if he was sent to Yale Medical School for dissection has not been verified as of 2023.