by Pierce Rafferty
Last month’s Fog Horn featured the E.M. & W. Fergusons’ private “jail.” Besides the occasional drunk or stray thief, that structure had few inhabitants during its approximately fifty years of usage as a civilian holding tank. Fort H.G. Wright, located at the western tip of Fishers Island, had far more serious criminal justice issues, and thus more need for a serious jail. As a U.S. Army facility, the Fort operated under a strict set of rules and regulations that were accompanied by the ever-present threat of punishment and incarceration. There were thousands of soldiers present at Fort Wright on an annual basis, some as part of the permanent garrison, others visiting for training on the “big guns.” Given the numbers, it is not surprising that in the half century that Fort Wright operated, soldiers committed crimes of all types, ranging from multiple murder on down to innumerable petty thefts and insubordinations. Circa 1901, one of the first military structures built at Fort Wright was a modest Guard House, located at the end of Officers Row on the site of today’s Congregational Fellowship House. As the Fort grew in size, the need for a larger jail became apparent to the military authorities. Circa 1907, a large brick Guard House, with a capacity of more than 50 prisoners, was erected facing Silver Eel Cove, just south of today’s Ferry Annex building.
Prisoners served long sentences in Fort Wright’s jail; non-wartime desertion could earn you up to a two year sentence in the 1910s. “Drunkenness and disobedience” put one soldier behind bars for nine months. The limited capacity of Fort Wright’s jail was put to the test in January 1910, as reported in the New York Times: “COMPANY IN GUARD HOUSE, Jan.3—Seventy-six of the eighty-four members of 131st Company , Coast Artillery, U.S.A., stationed at Fort H.G. Wright, Fisher’s Island, have been placed under arrest for refusing orders to take the fifteen-mile march around the island on New Year’s Day.
“The mutineers, it is alleged, followed the example of some of the non-commissioned officers in rebelling against the long march on the first day of the New Year, and Col. John Rafferty, in command of all the adjacent island fortifications, has had all the soldiers imprisoned that the limited guard house will accommodate, while others are under surveillance in the garrison under heavy guard. One of the mutineers escaped from Fisher’s Island this morning on a Government transport, but was soon rounded up by a provost guard and hustled back to quarters, and will later be tried for desertion.” (Quote from NYT, January 4, 1910) Please note that the stern Col. Rafferty was not a known relative of this writer.
In perhaps the most tragic case involving a prisoner, a sentry shot and killed a young private in October 1926 who was attempting to escape from the Fort Wright military reservation. The soldier had been awaiting trial on a charge of desertion. His original crime stemmed from trying to join the U.S. Coast Guard while still in U.S. Army service. The formidable Fort Wright Guard House was razed in 1975, some 27 years after Fort Wright was shuttered in 1949.