Mr. Smith Goes to Prison. America’s Longest Serving Inmate enters his 71st Year of Incarceration
Updated: Jan 6
I would like to wish the readers of The Nutmeg Lawyer a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2021. May it be full of endless possibilities. I tend to start my year off the same way I do every year. I check on the status of an inmate named Francis Smith. As far as I could tell, Smith may be the longest serving inmate in the United States. No, he’s not working on a chain gang in Alabama. He’s not running the Shawshank prison library with his pet bird. Smith is located right here in the Constitution State. Born September 1, 1924, Francis Smith is 96 years old at the time of this writing. His last admission to a Connecticut prison was on June 7, 1950. When I last checked on Mr. Smith, he was still incarcerated at the Osborn Correctional Facility in Somers, Connecticut. Since that time, it appears they have moved Smith to a nursing home. So what could have condemned this nonagenarian to serving over seventy years in prison?
From a young age, Smith had a history of run-ins with the law. Boosting everything from baubles to cars, Smith would eventually end up at the Cheshire Reformatory for male youths at the age of 13. After assaulting a guard and escaping, he found himself graduating to a maximum security prison. As he grew older, “Frank” became known to local police as part of a crew that committed petty crimes all over southern Connecticut. Things would get more serious on a fateful night in 1949.
It was seventy-one years ago, on a balmy summer night in Greenwich, Connecticut. Smith and his cohorts allegedly headed toward the Indian Harbor Yacht Club with a plan to rob it. A security guard named Grover Hart stumbled across their nefarious effort while on his rounds. (Hart once worked as a driver for Dan Topping, an owner of the NY Yankees at the time). Surprising the robbers, they responded with multiple rounds from two different guns. One of the shots pierced Hart's kidney. Before he died two days later, he managed to give local police a description of his assailant.
Soon after the murder, Francis Smith was spotted in a Cadillac at the Hollywood Café in Brewster, New York. Someone had called the police after observing Smith and his partner George Lowden acting suspicious. As New York troopers arrived, the men fled into the woods leaving their car behind. It was soon discovered the car was listed as stolen out of Stamford, Connecticut Inside the Caddy, police found neck ties bearing the insignia of the Indian Harbor Yacht Club, jewelry from the club’s lost & found box, expensive cigars with the club’s logo, and a .22 caliber pistol. The gun matched up with the bullet casings from the murder of Grover Hart. If that wasn’t enough, a shirt was in the car with the name “Smith” imprinted on it by a laundry service. Smith would be found wandering in the woods of Wilton, Connecticut with a bottle of hair dye. Upon his capture, he implicated his partner George Lowden.
Not surprisingly, Lowden took a plea deal and testified against Smith. The move spared Lowden a death sentence. Smith declared his innocence and demanded a trial. In 1950, he would be convicted of first degree murder in Bridgeport Superior Court. The sentence was death by electrocution. Smith would spend four years on death row. He avoided execution six times. At first, it appeared his luck would run out. For the 7th time, Francis Smith was scheduled to be executed. The harrowing date would be June 7, 1954 at the former Wethersfield State Prison. Two hours before his impending electrocution and with his head partially shaved to receive the electrodes, the news came in. The state Board of Pardons commuted his sentence to 25 years to life in prison. Smith had dodged his death sentence.
Over the next few years, the story of Francis Smith would take many startling twists and turns. The lead investigator in the murder case against Smith made a statement that he was positive Smith didn’t murder Grover Hart. His partner George Lowden recanted his testimony that Smith was a shooter. An inmate in Alabama named Dave Blumetti testified he was Lowden’s accomplice. He stated that they dropped off Smith in Stamford before heading to the Yacht Club. A witness for the prosecution recanted her testimony that she saw Smith driving the Cadillac.
Smith protested his innocence and demanded a new trial in 1954. The Connecticut State Supreme Court denied Smith’s request with one judge dissenting. The Honorable Patrick O’Sullivan wrote that the jury “relying exclusively upon circumstantial evidence, found him guilty, while another person not only has confessed to the commission of the murder but has placed Smith far from the scene of the crime.” Smith’s appeal to federal court was turned down in 1965.
Smith had been a pretty good prisoner to that point. At the Enfield Correctional Institution he earned special privileges. On a minimum security prison farm, he was able to work as a mechanic. Dejected, he decided to make his escape. It did not involve years of elaborate planning replete with posters of Rita Hayworth, tiny rock hammers, and earning the warden's trust by doing his taxes. In 1967, he simply stole a farm truck and drove away. He would experience less than two weeks of freedom. Following a huge manhunt, Francis was captured near Boston. He was 43. If he had not escaped, he would have been eligible for parole by 1970. Smith was sent back to prison as the country entered the disco era. During the 1970s, the Board of Pardons & Paroles would let Smith out on parole. After 10 months on the outside, Smith was sent back to prison after he violated his terms of release.
"These walls are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. “Red... Shawshank Redemption
About a decade or so ago, Francis Smith became eligible for parole again. I imagine he had become much like James Whitmore’s character Brooks in the film the Shawshank Redemption. He had become dependent on the walls around him. Would he even recognize the outside world? When he was first incarcerated in 1950, the number one song in the country was Good Night Irene and Harry Truman was president. Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states. It would be four years before Elvis made his historic recording at Sun Records. The Beatles had not yet invaded America. It would be years before man landed on the moon.
Speaking of Good Night Irene, some interesting tidbits. Performed by the Weavers in 1950,
the song details a man who regrets the choices he made in life. The group credited an old folk singer named Leadbelly from the 1920s for providing them with the woeful tune. Like Francis Smith, Leadbelly was convicted of murder. He received a pardon for the crime and avoided a death sentence. I found a video on Youtube of Leadbelly performing Good Night Irene in Wilton, Connecticut. Oddly enough, Wilton was where Francis Smith hid from police after filling a man's belly with lead. Leadbelly once worked as a driver and would die from ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease. The man Francis Smith allegedly killed was a driver for the owner of the Yankees. But I digress...
The world had moved on from Francis Smith. Articles about him have yellowed with age. The judges who sentenced him are long dead along with most of the people involved that fateful night.
Fast forward to 2021 and the number one song is Mood by rapper 24kGoldn. And yes, I had to google it. Smith would now enter a world of mask clad pedestrians walking with their heads bent down towards glowing smart phones with access to the full knowledge of mankind and videos of cats knocking things off tables. He would find self driving cars silently traversing the streets and robots roaming grocery stores aisles. Resigned to his fate, Smith would make no more appeals for his freedom. No more daring escapes. Good night Irene. Good night Francis Smith.