February 04, 2015

The strongest man in the prison – King Dick

American prisoners of war were incarcerated in various prisons during the War of 1812. The British established prisons in Canada but a number of American prisoners were sent to Great Britain to await the end of the war.

American prisoners started arriving at the overcrowded Dartmoor Prison in April 1813. By many accounts, American prisoners were difficult to control and often taunted their British jailers. Taken from diverse regions in the U.S., the prisoners created a national identity by treating British guards as their common enemy. By defining the British as “a hard-hearted, cruel and barbarous race” of captors, the prisoners united as Americans.

The American prisoners insisted that the ultimate British cruelty was to treat them the same as black prisoners from the U.S. At Dartmoor Prison, British guards patrolled the outside of the prison while inmates were allowed to organize and operated the interior. This meant that the white majority imposed segregation by limiting the black 15 percent to one barrack known as Block Four.
Dartmoor Prison

Blacks were excluded from the committee government elected by whites, but Block Four relied on Richard Crafus, known as King Dick, to provide order. King Dick was born in Maryland and served on a privateer until captured in March 1814. Described as a stout man of 23 years, King Dick was six feet three inches tall and towered over everyone. One prisoner described, “He is by far the largest, and I suspect the strongest man in the prison.”

King Dick earned the allegiance of black prisoners and the respect of the whites. He wore a bearskin cap and wielded a large club patrolling the barracks to suppress disorder. King Dick imposed absolute authority in Block Four by monopolizing illicit beer sales, levied taxes on petty trade, and took a cut from all games of chance. He even sold tickets to plays complete with props and costumes for performances including Romeo and Juliet and Othello. On Sundays, he sponsored the preaching of a black Methodist. By many accounts, King Dick’s despotism ensured that Block Four ran smoothly.

February is Black History Month and there are a number of different events taking place in Niagara. At Old Fort Erie, you can watch the movies 12 Years a Slave (Feb. 20) and Amistad (Feb. 27) during the fort’s Friday Night Flicks event. Movies start at 7 p.m. and are $5 each. For more information, contact Old Fort Erie by clicking here.  

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