His Name was Alfred Jefferson Briscoe, and his friends knew him simply as "Old Jeff."
Through peaks into his life offered mostly through his obituary and probate documents, Old Jeff's life may seem rather unspectacular and pedestrian. But centuries later, Old Jeff still occupies a prominent place in Newtown – his burial site one of the biggest surprises of the Village Cemetery.
The story begins with his grandfather, Alexander, who was born in 1767 as a slave to Lt. Nathaniel Briscoe. It is uncertain when Alexander was formally freed but it must have been before 1792, because after that date, emancipations had to be recorded with the Town Clerk and his was not. Once freed, he and is wife became day laborers, making a marginal living at various farms in central Newtown.
Alexander, taking the surname Briscoe from his former owner, had five children. The youngest, patriotically named Thomas Jefferson Briscoe, was born in 1808 during the last year of his namesake's presidency. Like his father, Thomas was a day laborer and, according to tax records, remained poor until his death at age 51 in 1859. Alfred, or "Jeff," was his son.
Jeff's birth date is uncertain, but it must have been around 1831. It quickly became apparent he was intellectually disabled because Thomas Briscoe, anticipating his own death and subsequent inability to take care of his son, took Jeff to Newtown's Probate Court in 1856 and had him declared incompetent.
From probate documents and subsequent accounts of his life, Jeff needed a conservatory to help with the details of his finances. He could, however, handle uncomplicated, routine tasks, which allowed him to serve as a custodian for the Niantic Mill in Sandy Hook.
With the rise of the resort trade in Newtown in the late 1880s, Jeff found an important niche for himself, according to his obituary. In 1892, he was given a room above the stables behind the old Grand Central Hotel (later known as The Yankee Drover) and was assigned to ferry passengers back and forth to the train depot. Soon he was doing this for the other major hotel on Main Street, as well as taking care of the mail to both. He quickly became very popular among the guests and was frequently asked for, if he did not arrive in person to pick them up.
One of his proudest jobs was as a volunteer for Newtown Hook and Ladder Co., according to his obituary. On the slightest provocation he would proudly dress in his fire uniform and attend to the business of the fire company. It is no surprise therefore, that the only tintype portrait of him shows him formally posed in his full fire regalia.
Jeff died in Bridgeport Hospital in October of 1898 and was buried in the southeast corner of the Village Cemetery. His headstone is still there, overlooking Dickinson Park and towering over nearby grave markers, including that of his sister a few feet or so away.
The burials for most common people of that time are marked with simple un-inscribed fieldstones, or most often with no stone at all. Jeff's grave marker stands 8-feet tall and is made of cast white metal, with a plaque commemorating him on one side and his parents on the other. Startlingly, above Jeff's plaque, a fire helmet that was cast into the fabric of the monument. This was the most expensive style monument of the time and it had been specially cast for Jeff as the result of a subscription to which all of the leading citizens of Newtown contributed – this being the usual practice of the time.
Jeff also holds the distinction of being the only local African American to have his obituary appear on the front page of the Newtown Bee – that honor reserved for only the most prominent of figures, such as town benefactor Mary Hawley.
Editor's note: How does Daniel Cruson know no other local African-American has appeared on the cover of the Newtown Bee? Cruson said he has read every available published edition of the Newtown Bee since 1877. There is a gap of about five years during the 1880s for which no edition of the newspaper is available.