Historic Prison Museum, Mt. Holly

by Editorial Staff, SouthJersey.com | Mar 26, 2015
Historic Prison Museum, Mt. Holly Perhaps one of the most solid and time-tested structures in South Jersey is the Burlington County Prison, now a museum, located in Mount Holly. The structure was first completed in 1811 by one of America’s first native architects, Robert Mills, and remained active until it was finally closed in 1965. This made the prison, then 154 years old, the oldest active prison at the time of its closing.

Robert Mills’ concrete, brick and stone design made the prison virtually fireproof and maintenance free. Considered by many to be one of the great architects in American history, Mills also designed the construction of the US Treasury, Patent and Post office buildings in Washington, D.C. Burlington County Prison was one of Mills’ first designed works.

The prison was first created to serve as a replacement for a smaller detention structure that had been built 34 years earlier, in 1767. While structurally the prison is “solid as a rock” (probably because 90 percent of it is actually rock), the prison was not escape proof. The walls were scaled many times during its 154 year history, with the preferred escape route being a secret passageway that lead to the warden’s house.

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Despite a few escapes and attempts, many prisoners saw their last days on earth at the prison, as numerous public hangings were conducted at the gallows erected in the prison yard. The final hanging at the prison took place on March 24, 1906. This day saw convicted murderers Rufus Johnson and George Small hung from the gallows after only having been convicted and sentenced to hang two months earlier.

Originally, the prison was meant to house only 40 prisoners; however, nearly 100 inmates occupied the prison at the time of its closing in 1965. The sections of the prison, like many others, were designated by the class of criminal. Mill’s original design called for each cell to have a fireplace and eye level window, but not all prisoners enjoyed these comforts. Small-time offenders with short-term stays were housed in the main hallway of the prison, in large rooms usually occupied by four to five prisoners. These prisoners were allowed access to prison facilities, and worked shifts of manual labor during the day.

Other, more serious offenders were housed in the “dungeon” or maximum security cell found on the top floor of the prison. This cell was placed in the center of the top floor to prevent any of its inmates from escaping by way of digging, to keep inmate socializing to a minimum, and to ensure that prison guards had a full 360 degree view of the cell. This was the only cell without a fireplace and had only one small window. There was also an iron ring in the center of the floor to which the prisoner could be chained if necessary. Legend has it that one of the cell’s former residents, Joel Clough, a murderer who spent his last night there, still haunts the cell to this day.

The prison housed both men and women of every criminal level. Naturally, each group was housed in separate sections of the prison. There was a separate officer specifically charged with supervising the women inmates, called “The Keeper.” The Keeper’s other duties included executing the rules of the prison that were set forth by the prison board. The Keeper, like the warden, lived on the prison grounds in a brick house connected by a secret underground passageway.

Inmate activities at the prison included broom, basket, and shingle making. The prison workshop was located in the basement, along with the prison kitchen. Until 10923, another prison activity was cooking, as the prisoners were required to make their own food. Perhaps one of the more unique activities that occurred in the prison was graffiti. While not condoned by prison officials for obvious reasons, some impressive works of art were created by inmates over the years, and many photos of those works are still found inside the prison today. Prisoners who exhibited good behavior were also allowed to plant small gardens in the prison yard.

When the prison closed in November 1965, many of its inmates were moved to a converted armory that stood behind the prison until a brand new, larger housing facility opened in 1983. Many elements of the original prison remain there today. Along with Mills’ foundation and structural design, the prison’s front remains virtually unchanged. The original front door and the hinges holding it remain, as well as inside the prison, where the cell doors and fireplaces are all original. The vaulted ceilings of poured concrete, brick and stone, along with the prison’s whitewashed interior, remain the signature of its creator Robert Mills.

Special Events
Battle of Iron Works Hill takes place on the 2nd Saturday in December, from 10am until 4pm. British, Hessian and Loyalist troops with guns and cannon skirmish on High Street with Continental and militia forces. For more information on this event, go to ironworkshill.org.

The Historic Prison Museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 10am to 4pm, and on Sunday from noon until 4pm. Admission fees are $4 for adults; $2 for children, students, and seniors (55+); children five and under are free. The Museum is handicapped accessible.

Volunteer positions are available!

The Historic Prison Museum is located at 128 High Street (at the corner of High and Grant Streets) in Mt. Holly. Please call 609-265-5476 or 609-518-7667, or go to prisonmuseum.net for more information.

Updated 3/24/15

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For an extensive list of South Jersey Attractions, with links to websites and other information, check out our South Jersey Attractions page.

For more South Jersey History, visit our South Jersey History page.

Author: Editorial Staff, SouthJersey.com


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