Burlington County Prison Museum

by Meredith Bajgier/Editor | Sep 14, 2015
Burlington County Prison Museum When the earliest settlers of Burlington County arrived in the area from Europe in 1623, they no doubt had a vision of the area’s future. This vision probably included progressive transportation systems, a bustling economy, and a thriving population; all of these dreams eventually came to fruition. They assuredly dreamed of a county that ran efficiently and well – a county that not only provided entertainment, but also justice. Among their completed dreams is the Burlington County Prison, which stands tall as the Burlington County Prison Museum today in Mount Holly. As a National Historic Site, the Burlington County Prison has a rich history that has upheld the standards of justice and equality since 1811.

Before the Burlington County Prison was erected, the area’s jail was located in the basement of the courthouse. While the prison’s location proved satisfactory for a time, it eventually became necessary for architect Robert Mills to design a new structure to house inmates.

Mills, a Charleston, South Carolina native, was a well-educated architect who attracted the attention of then-celebrity Thomas Jefferson, in 1803. As a new architect full of ideas and passion, Mills assisted in creating the foundation for Monticello, which is among the most popular and well-recognized buildings in the nation. He was eventually appointed by Andrew Jackson in 1836 to the position of Federal Architect and Engineer. He maintained this post for 16 years, during which time he redeveloped both federal and local structures.

During Mills’ first years in Philadelphia following his arrival in 1808, the architect was offered the responsibility to design and execute the construction of the Burlington County Prison. Mills accepted the offer, and by 1811, his project was complete. The visionary architect successfully tackled many problems that plagued designers at the time – including those regarding safety and structural issues. The prison, now complete, was able to house inmates for the first time.

The Burlington County Prison had a strong aura – the building was made of stone and concrete; it had a front door with a large hinges and a lock. Though the edifice appeared impenetrable, inmates escaped. The prisoners found it easiest to scale the walls and climb out through the ceiling, which was the preferred method of departure; however, oftentimes, inmates found it easier to create their own holes in the building and exit through them. Many times this worked; other times, it was unsuccessful.

During one escape attempt in 1875, four men left the prison through a created hole near the ceiling of the building. Following their departure, they climbed down a woodpile next to the prison and fled to freedom. A fifth man, who was too large to fit through the hole, sounded the alarm to spite his freed friends. Despite the final man’s best efforts to thwart those that got away, at least some of the escaped were never caught.

While some individuals managed to break away from the concrete prison walls, others met a destiny quite opposed to freedom. If an individual was convicted of a capital crime, they were sentenced to be executed in the county which they were found guilty. The Burlington County Prison built a gallows which would be used for the hangings of prisoners convicted of various capital crimes; this method was in use at the prison until 1906, when two men accused of murdering a local governess were hanged.

Since its inception, the prison was in use constantly until 1965, when overcrowded conditions demanded another, larger facility. Burlington County Prison, originally designed to hold 40 inmates, had contained over 100 prisoners at one time. The new prison was erected in 1983 in Mount Holly.

Today, the Burlington County Prison Museum attracts both local and national audiences. Open Thursday through Saturday from 10am until 4pm, and Sunday from noon until 4pm, the museum has been featured on the Sci Fi Channel’s “Ghost Hunters.” The building also boasts a Halloween event, which is held every October. With a century and a half worth of history in tow, the Burlington County Prison Museum undoubtedly has a lot to showcase to visitors.

Admission to the museum is $4 for Adults; $2 for Seniors (55+); $2 for Students; Children under 5 are free. Hours are Thursday through Saturday, 10am until 4pm; Sunday, noon until 4pm; closed holidays.

The earliest settlers to Burlington County developed the ideas which led to the building of the Burlington County Prison – ideas that remain at the forefront of the New Jersey prison system today. “Justice for all,” then, isn’t just an abstract idea, but a true statement being put into action in Burlington County. Though the prison had its fair share of escapes, the attempt for officials to detain those who committed injustice was admirable. In order to become a well-run society, that society must have ideals on which it is based. Burlington County, nearly four centuries ago, envisioned the foundation on which it would stand; undoubtedly, these missions have been completed and have created the thriving Burlington County of today.

For more information, go to prisonmuseum.net.

9/11/15

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Author: Meredith Bajgier/Editor

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