The phrase “positively Medieval” ran through my mind as I used almost all my strength to haul open the massive original door to the Burlington County Prison Museum on High Street in Mount Holly.
There was just something about the enormous door handle, the rustic wood surface of the door itself, its metal hinges, and a huge lock that looked like it belonged at the Tower of London, during the time of Henry VIII.
Of course, the door to the prison is not that old at all, but it does date back to the opening of the facility in 1811.
I was curious to see this storied structure in part because I’d found Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia so fascinating years before.
My first impression of the Mount Holly facility was, “Oh look, it’s a small Eastern State,” until the docent sharply informed me that the Burlington County Prison was built and opened almost 20 years before the Philadelphia institution.
In fact, Eastern State’s creators might have been inspired by Burlington County Prison’s design and mission, envisioned by Robert Mills (1781-1855), a Quaker and one of the first American-born professional architects.
Mills, who designed the Washington Monument later in his life, had his faith’s ideals in mind when the facility was conceived, and chose the motto, “Justice Which, While it Punishes, Would Endeavor to Reform the Offender,” to reflect his philosophy.
Each cell had a Bible or prayer book for the “guests” (they were not called inmates) to read and reflect on their lives, as well as to motivate them toward self-improvement.
In addition, Mills believed that the detainees would eventually become better members of society if they could learn to read, write, and master a skill in the prison workshop. The training would also keep them busy during the day and might tire them out a little so they’d sleep better at night.
“Less opportunity for mischief,” he wrote.
Downstairs there is a replica of the work room and its tools for broom, basket, and shingle making, all products that could be sold to help prisoners earn a little money and defray the costs of their stay.
There was also a small vegetable garden outside in the courtyard, where prisoners could grow their own produce to supplement the institutional meals of meat, cereals, and grains.
This was all part of Mills’ vision for the place: The facility’s purpose was truly to reform the individuals, whereas prisons of earlier eras were little more than warehouses of time, places where humans languished, suffered illness, went crazy, and often died awaiting their release.
Thursdays through Sundays, the Burlington County Prison Museum offers inexpensive self-guided tours, or, for a small additional fee, an excellent hour-long audio tour. It is narrated by noted Philadelphia actors Susan Riley Stevens and Greg Wood, who, for the last few years, has played Ebenezer Scrooge in McCarter Theater’s production of “A Christmas Carol.”
The audio tour highlights not only architectural features of the building but also the interesting stories of those who were incarcerated here, including nine people convicted of murder.
Visitors may take as much time as they like to explore during hours of operation. To me, it was a quiet, calming, but somewhat sad experience to look around the space and think about its provenance.
A docent told me to be on the lookout for ghosts, as the Burlington County Prison is said to be one of the most haunted buildings in the state.
The spirit of a tall male in a uniform supposedly lurks in the basement, and the third floor is claimed to have a flurry of paranormal activity.
The ghost of early 1800s criminal Joel Clough, who spent his last night in the prison’s dungeon, is also said to haunt the building, with moans, rattling chains, and even cigarette smoke emanating from the maximum security area in the center of the top floor.
The paranormal activity has attracted research groups from as far as Ohio and Long Island to investigate, usually in the evenings, and always by reservation. One evening in late September called “The World’s Largest Ghost Hunt” was already sold out when this article was written — that’s how popular the mysterious aspect of the old prison is.
Currently there is a free Family Movie Night planned for Friday, October 11, at 6:30 p.m., when the original “Ghostbusters” will be screened in the prison courtyard.
A Walk Through
Abundant signage, educational text, and brochures introduce the first-time visitor to a few quick facts.
We learned that the Mount Holly Jail was in use from 1811 until 1965, and at the time it closed was the oldest continuously used jail in the country.
Originally designed to house approximately 40 prisoners, the facility started bursting at the seams in the early 1900s, and eventually held more than 100 inmates when it closed. The exact date was November 23, 1965.
The jail reopened as a museum in 1966. When at least 12,000 visitors came to see the old Jail in the first year, the position of full-time curator was created, a post which existed until 1981.
However, the building was feeling its age in the 1980s and 1990s, and was thus closed for repairs and renovations, reopening in 2001.
By then Burlington County had completed the renovations, including new exhibits and signage. The prison museum came under the control of the newly formed Burlington County Parks Department, which maintains the building and mans the gift shop during hours of operation.
It is currently overseen by the Prison Museum Association (PMA), a non-profit organization that supports the Burlington County Prison Museum through fundraising, volunteering, and giving tours.
One of the oldest buildings in New Jersey, the prison became a National Historic Landmark and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986.
Dig a little deeper than “just the facts,” and you learn that the concrete, brick, and stone construction made this building virtually fireproof.
Worked into Mills’ design is innovative and humane interior planning, such as fireproofing and decent ventilation systems.
Indeed, on a warm August afternoon, the un-air conditioned space was temperate but not hot, thanks to a series of well-placed fans, and downstairs was musty but somewhat cool.
The imposing exterior of the building has changed very little since the early 1800s, and that massive front door adds to its impression of a castle keep.
In addition to the facade, the interior vaulted ceilings of poured concrete and the brick and stone construction are much as they were when the facility was first opened. The cell doors are also original, and many were fabricated in place.
I noticed that each cell, except the most maximum-security cell, has a fireplace and narrow window just above eye level. Some of the views are very pleasant, especially of the spacious rear courtyard, with its green lawn and centenarian trees.
However, the gallows is also located in the courtyard. It is unclear if inmates could see it from their rooms, but if so, it must have given them a sense of dread.
The first of many signs to catch my eye laid out sentences for various crimes of the 19th century. For example, a person would get 54 days for “open lewdness,” and 57 for “horse stealing.”
“Lunacy” would get you sent to an insane asylum, and “fornication” would bring the strong recommendation of marriage.
There were many offenders in residence throughout the years, but the most famous was Albert DeSalvo. Already a criminal — probably a pedophile — when he was in New Jersey, he went on to murderous infamy as the Boston Strangler in the early 1960s.
DeSalvo was stationed at Fort Dix and, for two days in January, 1955, was being held at the Mount Holly Jail for “carnal abuse” — sexually abusing a 9-year-old girl. The alleged victim declined to testify, charges were dropped; DeSalvo was released to military authorities, and returned to the Army base.
Born in Charleston, South Carolina, to a well-to-do Scottish family that had settled there in 1770, Mills was influenced by his uncle Thomas Mills, an architect with a practice in Dundee, Scotland.
Studying at Charleston College, Mills was also fortunate enough to have contact with the noted English architect James Hoban, who lived in Charleston. In fact, Mills began his formal training as a draftsman under Hoban, who was, at the time, working on the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson invited Mills to assist in the design of Monticello, and the young man lived there for two years, developing a deep friendship with Jefferson.
Mills launched his own practice around 1808, married, and moved to Philadelphia for some time. It was during this time he was awarded the commission to design the Burlington County Prison, which was constructed from 1810 to 1811.
Later in his career Mills was appointed by President Andrew Jackson to the position of Federal Architect and Engineer, a post he held for 16 years.
This particularly productive period in Mills’ life included directing the design and construction of the U.S. Treasury Building, the U.S. Patent Office, and the U.S. Post Office.
Two of Mills’ most renowned designs are the Washington Monument in Baltimore, the first heroic and civic monument dedicated to George Washington, completed in 1829; and the National (Washington) Monument in Washington, D.C. The latter was an internationally acclaimed engineering accomplishment, as well as the world’s tallest single structure at the time of its completion in 1884. (Mills began the project, but it was eventually completed by Thomas Casey and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.)
The prison building was one of Mills’ first designs as an independent architect and is a fine example of his ability to identify and solve some of the most difficult structural, safety, and utilization issues of the day.
Interestingly, Mills also recognized the need to reform the concept of debtors’ prison, where a person could be jailed for owing even a couple of dollars. This was one of the reasons the Burlington County Prison’s inmates crafted such things as shingles and brooms: sales of these could help offset their debts as well as prison costs.
The debtors’ space was separate from the felons’ and consisted of large common rooms. Debtors could also move around the prison more easily, could have their own books and linens in their cells, and even work in cleaning positions, all part of the overall humanitarian concept of the prison.
Although it ended its 20th century days in crowded squalor, with antiquated technology, the Burlington County Prison was state-of-the-art when it opened, a giant leap forward in social and prison reform.
Naturally, someone needed to oversee and enforce the rules of this sprawling facility, and originally there were two rooms on the main floor set aside as living quarters for the jail “keeper” and his wife, who supervised the female inmates.
Later a brick house was constructed adjacent to the prison, at Grant and High streets, and the keeper and spouse moved there. It is now known as the Warden’s House Gallery and has been repurposed as a space for rotating exhibits by local and regional artists.
When I visited in the spring colorful and eclectic works by Don Stephens and Joshua Toritto were on display. The next exhibit opens on Thursday, September 5: “The Art of James Boyle: Philadelphia Tarot Art,” which runs through Sunday, November 3.
Boyle is a professional illustrator and creator of the unusual Philly Tarot Deck featuring people, places, and phenomena unique to Philadelphia, such as the Phillie Phanatic (mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies), the movie character Rocky, City Hall, and more.
There will be an artist’s reception the evening of Saturday, October 5.
The Warden’s House Gallery is also home to the works of Burlington County artist, author, and “philosopher” Hugh H. Campbell (1905-1997), and houses a permanent collection of Campbell artifacts.
He lived an ascetic, almost monk-like life, and captured his own view of Mount Holly via the paintbrush. Akin to a Beatnik or hippie, Campbell lived simply in the nearby woods, wore ragged clothing, and played a beat up old guitar.
Campbell loved to paint the landscapes and some of the neighborhoods in and around Mount Holly and did so in a naive but congenial, colorful style resembling Impressionism.
A few older residents of Mount Holly recall seeing him strolling the streets in town carrying his brushes, paints, and other supplies in a knapsack, so he would be ready to paint whenever and wherever he was inspired.
In addition, long before the Beatles and other 1960s celebrities brought Indian music and culture to the United States, Campbell regularly practiced yoga and meditation and used the tenets of Eastern religions and philosophies to guide his life and art.
This quiet and cheerful space gave a peaceful feeling after the walk through the old prison.
There is a framed quote by Campbell upstairs in the Warden’s House that summarizes his philosophy:
“When an artist — a good one — paints a picture, he plunges through the work not really knowing in external consciousness what the exact result will be. Yet, it may turn out to be a masterpiece.
“The unseen impetus guiding his headlong flight into a ‘real expression’ is called ‘Zen’ by the Buddhists and ‘Divine Guidance’ by Hindus, Christians, and Mohammedans. Unbelievers call it simple unadorned ‘talent.’ Which tells and gives nothing unless it means all the rest.”
I think this would be something architect Robert Mills might agree with.
Burlington County Prison Museum, 128 High Street, Mount Holly. Thursdays through Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 4 p.m. $5; audio tour available for $3 extra.
Family Movie Night. Friday, October 11, 6:30 p.m. Free screening of the original “Ghostbusters.” 609-265-5858 or co.burlington.nj.us/956/Prison-Museum
Guided tours and special events can be arranged through the Prison Museum Association, firstname.lastname@example.org or 609-265-5476 (Thursday through Sunday), or 609-265-5826 (Monday through Wednesday). Burlington County Prison Museum Association: www.prisonmuseum.net
Ghost and spirit investigations are permitted on Friday and Saturday nights throughout the year from 7 p.m. to midnight. The cost is $350 for groups of 10 or fewer, and $700 for groups numbering between 11 and 20. Call the Burlington County Parks Department: 609-265-5828.
Warden’s House Gallery, 150 High Street, Mount Holly. Free admission (suggested donation). Thursday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. 609-702-7453.