Up until recently, the Burlington County Prison was the setting for one of south Jersey’s most fun haunted attractions. We always stopped here for a scare in October after time spent at the nearby Witches Ball.
Now that the prison no longer hosts a Halloween haunt, it occurred to me that it is open year round for tours. I was curious to see the prison when it wasn’t decked out in all its holiday glory, so I decided to pay a visit.
Located in Mt. Holly, New Jersey, the Burlington County Prison Museum is considered a national historic landmark. It opened in 1811 and closed in 1965.
The facility is larger than I expected. Entrance is through a huge wooden door, parts of which are original, dating back to 1819. The cell doors throughout the prison are also original.
There are three levels to explore in the prison as well as the exercise yard. This is a self-guided tour, and it is easy to navigate the various areas thanks to helpful signs posted throughout the building.
On the first floor is where female inmates were housed. The warden also had his office and apartment here. Before a separate home was built for the warden and his family, they lived in the prison, with the warden’s wife in charge of the female prisoners. A long corridor connects the prison with the warden’s lodgings.
The second floor housed the more dangerous felons, with the maximum security cell, known as the “Dungeon” in the center of the cellblock. Debtor’s cells separated the Dungeon from the other cells. Debtor’s cells were outlawed in the 1830s, but if my credit card company had their way, the prison would be my new residence.
It’s interesting to note that each cell had its own fireplace, straw mattress, bucket for nighttime eliminations, and materials to build a fire. Inmates were allowed no personal belongings other than their clothes, and the Bible was the suggested reading material. Doorways were cut in the rear of each cell, allowing access to the washroom at the end of the cell block.
Throughout the cells are preserved prisoner graffiti. It’s a grim reminder that these empty cells and hallways were once anything but quiet. They were filled with people serving sentences of varying lengths for many different crimes. Some inmates spent part of their lives here, while others lost theirs to a hangman’s noose.
In the basement are the kitchen and workshop of Burlington County Prison. The inmate who prepares the meals is also housed on this floor. It was here where prisoners bathed using two bathtubs before plumbing was installed. These cell blocks were used by minimum security offenders.
The yard where inmates were allowed fresh air is surrounded by a 20 foot high wall, which seems tiny compared to the huge barriers topped by barbed wire that is seen in prisons today. It’s no wonder that some people managed to scale the wall and escape. While outside, inmates were permitted to tend to a small vegetable garden.
In one corner of the courtyard stands the gallows, where hangings took place. They were dismantled after executions, and stored away when not needed. The gallows that are on display for visitors are not original, but give an idea of what they may have looked like.
If you happen to be in the area and have an interest in prisons, I encourage you to check out the Burlington County Prison Museum. It’s a fascinating bit of correctional history, and rumor has it that it’s haunted. For a slideshow of more pictures from my visit, please click here.