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Jersey Through History: Burlington County Prison

The 18th century housed an abundance of unparalleled minds. After the American Revolution, New Jersey was right at the heart of the original thirteen colonies; as such, the Garden State received more than its fair share of innovation thanks to gifted intellects and craftsmen. One such example is the creation of Burlington County Prison, an architectural design that is rich with history. In this month’s Jersey Through History, we explore this landmark achievement.

In 1781, Robert Mills was born into a well-established family who facilitated his interest in architecture. By the early 19th century, Mills – a native of Charleston, South Carolina – had become a notable architectural draftsman; at President Thomas Jefferson’s request, he was crucial in the design of Monticello. (This was Jefferson’s plantation home in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.)

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Jersey Through History: Burlington County Prison

Mills developed his own private practice a few years later, before temporarily settling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. While in Philadelphia, Mills took a commission to design the Burlington County Prison; this became one of his first designs as an independent architect.

Construction on Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly began in 1810, and by the following year, the prison was open. Inmates previously serving time in a nearby stone structure were brought to this groundbreaking facility; in fact, Mills’s idea was to develop one of the country’s first humane correctional facilities. The first fire-proof building in America, it is often seen as the nation’s first modern prison. As a result, many future facilities and prison reform methods would use Burlington County Prison as a blueprint.

Jersey Through History: Burlington County Prison

Architecting a Prison

By design, the facility houses roughly 40 inmates; each had his or her own cell with a fireplace and a narrow, unglazed window. Mills thought each felon should have an individual cell, arranged in blocks of four; these cells opened off a short hallway at each end of the building. Each block would group together separate offenders, from repeat criminals to first-timers. The main hallways of the facility consist of larger rooms which held several debtors at a time. Debtors had the most “freedoms” within the prison; they could walk around the facility and work in the basement workshop or complete various cleaning chores.

Just like any historic jail, Burlington County Prison has a “dungeon” — or maximum-security cell. As you might expect, the dungeon held the worst-of-the-worst. Mills intent was to prevent the cell’s occupant from conversing with other inmates or escaping by digging; so the dungeon was built in the center of the top floor and under constant surveillance by guards. This was also the only cell without a fireplace. The dungeon has one very high, thin window and possesses an iron ring in the center of its floor; a chain would bind inmates to this ring.

Jersey Through History: Burlington County Prison

For more than 70 years, the jail keepers who ran the facility would live on-site; there were two rooms on the first floor of the prison where they would stay with their families. The jail keeper’s wife would often keep watch over the female inmates; meanwhile, the jail keeper himself executed the “Rules of the Jail,” devised by the prison board. The board was primarily made up of members of the freeholders. By the late 1880s, an adjacent brick home was built to house the keepers and their families. This home would remain in use for the next 77 years.

Prison Break: Burlington County Prison Edition

The prison is certainly a formidable structure; however, it was not entirely escape-proof. A number of inmates found freedom from the facility during its years in use. The most popular method of escape was through the roof rather than tunneling through the ground. (Sorry, pop culture fans.) One of the most notable escapes occurred in 1875; four inmates broke through the ceiling of an upper corridor cell, gaining access to the roof. They made their way down the sloping front wall and down around the woodpile beside the prison yard gate. Despite the jail keeper’s best efforts, not all of the four inmates were recaptured.

Jersey Through History: Burlington County Prison

During its use, the prison had to abide by state laws; in particular, the mandate that a criminal convicted of a capital crime would face execution in the county in which they were found guilty. Several public hangings took place on a gallows in the prison yard over the years; according to record, the last one occurred in 1906. The prison was in constant use until November 1965; before its closure, more than 100 inmates had to transfer out of Burlington County Prison.

Today, the tremendous structure sits back on High Street in Mount Holly, where it towers over the buildings surrounding it. The Burlington County Prison Museum is open every Thursday through Sunday (though closed on legal holidays). It offers a unique opportunity for patrons to explore the hallways of one of the most historic facilities from our state’s past. Self-guided tours are great for children and adults alike; of course, many of the museum’s staff float through the halls, offering insight into one of New Jersey’s oldest prisons.

Want to continue your journey through New Jersey’s most historic sites? You can now visit Jersey Through History: The Complete Series.