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They locked up Elias Nation on April 18, 1842, giving him official first place in Dauphin County’s new prison. (For the record, Jacob Stripe was registered nearly two weeks earlier, for assault and battery, but he was out before the prison’s grand opening.) Nation was twenty­-nine years old and looked “yellow,” wrote Keeper Wil­liam Watson; he underlined that fact in his new leather­bound ledger for “Convict Descriptions.” The first convict was born on Long Island; he had been a sailor, but lately he had “no particular des­tination.” His eyes and hair were black, and he had scars on his neck, the “effects of scrofula,” a skin disease. He stood 5 feet 6 1/2 inches high on feet that were about 11 inches long (measurements were taken for footprints before the law invented finger­printing).

But if Nation was new to the Dauphin County Prison, he was already an old hand at lawbreaking, for this was his third conviction-he had spent the first one at Moyamen­sing Prison, and the second at Eastern Penitentiary in Phila­delphia. His conviction this time? Keeper Watson, prob­ably new to the prison himself, neglected to note the reason for his incarceration. He was only careful to describe the prisoner’s body features, his crucial social qualities (“mother living, can read and write, drank a little, not married”) and his material possessions: “1 overcoat, 4 prs. pantaloons, 1 pr. Monroes [?], 2 roundabouts [jackets], 1 fur cap, 3 shirts, pillow case and sundries.”

They freed Nation on November 16. Nine months later they were logging him in again for “larceny”; Keeper Watson spelled it out this time. Now Elias Nation was the first recidivist, another victory cup he would have Jet pass. He had changed his clothes: this time he packed one calico shirt, a pair of shoes, an “old” fur hat, suspenders, one “old” roundabout and a handker­chief. He had also changed his name: his alias, reported Watson, was “Kunklin” for “Nation,” perhaps a name he used for hiding among the local Germans in central Pennsylvania.

The new Dauphin County Prison, Nation’s big house away from home for both terms, was located at Walnut and Court streets in the center of downtown Har­risburg, just behind the court­house, a feat of civic effi­ciency. The prison had been designed by John Haviland, noted architect of the more famous Eastern Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The style was early English Lancet, akin to Gothic Revival, reminis­cent of a church or a castle. There was an octagonal tower on top (designed to hold an alarm bell, which was never hung) which was protected all around by corbelled battle­ments on the roof. The doorway was guarded by an iron portcullis. Maybe it was purely decorative, but it made a good effect. One doubts the keeper ever slammed it down to repel invaders, or that he ever stood on the parapet and poured boiling oil down the crenels (the U-shaped part of the battlement). The ornamental iron fence around the prison probably never kept a mob outside, or in­side. The continuation of the fenestration (the large niche looking like a window) in the prison yard wall was also merely gesture, the most ludicrous obedience to style. Indeed, the architecture was mainly an announcement, duly assuring the republic that justice here was solid as a rock – in this case, Chester County granite.

Here was “official” Victorian architecture, a cultural idiom variously repeated in schools, churches, firehouses, arsenals, asylums, factories, courthouses, hospitals and the like around the country in the nineteenth cen­tury. The style reiterated the dignity and tradition of the reliably steady state. Thus, local leaders were ready to be proud of it: maps of Harrisburg drawn at mid-cen­tury included vignettes showing off the county prison, next to sketches touting the state capitol, the Lutheran Church and other sacred public spaces. J.A. Spofford’s Harrisburg Directory for 1843 described the new prison as “the ornament of the town . . . one of the most substantial and elegant buildings of the kind in the state.” In her Remarks on Prisons and Prison Discipline published in 1845, Dorothea Dix, Amer­ica’s most famous prison reformer, remarked that the new prison was “undoubt­edly one of the best conducted county prisons in the United States.” For the community, the prison was a matter of honor, not a badge of shame.

It stood for certain values: that citizens should control themselves according to the Bible’s morality, that they would be held accountable for any loss of control, and that if imprisoned they would be given a chance for work and penance in a “penitentiary.” The values showed faith in the necessity of public order, and also in the possibilities of self-correction through pri­vate conscience. The faith in conscience was a “reform,” for the prisons that pre­ceded Dauphin County’s were mainly jails that would simply put away and punish. The reform was called the “Pennsylvania System.” First practiced at Eastern Peni­tentiary in Philadelphia in 1835, the system lodged a man in a cell by himself all day and night. In his tiny cubicle he was fed, kept quiet and kept busy-safe from the sins of other prisoners, free to concentrate on his own reform. Dauphin County’s “Rules to the Prisoner in his Cell,” promulgated April 16, 1842, put it this way: “1st. You must at all times keep your person, cell, loom, spooling wheel, and all other kind of utensils in your cell clean and in good and neat order.” The keeper would attempt to make a weaver out of a fallen man (the weaving would help pay for his keep, too). The man would not make “any unnecessary noise” or “any conversation or communication,” al­though the keeper later con­fessed to lax enforcement of this rule. Keep your nose to the wheel, they told him, so that you do not “suf­fer yourself to be led astray from your duty by angry or revengeful feelings.” When there was rare leisure time, as on the Sabbath, they re­quired the prisoner to work at the “useful improvement of your mind either in reading the books that may be handed to you . . . or in case you cannot read, in learning to do so.” Break the rules, and he would be punished severely “by closer confinement and depri­vation of food until the Keeper is satisfied they will be observed.”

It was these reforms more than the prison’s imposing facade that pleased Dorothea Dix. “Repeated visits to this jail have satisfied me,” she wrote, “of the kind and just discipline which prevails.” If the Dauphin County Prison had any shortcoming, she said, it was that the prisoners could use even more instruc­tion in righteousness, for “many are profoundly ignor­ant upon the plainest prin­ciples of morals.” The spirit of Dix and her compatriots in Dauphin County was explained sagely, and a little cynically, by Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont when they described prison reform after their American tour in 1831:

There are in America … estimable men whose minds feed upon philosophical reveries, and whose extreme sensibility feels the want of some illusion. These men, for whom philan­thropy has become a matter of necessity, fi11d in the penitentiary system a nourishment for this generous passion. Starting from abstractions which deviate more or less from reality, they consider man, however far advanced in crime, as still susceptible of being brought back to virtue. They think that the most in­famous being may yet recover the sentiment of honor; and pur­suing consistently this opinion, they hope for an epoch when all criminals may be radically reformed, the prisons be en­tirely empty, and justice find no crimes to punish … They have caught the monomanie of the penitentiary system, which to them seems the remedy for all the evils of society.

Such were the Victorian values that created both the prison’s architecture and its routines for inmates. They were a curious mixture of progressive optimism and dour strictness, in the same symbolic way that the prison itself was both newly built and ancient looking. Prison officials would improve the minds and wills of men not just by preaching, but by regimenting their habits and environment. They would replace physical suffering with psychological manipulation to make prisoners reform. So it was control, not really conscience, they trusted. The prisoners in the old jail had more opportunity to resist authority by sulking through their dull punishment. It was that kind of roguish free­dom which the reformers wanted to demolish more than any antiquated eyesore. Henry Peffer, Secretary of the Prison’s Board of Inspectors, showed its purpose when he wrote that the new prison, “in contrast with the old jail … is infinitely more effective for securing and reforming criminals, while it will not eventually be any more expensive.” Evidently, he was thinking also of the criticism that the new prison cost too much to build – its 40 cells turned out to average $1,000 each.

John T. Wilson, a care- fully observant keeper, kept graphic notes on the char­acteristics of his prisoners in the 1840s. These remarks are evidence of still another facet of Victorian values­ – what the authorities thought was personal vice and vir­tue. Wilson wrote like Charles Dickens, the ultimate Vic­torian novelist, and his char­acterizations make the felons sound like the crafty Fagin or the brutish Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist. William John­son, incarcerated two years for larceny, was “pretty stout built,” with a “pleasant and sly look.” Henry Bell, whose offense was “maliciously cutting,” was “pleasant in talk, but a spiteful and wicked dog when crossed.” John Monroe, erving six months for assaulting and threatening, was “as worthless and lazy a scoundrel as ever breathed the breath of life.” Washing­ton Barker, a “molatta” imprisoned for larceny, was “pleasant when spoken to, wicked and bad temper, fond of rum, woman’s man, good workman.” Richard Allen, former slave and larcenist at present, was “well made and very active, good dancer, fond of liquor, bad temper and sulky.” Charles Grant was 45, “an old thief and will steal all his life, cunning as a fox, offenses without num­ber.” Jonathan Mills was a cut above the others: “very affable in manner, good edu­cation, some talent as a writer and politician, a printer by trade and dentist by pro­fession, good at both, very ingenious man.” He had been sentenced to five years for “seduction and abortion.” Jo­seph Milligan wore a “blunt nose” and a character as forceful – he had an “open countenance but cunning and deep, no fear about him, will undertake anything merely to boast of afterward” (ap­parently the explanation for his burning the Clark’s Ferry Bridge). William Long had a “full heavy black eyebrow but no front teeth, a cun­ning dutchman more knave than fool.”

Wilson’s flourishes suggest that vice might be confused with virtue rather easily among Victorians, and so they ought to warn one another about the distinction. Some bad men were easy to spot: they looked mean and had mean tempers, leading nat­urally to the use of force to gain their way. But the most dangerous men used guile. They could be decep­tively pleasant, courteous and confident. Unlike the bullies who would blurt their way through life, these scoun­drels had their emotions quite well under control so that they could connive. They had turned Victoria’s virtues against her people. They were the devils, with wiles, snares and temptations, and the keeper could never tell if these old serpents had been tamed. At least that was the way Wilson imagined it.

When Wilson looked at the female prisoners, he could not help eyeing them; their femininity, or the lack of it, was the prime feature of their identity. Mary Evans, a young larcenist from Ken­tucky, was a “worthless creature” like the men, but he noted she had “good teeth and a good countenance.” Rebecca Lewis was “cunning and quick” and bad-tempered to boot. Then he added, “When dressed up, is good looking, but will not bear examination.” Ann Reed, he found, “when spoken to, smiles, full round face,” but Louisa Thompson he accused of having a “blunt nose, big frame, and a big foot.” Catherane Strong, he guessed, would be “called by some good looking.”

If the new prison’s architec­ture, reform routines and convict descriptions reveal Victorian values, then the prison’s statistics reveal some­thing of Victorian social reality as well. During the first eight months of its operation, from April 18, 1842, to January 1, 1843, the prison held 119 men and women-“62 white males, 42 colored males, 5 white females, and 10 colored fe­males.” The first clue we detect in the numbers, then, is that race, crime, imprisonment and injustice were as con­founded in the past as they are in the present. Some of the offenders were convicted of serious crimes: murder (1), burglary (2), horse steal­ing (1), larceny (14), and assault and battery (24). Some were convicted of serious indecencies: profane swearing (2), debt (9), Sabbath break­ing (1), bastardy (4) and va­grancy (27). The first cate­gory of offenses was concrete, testifying perhaps to the rate of violence or aggression in the community, although Vic­torian crime statistics are often as suspect as Victorian crimi­nals. The “indecencies” cate­gory, however, may be re­garded as much more subtle and plastic, the rates illus­trating not violence but social change.

During the next twelve months the prison encumbered 120 persons, only one more than in the first eight months. The inspectors made a mountain of this statistical molehill. That the new prison was less busy in its second year “augers [sic] well of the influence of our mode of punishment,” they claimed, “and as far as our experi­ence has gone, we are satis­fied that the system of sepa­rate confinement combined with labor is the most perfect yet devised …. No system for humanity, so far as our knowledge extends, can claim precedence to the Pennsyl­vania system.” That parochial boast may have been aimed at a competing reform, the “Auburn System” of New York state, which separated pris­oners at night but let them eat and work together in the day.

By the end of 1855 the prison was five times as busy, al­though Harrisburg’s population had only nearly doubled since 1840 to about 11,000. Exactly 660 prisoners had been received -but about two-thirds of them were held for being either drunk (249) or vagrant (223). It would seem that the county was clamping down more seriously on indecency. An even more revealing number, however, is that 255 men from Ireland were convicted that year, which was half of all white males imprisoned. The summary records do not show what their offenses were, but it can be substantiated that many of these Irishmen immigrated to Harrisburg to escape the potato famine. It can be further assumed that they were poor, often vagrant and sometimes disor­derly. By the end of 1857 the ratios and their causes were still the same. Of the 767 imprisoned, 360 were arrested for vagrancy, 153 for drunk­enness; 348 were from Ireland. As for violence, only two mur­derers were convicted that year. The inspectors were still willing to “fully concur” in their report that the Pennsyl­vania System was the “most perfect yet devised for the pun­ishment and reformation of offenders.” They would come to such conclusions by citing anecdotes of men who had come along the strictly en­forced straight and narrow path.

In 1875 Harrisburg counted 27,000 residents and the Dauphin County Prison had 1,021-not all at once, of course, but there must have been great crowding in the 40 cells, which measured only 15 feet long, 7 1/2 feet wide and 10 feet high, just enough room for a bed and a water closet. There were 261 arrests of drunken and disorderly men that year, but only 11 were sentenced for vagrancy. Why the sharp drop? Very likely there were fewer arrests, not fewer vagrants, and the re­duction was for a reason: the existing structure was simply too small. The prison physi­cian, Dr. William Egle, re­ported to the prison board that, “The enlargement of the prison itself is absolutely de­manded, and whether this shall be done soon or not, it is of vast importance to those committed to your care, that such measures be taken as will conduce to their comfort and preservation of their health.” Ten years later, the inspectors, if not the prisoners, again seemed willing to en­dure the overcrowding by re­suming arrests for vagrancy. In 1885, of the 1,610 persons imprisoned, nearly half of them (809) were vagrants. Only one was a murderer.

But 1885 was a decidedly slow year compared to 1895. In that year, Harrisburg’s population was approaching 50,000 and the entire county’s popu­lation spiraled to nearly 114,000. The prison’s population in 1895 was 6,990, seven times more inmates processed than in 1875 when Dr. Egle urged expansion of the structure. Of the 6, 990 imprisoned, 893 were drunk and disorderly, 930 were vagrants, 1,058 were trespassers and 2,729 were “lodgers.” The last two cate­gories were new entries on the records. The population ex­plosion continued into 1896 when there were 8,452 viola­tors of public order – 1,371 for being drunk and disorderly, 1,304 for vagrancy, 931 for trespassing and 2,756 for lodg­ing. On any one day in 1896 there were about 200 persons confined in the 40 small cells. Even the inspectors admitted in their annual re­port that year that the overcrowding was “almost inhuman and entirely indefensible.”

What had happened to this “ornament” of reform, the “best conducted county prison” in the United States?

Some of the crowding can be accounted for by the in­crease in Dauphin County’s population: in 1840 there were 30,118 citizens, and by 1900 there were 114,443, nearly quad­ruple. But the prison’s in­mate population per year in­creased by about seventy times, from 120 in 1843 to 8,452 in 1896.

Clearly, the major expla­nation for the overcrowding must be found elsewhere, and it appears the likely place to look is the City of Har­risburg itself. The state capi­tal’s population had increased too, from 6,020 in 1840 to 50,167 in 1900, about eight times as many. Those figures, however, only hint at the great evolution of Harrisburg at the turn of the century. The city, in fact, had become a major transportation center by that time – it was one grand central station. In 1890 about 350 trains per day stopped in the city to receive and dis­charge passengers and freight­ – about one train every four minutes, 24 hours a day. There must have been a remarkably large transient population which was never counted by the census-takers, but which was registered, in effect, by the county prison’s clerk. This transient population must have been the source of the exponential increase in the number of vagrants, trespas­sers and “lodgers” kept at the prison.

Why did these “undesir­ables” wind up in prison?Many of the trespassers were probably men arrested by the railroad police for riding the rails. The only place to put them for a few nights would have been the county prison. Many of the vagrants prob­ably got into town – and into jail – the same way. Many of the lodgers may have arrived illegally by train, but then asked, for want of money, to be put up in the prison overnight for a little warmth and possibly a little food. The prison record books of the 1890s show that most lodgers were registered during the coldest months. if the prison was accommodating all these trespassers, vagrants and lodgers in 1896 – there were 4,991 of them tallied – that meant the keeper was checking in about fourteen men every night, on average, making the prison a fairly busy hos­telry or social service center.

The county’s charity cannot be exaggerated. Prison crowd­ing was mainly an effort at social control, for what other­wise would they do with fourteen potential troublemak­ers every day? The authori­ties in Harrisburg, like author­ities throughout late Victorian America, were wary of crime and chaos, even more wary than their grandfathers in 1842, and they had cause to be. American lawlessness, wrote criminologist Cesare Lom­broso in the late nineteenth century, “is a phenomenon with no equal in the rest of the world.” New York City was reputed to be the crime center of the world during the Gilded Age. The editor of the Charleston News and Chronicle wrote, at that time, “Murder and violence are the distin­guishing marks of our civiliza­tion.” In Chicago in 1893 there was one arrest for every eleven residents. Counting every arrest, Harrisburg’s rate would have been about one for every six residents, although most of those arrested would not have been residents! New York City’s police commis­sioner estimated – or imagined – there were 40 thousand prostitutes biting out of the Big Apple in 1890. In keeping with such wariness, the police in Harrisburg seemed to have arrested everyone they pos­sibly could: in 1896, the county prison kept the public safe from two perpetrators of crap­shooting, one fortune teller, two men who had insulted women and – bang went the gavel – somebody for “selling oleomargarine.”

Dauphin County remodeled and enlarged its prison be­tween 1899 and 1901 in response to the overcrowding. The result was architecturally com­posite but symbolically re­dundant. The exterior was faced with brick. Two floors were added in front where the keeper and his wife, the matron, lived. The two floors of 40 cells in the rear were enlarged to hold 164 cells. Turrets were added at the roof line, only a more obvious motif for guard­ing. The church-style win­dows on the first two floors were squared and doubled. The doorway, once cut in, jut­ted out like the law’s longer arm. The receding piers on its edges were Romanesque, but the arch above was a modi­fied Tudor style. The three stone belts around the building – stringcourses – were a darker color than the brick, a typical Romanesque Revival decoration repeated in the new battlement on top and in the window borders. On the entrance, the two petal­like designs, quartrefoils, were a medieval touch. The orna­mental fence in front was removed, the only subtraction from the image of security. The Victorian renovation was grand-style, collegiate-Gothic, Princeton-prison. Inside was a transformed interior; it was a great central empti­ness, surrounded by the author­ity of solid doors and bars. The light from above was natural, though it shone down on “artificial” felons.

If the spirit of the architec­ture and the practice of social control were continuous from 1842, only one thing was dis­continued by 1901 – the spirit, and the practice, of reform. The looms and wheels had been taken out of the cells long before, leaving inmates to spin their thumbs. The heavy, leather-bound ledger for de­scribing convicts’ characters had been set aside after the 1860s, a hundred pages aban­doned. The long lists of pos­sessions in another ledger had turned into a line or two for counting a convict’s money, or acknowledging the receipt and safekeeping of his pistol. The annual reports logged diseases, expenses and statis­tics at the turn of the cen­tury, but there was not a word about conscience, no anec­dotes of men redeemed and no touting of the perfect Penn­sylvania System. The senti­ments of Dorothea Dix seem to have been replaced by those of Carry Nation, hailed as the destroyer of sour mash.

For all its reconstruction, the Victorian prison, and Vic­torian America, were com- ing to an end by 1901, having discovered that their hal­lowed institutions would not be “the remedy for all the evils of society,” that their jus­tice had given them more crimes than they could pun­ish, that their victims, finally, were their own values.


For Further Reading

Barnes, Harry Elmer. Evolu­tion of Penology in Pennsyl­vania: A Study in American Social History. 1927. Reprint. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1968.

Gipson, Lawrence H. Crime and its Punishment in Provin­cial Pennsylvania. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University, 1935.

McKelvey, Blake. American Pris­ons: A Study in American Social History prior to 1915. 1936. Reprint. Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1968.


Michael Barton is an associate professor of social science and American studies at the Penn­sylvania State University’s Capi­tol Campus in Middletown. He also serves as president of the Historical Society of Dauphin County, Harrisburg, where he found much of the material for this article. Other works by the author include Goodmen: The Character of Civil War Sol­diers (1981), Life By the Mov­ing Road: An Illustrated History of Greater Harrisburg (1983) and a forthcoming book entitled Middletimes: Ameri­can Everyday Life, 1840-1876.