Sunday, March 09, 2008
The Burlington County Prison Museum
This Saturday the EC-5 (or rather my family – Mother Hen, Chicks 1.0, 2.0 & 3.0 and yours truly) visited the Burlington County Prison Museum. We’ve wanted to make the trip for quite some time now and today, since due to the rain bayside geocaching was out of the question, provided just the right backdrop to our break INTO the prison.
And what a prison it is. There are bars, cellblocks (which as the brochure says, “…were to house separate groups, e.g. habitual criminals, first offenders, and women.”), bleak halls and gallows (which were built and rebuilt as the need arose but now rebuilt - stand where their predecessors once did). It was a trip worth taking; a trip that you won’t forget. A stroll through the prison’s halls is a walk through history. Contained within those walls are thousands of stories and one gets the sensation that if walls could talk that one wouldn’t want them to ramble on too long about life imprisoned there in Mount Holly. If one were to let ones imagination wander it would not be hard to make the case for a place on this earth that would be downright spooky. I’m skeptical when it comes to ghosts but if they were to exist, the Burlington County Prison Museum would be where you would look to find them.
Perhaps the most haunting thing is the graffiti that has been left on the walls. The staff has sanitized it for the consumption of school kids and grandmothers but it is still there; and there is a lingering hopelessness to seeing graphic evidence of grids penciled to a wall with months and dates of internment scrawled upon them.
Other things that caught my attention were the size of the barred windows. The debtor’s cells have the best view with the largest windows. The maximum is smaller and the one in the “dungeon” (or rather those who were chained to the floor awaiting their time to swing from the gallows) – pretty small. A part of me rejoiced that Robert Mills, the project architect, designed the prison so that even the hardest internee was given the chance at seeing sunlight, no matter how small it may have been. The vast majority of the people incarcerated in Mount Holly were justifiably there – still the designer’s of the prison (Mills from 1810-1811) made sunlight an option for those who may or may not have deserved it. That’s pretty progressive. There are arches all over the place to facilitate the flow of air and to placate the needs of a prisoner population and their overseers. The front door must have been intentionally designed to be foreboding – wait until you see the lock (bonus points if you can post the year inscribed above the handle), wait until you see the key.
You’ve really got to see it to appreciate it. We spoke with the man working behind the counter. He was very knowledgeable about the prison and it’s strange secrets. There have been escapes, murders, overcrowding and justice has been dispensed all within the walls of the Burlington County Prison in Mount Holly. Go see for yourself, you won’t be disappointed. It’s $4.00 for adults, $2.00 for students & seniors and kids under 5 are free. Here’s their website: http://www.co.burlington.nj.us/departments/resource_conservation/parks/sites/museum/info/.
Can a trip across the river to Eastern State Penitentiary be that far off? Only time will tell, Gentle Reader; only time will tell. For now a trip to the Burlington County Prison Museum is just too cool and too close not to visit. You won’t be disappointed.