History of the Burlington County Prison and the Historic Burlington County Prison Museum Association
The area we now call New Jersey was explored and settled by Europeans starting about 1609. By 1664, the English had taken control of the area and named it the “Province of New Jersey” after the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel. By the 1670s, English Quakers had settled in great numbers near Burlington.
While all colonial land ultimately belonged to the English King, some colonies were “proprietary” and some were “royal”. The royal colonies were governed by men appointed by the King: they ruled in accordance with his directives and answered directly to him. Proprietary colonies were governed by friends and allies of the King who were given the authority to rule as they wished. The Province of New Jersey was divided into two proprietary colonies, East Jersey and West Jersey. Burlington County, formed in 1694, was in West Jersey. Most of the men who governed the proprietary colony of West Jersey were Quakers.
In 1702, East and West Jersey were unified and New Jersey became a royal colony. In 1776, New Jersey, along with the other 12 colonies, declared its independence from England. In December of 1787, New Jersey became the third state to ratify the Constitution, thus joining the United States of America.
The seat of government of West Jersey and Burlington County was located in Burlington City throughout the colonial period and thereafter until 1795.
We are not sure if there was a jail building during the proprietary colonial period. We believe that convicts sentenced to incarceration may have been held in private homes. By the time New Jersey became a royal colony in 1702, however, it appears that a jail was located in the basement of the courthouse in Burlington City. A separate structure was built in 1767.
In 1795, the county seat was moved from Burlington City to Mt. Holly. The federal-style Court House on High Street, which is still in use today, was built immediately. The County Jail, however, initially remained in Burlington City. Criminal defendants were transported between Burlington City and Mt. Holly by horse and buggy.
In 1806, fifteen years after the county seat had been moved to Mt. Holly, the Board of Chosen Freeholders finally resolved to build a county jail there.
While today the Board consists of five freeholders, in 1806 there were 24 – two from each of the 12 towns which existed in the county at that time. The Board appointed several of their members to man committees to oversee the building of the Jail. Freeholder John Bispham was the key figure in getting the jail built. Bispham, a Quaker, was born in Mt. Holly in 1759. He and his wife Margaret (nee’ Budd) had ten children. He inherited a large tract of land in Mt. Holly but also purchased much land in the Pines. He operated a few large farms and two saw mills using timber from his land. He employed many men, who, according to John Woolman’s journals, held him in high regard. He died at age 55 in 1813, just a few years after the Jail was built.
The Freeholders selected architect Robert Mills to design the Jail. Mills, a Quaker, designed the Jail with the Quaker idea that inmates should be reformed through religious instruction, education and vocational training. He submitted his plans for the jail with an essay outlining his ideas about prison reform. The plans and the essay can be found on this website.
Mills’ plans refer to our Jail as a “prison”. Nowhere in the Freeholders’ minutes, however, is that term used. Rather, the building is referred to as a “Workhouse and Jail”. Although there is no question that the Freeholders wanted the inmates to work to produce income to defray the cost of their confinement, we don’t have much information about whether there was any significant work done by any inmates. We believe that in the days when debtors were confined, they may have worked making items such as baskets and brooms. But we imagine there were a multitude of problems with the manufacture of items by inmates. Jail personnel would have had to purchase, account for and monitor the inmates’ use of materials and tools. Many of the inmates who suffered from alcohol abuse and other physical and mental issues might not have been capable of working. Also, the County would not have wanted to manufacture items in competition with private companies whose owners and employees were taxpayers who voted.
The construction of the imposing stone structure was completed in 1811, and the first inmates were received. The outside of the building has changed very little, although the grade at the front is a foot or so higher than it once was. The massive front door and large handle are original. The interior vaulted ceilings of poured concrete, and the brick and stone construction are also much as they were when the facility was first opened. The building is painted to resemble the original whitewash. The cell doors are also original and many were fabricated in place.
In continuous use from 1811 until 1965, the Prison was, at the time it closed, the oldest continuously used jail in the country.
In the 1950s, the Freeholders proposed a plan to raze it to make way for a combination office building and modern jail.
Several historic groups quickly mobilized in opposition. They included the Burlington County Historical Society, led by Moorestown resident Delia Biddle Pugh, and the Association for the Preservation of Historic Burlington County, led by Medford attorney Jay Tomlinson.
Mrs. Pugh and Mr. Tomlinson knew that the Jail was probably the most significant prison building in the country because it was designed by Robert Mills and was the first modern prison in the country. A petition signed by 7000 county taxpayers finally garnered the Freeholders’ attention. At their May 25, 1954 meeting, Freeholder Director Edwin L. Carpenter of Jobstown told reporters that the Jail would probably be renovated for continued use as a jail, or else be used as a bomb shelter, county museum or law library.
It would be another 11 years before the Jail would actually close. Originally designed to house approximately 40 prisoners, the Burlington County Prison held over 100 inmates when it closed on November 23, 1965. On that day, the inmates were lined up and marched over to an armory building on Grant Street which had been converted into a jail. Overcrowded conditions required yet another, larger prison which was erected in 1983, and is in current use.
The Old Jail was opened as a museum in 1966. The group which had lobbied for the Jail’s preservation morphed into the Historic Burlington County Prison Museum Association (PMA). Incorporated in 1966, its first president was Jay Tomlinson.
At least 12,000 visitors came to see the Old Jail in the first year. This great interest justified the Freeholders’ initial engagement of a full-time curator. Interest levelled off by the time the curator retired in 1981, and the curator position was left unfilled.
In the 1980s, PMA members were left to solely man the museum after the curator’s retirement. By 1990, the roof was leaking, the lead-based paint on the walls was chipping off and the exhibits and signage which the PMA had installed were looking tired. In 1993, the Freeholders closed the museum until repairs could be made.
By 2001, the 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.
Today’s PMA strives to research and preserve the history of the Old Jail and to promote the site through publications, a website, an audio tour and exhibits.
Click here for detailed information about the construction of the Jail taken directly from the Minutes of the Burlington County Board of Freeholders between 1806 and 1811.
Robert Mills (1781-1855) was born in Charleston, South Carolina to a well-established Scottish family that settled there in 1770.
The famous Mount Holly detective worked at the prison from . Click here to read more about this famous detective.
Click here to learn more about the executions that took place at the jail from
Learn more about the escapes that took place at the jail.
Click here to learn more about how female prisoners were treated at the Mount Holly jail.