Five Fascinating Facts About Philadelphia’s Moyamensing Prison

Collection of the National Law Enforcement Museum 2013.29.159

The Museum’s recently-acquired collection of more than 200 historic law enforcement photographs contains a small number of ca. 1880 stereoview cards (also known as stereoscopic photographs or stereographs). One stereoview image features a unique view of the the Moyamensing Prison in Philadelphia. This prison, described as being “built for the ages” in an 1839 history of Philadelphia, opened in 1835 and was demolished in 1968. A little research revealed several “arresting” facts about the prison.

  1. The architect of the U.S. Capitol Building, Thomas Ustick Walter, also designed the Moyamensing Prison. Walter, who designed the wings and dome of the Capitol and created its modern, iconic appearance, served as the fourth Architect of the Capitol. He began his architectural career with the design of Moyamensing, a combination of Gothic and Egyptian Revival styles. Considered a humane design for its time, the prison was constructed over three years, from 1832-35.
  2. Edgar Allen Poe was once imprisoned there…  Apparently, Poe became drunk and suicidal one night in 1849. He was arrested for public drunkenness, slept it off in prison, and was released the next day.
  3. …and so was Al Capone (but for only one night).  On May 16, 1929, Capone and his body guard Frank Cline were arrested in Philadelphia by Detectives James “Shooey” Malone and Jack Creedon. They both spent at least one night in several penal institutions in the area, including Moyamensing.  Later Capone was transferred to Eastern State Penitentiary and was released several months later.
  4. Moyamensing was the site of Pennsylvania’s last execution by hanging in 1916. In 1834, Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish public hangings, which had become notorious public spectacles. Each county thereafter carried out “private hangings” within the walls of the institution until hangings were replaced with electric chair executions.
  5. America’s first known serial killer, H.H. Holmes, was hanged at Moyamensing. Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. H. H. Holmes, was one of the earliest-known serial killers in the United States. A swindler and scam artist, he became notorious for his killings, when, during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, he lured victims to his infamous “murder castle” by offering his large home as a hotel. His killing spree horrified and fascinated the public, and he was hanged for his crimes in May 1896 at Moyamensing.