Lock-up a sobering bit of tourism

Written by Diana Nelson Jones on .



Among the best advice anyone could give anyone is to avoid all situations that could land you in jail.

The thought of being in a place with almost no option for a change of scene and a loss of some dignity are great reasons to avoid hospitals and airports, but losing control of all physical choices and all your dignity is another dimension of purgatory, if not hell.

Still, I have been curious to see the old Allegheny County Jail. Each time I walk by the Bridge of Sighs on Ross Street, I think of the movie “Mrs. Soffel,” which was shot here in the 1980s featuring Diane Keaton as the wife of the jail warden who, in real life, helped Ed and Jack Biddle escape the jail on a cold January night in 1902. They had been sentenced to hang for the murders of a grocer on Mount Washington and a detective.

When a new jail was built along the Mon River, the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation campaigned for a jail museum in a portion of the old jail, and Landmarks provides a docent to give the occasional tour, free to the public. I went along on a tour today.

There were 10 of us, including four children. The tour is limited to a small portion of the former jail and our docent, Bob Loos, didn‘‍t know which cell held the Biddle brothers, but just to see the row of cells in the area that was known as the hanging courtyard feeds the imagination.

In five-by-eight foot cells, there was room for one single cot, a stool and a bucket. Of course I assumed that each cell was big enough for one poor soul but Mr. Loos said, “Oh noooo, there could be seven men in one cell.”

Seven people in the space of a broom closet. If you were awaiting the gallows, you could sooner die of claustrophobia.

In the late 1800s, the jail was five floors with 300 cells. By the time is closed in 1995, there were 620 cells. Back when life was a tough row even for free people, prisoners got one hot meal a day. Those who were there for summary convictions got bread and water every day and, twice a week, a bowl of soup.

The Jail Museum includes a lot of information about the early reform of how children were dealt with by the system which, presumably, is more humane today. I was more interested in thinking about being a prisoner. The bucket was your toilet. The stool was for sitting in case you got bored with sitting on your cot. There was nothing else and nothing to do.

In 1892, the menu was as follows: Monday- meat and potatoes; Tuesday- meat and cabbage; Wednesday- vegetable soup; Thursday- meat hash; Friday- beans and hominy; Saturday- pea soup stew and Sunday- tea. On apparently regular occasions, the warden would admit women to come in and torment the prisoners, if not by their mere presence then by preaching morals and reading from the Bible. 

Superficially, there is something strangely attractive about the configuration of black iron cell doors at intervals in white brick walls along the courtyard. The larger part of the old jail, though is several floors of stacked cages and catwalks, industrial-style confinement that’‍s horrific in its implied efficiency.

The last hanging was in 1911. The lucky fellow had killed his wife with a baseball bat.

The Landmarks foundation‘ offers more than jail tours. You can find out more about the range of its projects and programs here.


Photo of Bob Loos giving a tour, with some young tourists testing out the feeling of being behind bars.


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