Inmates at Western Penitentiary, like the prisoners in Victor Hugo's "Les Miserables," were never known by name, according to a May 4, 1863, story in The Pittsburgh Post. Each cell was numbered, "and they are known by the number on their cell."
The old state prison was built where the National Aviary now stands in Allegheny Commons. The building was a landmark in Allegheny City, now the North Side, until it was demolished in 1886. It would gain additional notoriety in August 1863 when 118 captured Confederate cavalrymen would be imprisoned there for about seven months.
Recidivism was a problem at Western Penitentiary, according to the Post story, with some inmates having "returned for the second and third time, and one man for the seventh time." The prison population in May 1863 was 230, including eight women. "About twenty five [inmates] were colored," the story said. Those incarcerated ranged in age from 16 to 70.
The story gave no names for any of the prisoners, but one of the inmates was described as the half-brother of Charlotte Jones. In 1858 Jones became the first woman executed in Allegheny County for her part in the double murder of her aunt and uncle. Her jailed half-brother most likely was Bill Jones, who was arrested and convicted in 1861 for the killing of his wife.
"The youngest female prisoner is a girl rather prepossessing, who is in for the crime of infanticide," the Post reporter wrote. "She is very penitent, and attributes her misfortune and crime to her seducer and her father. Her's is truly a case to be pitied."
The writer was more suspicious of and had less sympathy for a woman convicted of trying to poison her husband and set fire to his barn. "As a matter of course she denies her crime," the story says
Western Penitentiary was designed to be up-to-date with 19th century thinking about the goal of imprisonment. Jail time was imposed to give offenders opportunity to reflect upon and repent for their crimes in isolation. "The prisoners are engaged in their cells and never see anyone, not even the minister who addresses them on the Sabbath," the story says.
Idle hands being the devil's workshop, inmates were to keep themselves busy. "They are engaged in weaving, making shoes, trunks, &c, and each one has his task to do daily."
Those who didn't work, or didn't work hard enough, didn't eat. "If [the work] is not done, the number on his door is turned down ... and he is deprived of his food until he makes up for the lost time." A stubborn prisoner would find himself "in a dungeon, and in almost all cases this suffices to bring him to his senses."
Prisoners who exceeded their quotas through "overwork" would have extra earnings they could spend to cover the cost of gaslight used for evening reading. "A good library is connected with the institution, and they are allowed the use of books," the story says. Prisoners could correspond with the outside world once every three months. All letters -- incoming and outgoing -- would be reviewed by the warden, a former steamboat captain named John Birmingham.
Long before the Point State Park fountain became a Pittsburgh landmark, a similar, smaller attraction decorated the entrance to the penitentiary. The water in that fountain was always in motion and "in the basin of which are numbers of gold fish."
Len Barcousky: firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-772-0184. See more Civil War-linked stories in this series by searching "Barcousky" and "Eyewitness" at post-gazette.com.