Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present Holmesburg Prison as a potential site for the 2013 Hidden City Festival. The penitentiary has a history that is in some ways even more compelling than Eastern State’s, one that is steeped in violence and moral ambiguity, encompassing medical testing, riots, race warfare and prisoner torture.
Holmesburg was built in 1896 in the Northeast neighborhood of Holmesburg to serve as Philadelphia’s county jail. It is a classic example of the penitentiary as fortress, with massive fieldstone walls and a spoke and wheel design.
By the 1920s, Holmesburg had earned a reputation for brutal conditions and hardened inmates. Prisoners were kept in solitary confinement and allowed only 20 minutes of exercise a day. A 1922 expose by the Evening Public Ledger called it “the worst prison in the United States.”
The prison next made headlines in 1938, when the “bake-oven murders” horrified Philadelphians. Guards were punishing prisoners by putting them in a small building outfitted with oversized steam radiators and turning up the heat. Inmates called it the “Klondike.” On a particularly hot August weekend, four prisoners died when the temperature inside reached almost 200 degrees. An investigation by the governor of Pennsylvania following a local police cover-up resulted in involuntary manslaughter convictions for the deputy warden and guard.
Beginning in the 1950s, Holmesburg was the site of extensive medical testing on prisoners for clients such as Dow and Johnson & Johnson. University of Pennsylvania dermatologist Albert Kligman ran a research program that started with small trials of topical ointments and creams, and eventually grew to hundreds of testing protocols several of which involved dioxins and radioactive isotopes. The CIA also found Holmesburg fertile ground, testing more than a dozen psychotropic drugs there over the course of a decade. Holmesburg ended all medical testing in 1974.
In 1973, two Black Muslims stabbed the warden and deputy warden to death. The current county jail, Curran-Fromhold Correctional Center, is named after them. Holmesburg closed in 1995, but a wing was reopened to lock up protestors arrested at the 2000 Republican National Convention.