At least one South Philadelphia corner hasn’t always hummed with urban life. In the 1830s, 11th Street and Passyunk Avenue was home to the imposing Moyamensing Prison, now the site of Acme shopping center built 36 years ago. Traces of the old house of corrections’ wall can still be found along 11th Street, but the block’s history of dangerous inmates and grim executions has all but faded into memory since the prison’s demolition in 1967.
Then: Moyamensing Prison
Moyamensing Prison, also known as also called the Philadelphia County Prison, was built in the Gothic style between 1832 and 1836 on the lot that spans 11th Street, Reed Street, and Passyunk Avenue. It had a similar castellated appearance to Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue. The first of Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter’s commissions, Moyamensing–nicknamed “11 Street Dock,” “the jug,” and “the county hotel”–was designed to evoke fear in its prisoners and would be troublemakers. Walter understood that since the prison would be housing violent criminals the building had to have a menacing outward presence. The fortress-like structure included the separate Debtors Apartment designed in an Egyptian-Revival style similar to the Temple of Amenhotep III along the Nile River. The debtors’ quarters doors were flanked by lotus-bud columns—the ornamental moulding above was decorated with a winged Aten sun disk. By the time of its completion in 1836, the law requiring the imprisonment of debtors was repealed. The prison used the new wing as a women’s annex.
Moyamensing Prison had a number of historic guests during its 127 years in operation. Al Capone and his body guard Frank Cline were arrested by detectives James Malone and Jack Creedon on May 16, 1929 and were imprisoned at Moyamensing for 24 hours after spending their first day behind bars in a City Hall jail cell. They were then transferred to Holmesburg Prison for a few months and then sent to Eastern State Penitentiary for the rest of their sentence.
Another “one-nighter” was American author and poet Edgar Allen Poe. Living in Philadelphia at the time, it is said that Poe became so intoxicated on July 1st, 1849 while on a severe drinking binge that he began hallucinating and became suicidal. “The Tomahawk Man” was arrested for public intoxication and spent a single night at Moyamensing. When Poe went before Philadelphia mayor Charles Gilpin for his arraignment hearing he was dismissed without fines when the mayor recognized the renowned poet.
Charles Bukowski, another renowned boozehound writer, spent 17 days in the prison on suspicion of draft dodging.
In 1855, abolitionist Passmore Williamson, member of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, served nearly 100 days at Moyamensing. Williamson, accompanied by Underground Railroad conductor William Still and other free African-Americans, helped Jane Johnson and her two children escape enslavement from Col. John Wheeler while visiting Philadelphia. Johnson had accompanied Wheeler to New York and Nicaragua, where he was then appointed U.S. ambassador. Williamson’s arrest gained national headlines; he was visited by prominent abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Following his three months at Moyamensing, Williamson rejoined his colleagues at the Underground Railroad.
Moyamensing Prison gained the nation’s attention in 1896 when it put America’s first serial killer, H.H. Holmes, behind bars. An Inquirer headline in April, 1896 called Holmes, the subject of Erik Larson’s 2004 novel The Devil in the White City, “The Most Fearful and Horrible Murderer Ever Known in the Annals of Crime.” He lured dozens of people in Chicago to his specially designed torture chamber hotel, “Murder Castle,” during the 1893 World’s Fair. In the basement Holmes set up a ghastly autopsy room that was also outfitted with quicklime pits and a crematory. He tormented and murdered all of his guests and claimed the lives of an estimated 200 men and women between 1888 to 1894.
Holmes dissected some of his victims’ bodies and sold others to medical schools around the country. He was arrested in Philadelphia after a police officer entered his small office at 1316 Callowhill Street and discovered the body of Holmes’ fraudulent patent business partner Benjamin F. Pitzel, whom he murdered in an act of insurance fraud. On the day of his execution in 1896 newspapers reported that Holmes remained calm and eerily serene during his hanging, which lasted over 20 minutes. He was buried without a tombstone in a casket filled with cement at Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon.
In 1834, Pennsylvania was the first state to abolish public hangings, though this was then superseded by “private hangings” within the walls of the institution. In 1916, Moyamensing was the site of Pennsylvania’s last execution by hanging, which was then replaced with the more modern method of execution by electric chair.
By the early 20th century, the city had grown around the prison, placing it in the middle of a busy neighborhood. The facility’s 19th-century heating, plumbing and fierce, imposing architecture eventually forced the prison to retire. Moyamensing Prison was abandoned in 1963 and most of the structure was torn down in 1967.
Following the prison’s demolition the large parcel sat empty until the City elected to give the space over to commercial use. Grocery giant Acme Markets filled the lot with a new store in 1979 to replace its pitched roof sister store directly across the street where a CVS Pharmacy is now located. Pep Boys auto service took over the old Acme location at 1405 South 10th Street until 1993 when the pharmacy moved in. Following the dictates of the day (only now diminishing), the new grocery store was given suburban amenities, most profoundly a 202-space parking lot. The 53,915 square foot store was remodeled in the late 1990s and, partially, again in 2014 with new flooring and additions in the produce, deli, and bakery section, a reconfiguration of the paper goods isle and general reorganization of all non-refrigerated stock, and an overall redesign of the store’s visual branding. The self checkout machines were also removed. A new “Thank you from South Philly” welcome sign hangs inside the entrance.
The square-block where Moyamensing once stood is home to the South Philadelphia Older Adult Center as well. Also built in 1979, the 8,461 square foot recreation center is owned by the City and managed by Philadelphia Department of Parks & Recreation. A gated, landscaped green space and flower garden extends from the building’s entrance and stretches along East Passyunk Avenue and Dickinson Street. SPOA offers a host of activities and programming for South Philadelphia elderly,including group meals, counseling, educational courses, volunteer opportunities, bocce, movie screenings, and a glee club. The center receives partial funding from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging.
Although most of Moyamensing Prison has been torn down, a small part of its wall still remains behind the Acme at Reed Street. An historical marker commemorating the prison was installed in 2011 on the edge of the shopping center’s parking lot on 11th Street, and an “in memoriam” picture of the prison hangs on the wall inside the store to the left of the Butcher Department near the entrance to the public restrooms.
In 2007, the City Planning Commission proposed the addition of a porcelain enamel interpretive sign with lighting in its Urban Designs Recommendation report for Passyunk Square Village Center. Renderings of the proposed sign combines an image of Moyamensing Prison and the ACME logo added to the store’s outer wall at 11th and Reed Street as a nod to the site’s architectural history. Those plans have not been implemented.
Michael Bixler contributed reporting to this story.