Art museum

The story of Doylestown Jail in Bucks County

A dangerous prisoner had scaled the wall and fled from Doylestown County Jail. Mary Anne heard the alert in the isolated farm where we lived just outside of town. She called me at work at The Intelligencer. “Lock the doors,” I pleaded. “I’ll be home soon, honey.”

The thrills about the lockdown were suddenly all too real. My first look at the gray Gothic monstrosity of Pine Street in the 1970s seemed straight out of a horror story. Author James Michener, who grew up in Doylestown, had the same fear. “Its forbidding appearance on the outside terrified me. It was a place I didn’t want any contact with.

Bucks County Jail in Doylestown as it once appeared with a 24 foot high perimeter wall on Pine Street, now the site of the Michener Art Museum.

This specter is long gone. The county government built a new prison outside the city in 1985 and destroyed much of the old one. In 1988, the site was transformed into the famous Michener Art Museum and a new public library. Almost forgotten was the story of the prison, widely honored in the 1800s for its experimental design. Kate Quinn, executive director of the museum, is working to shed new light on the subject.

The keeper’s house (now the administrative headquarters of the museum) remains standing, as well as the arched entrance door and parts of the surrounding wall. When the museum first opened, visitors wondered about these walls. The administrators therefore hired journalist Lois Anderson to write “The Pine Street Hotel”, a history of the prison published in 1993 and available in the museum’s gift shop.

Quinn hopes to go further. “We noticed that the prison was not on the National Historic Register. It should be, ”she told me. She believes a thesis, peer-reviewed for accuracy, would qualify the site.

Family members of Warden John Case return home to Pine Street Jail.

Family members of Warden John Case return home to Pine Street Jail.

“The Pine Street Hotel” is a good place to start. It is full of tales of the Bucks incarceration system dating back to 1684 in Crewcorne, now Morrisville. William Penn established the county court there and chaired its first judge. Nineteen years later, the county seat and jail moved to Bristol, then to Newtown, and finally to Doylestown in 1813. Sixty years later, a Doylestown newspaper declared Bucks City Prison “an infested Bastille. of rats and vermin ”. A grand jury agreed and a new prison was erected on Pine Street in 1885.

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Legend has it that the site was once a Native American settlement, later held by two freed slaves from Supreme Court Justice Jeremiah Langhorne who bequeathed the property to them in 1842. The county government eventually acquired it and hired an architect Quaker to design a prison with 40 tiny windowless cells with low doors that forced inmates to bow on entry, an act of voluntary Quaker humility. The prisoners’ light-deprived cells were intended to bring them closer to God. Built into the perimeter wall was a two-story house and a guard tower for the sheriff. A window of arms opened on the outside. “You will need to surrender your gun and rifle through the window before entering the jail,” Quinn said.

Overcrowding in century-old prison cells like this caused it to close in 1985.

Overcrowding in century-old prison cells like this caused it to close in 1985.

Two executions took place in the prison during its century of operation. In 1894, Newtown handyman Wallace Burt was hanged for the ax murders of an elderly Richboro farming couple while they slept. James Linzi perished in 1914 for killing his pregnant wife.

In 1941, Bucks hired its first full-time manager. Warren Handy was an autocrat who believed in breaking inmates to create good citizens. Everything changed with the hiring of 42-year-old John D. Case in 1962. The retired Marine Major was 6 feet 4 inches, 250 pounds, blond hair and blue eyes with an attention-grabbing wand posture.

Case, his wife and seven children moved into the prison house. He immediately set about revolutionizing prison conditions. Officers were better trained to improve the mental health of inmates. Better cooking and meals served in a cafeteria rather than in single cells have become a hallmark. Visits from spouses, children, relatives and friends were encouraged on weekends. A prison playground for children and prisoners allowed to wear their own clothes and hairstyles were other changes.

Warden John Case, who improved prison conditions during his long tenure, nicknamed it the Pine Street Hotel and created these visitor passes.

Warden John Case, who improved prison conditions during his long tenure, nicknamed it the Pine Street Hotel and created these visitor passes.

An ex-convict reflected on life in the reformed prison. “It was definitely different. Everything, inmates included. Here they were joking, laughing and talking to each other – white and black – not like in Jersey where it was very quiet, separated into groups of blacks, muslims, whites, with a lot of tension all the time. But not here. “

Case invited citizens to get involved. Business leaders, educators, various professionals and housewives quickly offered training and encouragement to the inmates inside the prison. With many other reforms in place, the warden dubbed the prison the Pine Street Hotel.

In the 1970s, the prison inevitably became overcrowded – 4 to 6 prisoners in each cell. The federal government determined it was “inhumane” and ordered improvements. This was accomplished in 1985, eight years after Arthur Wallenstein replaced Case. A new prison in Doylestown Township put an end to the remarkable history of the Pine Street Hotel and its transformation into a cradle of fine art.


The sources include information on the two African Americans who once owned the site of WWH General Davis’ “About Attleboro” prison and read at a meeting in Langhorne of the Bucks County Historic Society on April 18, 1882; “Ledger entry tells about the 1894 hanging” of Lester Trauch in The Intelligencer newspaper published in 1978, and artefacts from the prison on the 5th floor of the Mercer Museum next to the Michener on Pine Street.

Carl LaVO can be contacted at [email protected]

This article originally appeared on Bucks County Courier Times: Historic Doylestown Jail is now the Michener Art Museum

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