The best vantage point for this stop is across the street. Stand in front of the CVS on the northeast corner of Market and 3rd Street and look south to 300 Market Street.
Philadelphia erected its first jail in late 1682 or early 1683 at the corner of Second and High (Market) Streets. The first jail in Philadelphia was a cage, a strong box-like room, "seven feet long by five feet wide," it appears to have been sufficient until the Sheriff was forced in 1685 to rent a house on Second Street north of High Street and prepare it for its new purpose.
The same year, plans were made for the construction of a brick prison east of Second Street in the middle of High Street. It was twenty feet long and fourteen wide; the lower story was six and a half feet high, two-thirds underground, while the upper level was seven feet high and topped by an attic. Both stories were divided into two rooms; the keeper lived in half of the house. The building was not completed until 1695 and was within a few years found inadequate. Nevertheless, it was not until 1718 that an act was passed providing for the construction of a new prison and workhouse, which was ready a few years later. This prison, built of stone, consisted of two buildings, both of similar design, the prison facing High Street at the southwest corner of Third Street and the workhouse nearby facing Third Street.
Around 1720, a stone prison and workhouse opened nearby on the corner of Third and High Streets.
The prison portion of this facility housed debtors, runaway apprentices, and untried prisoners. The workhouse held those convicted of theft, vagrancy, and disorder.
Samuel Rowland Fisher, who spent two years in the High Street prison, 1779-1781, wrote that the
prisoners were: "crowded in many of the Rooms being about 100 persons in all Men & Women, who live in a very dirty manner & some of them seem to be much abandoned to almost every vice . . . this place is such a sink of wickedness that it can scarcely be expected any tender feelings can remain long with them, so that those who are desirous of reforming the remaining part of their lives are truly much to be pitied."
Due to the significant overcrowding, a new jail was needed. Officials ordered the building of a new facility in 1773, and this "New Goal," known as the Walnut Street Jail, opened in 1776. The old stone jail closed in 1784 and was demolished the following year.
Following the demolition of the Old Stone Prison, a 3½-story building was built there for residential use in 1785 and later was expanded to 4½ stories. Several stores also occupied the space. In 1801, this included "a paper store, merchant, leather dresser, breeches maker & glover, hardware merchant, and watchmaker & jeweler." After 1916 most of the building was removed, and only the ground floor remained. In 2014 a fire struck the building which was occupied by "The Suit Corner" store. After the fire, construction work began on a new building, and two brick arches were uncovered. Jonathan Farnham, executive director of the Philadelphia Historical Commission, said they were aware of the arches before the digging began. An undated and unsigned note in the commission's file on 300 Market St. "notes that the Historical Commission was aware of the brick vaults in the basement and believed that they 'could be remains of the city jail although vaults clearly had commercial uses,'" Farnham wrote. However: "Given that the jail and workhouse were apparently stone, not brick, and the surviving vaults are brick, I would suggest that the vaults probably date to the 1785 house, or were added later when the building was apparently converted to commercial use. Vaults under sidewalks are very common features of Old City commercial buildings." Today there is a new multistory building on the site with commercial space on the ground floor and apartments up top.
--compiled by Milosz Krupinski
Sources & More Information
- Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia | Prisons and Jails
- Philadelphia Prisons of the Eighteenth Century
- The prison at 3rd & High (Market) sts. [graphic] / DC
- What was incarceration like in historical Philadelphia?
- Dig this: Suit Corner in Old City stood atop 18th century jail
- Flammable Materials Fueled Suit Corner Blaze – NBC10 Philadelphia
- End of an era at Third and Market