Unlocking History: The Untold Stories and Forgotten Art of Old Burlington County Jail

The front edifice of the Old Burlington County Jail

The Old Burlington County Jail in Mt Holly, NJ, stands as a somber reminder of the past, its haunted whispers echoing through the ages. Whether you believe in the supernatural, or not, a visit to this eerie former prison offers a chilling reminder that the past, no matter how grim, can never truly be laid to rest.

The three-story stone building stands tall and foreboding on High Street, its weathered stones echoing the cries of anguish from long-forgotten souls. The heavy wooden front door almost groans as it swings open to let you in, inviting you deeper into the old building’s sinister embrace.

Inside, time seems to have stood still, casting a haunting ambiance that lingers like a ghostly mist. The remnants of a bygone era adorn the corridors, as if the very essence of the prisoners trapped within still clings to the walls.

And that’s not even after dark. We were there for the daytime historic tour. Other visitors have described this prison museum as “a great museum with a creepy vibe.” For sure.

The old jail housed inmates in spartan conditions between 1811 and 1965. At the time it closed, it was the oldest prison in continuous use.

Touring the Old Burlington Jail

The outside of the building has changed very little. The massive front door and large handle are original. The interior vaulted ceilings of poured concrete, and the brick and stone construction are also pretty much as they were when the facility was first opened. The cell doors are also original. You’ll find other historic artifacts throughout the jail. During the tour, you’ll explore three floors: the first, second and the basement, going up and down some narrow staircases. All three floors are pretty creepy. In a few cells, you’ll encounter white statues, asking you to remember the humanity of those incarcerated there.

During the tour, you’ll hear about the more famous inmates, the escapes, the history of some of the wardens, see the remaining graffiti, go into a variety of cells and hear about the conditions in the prison over the years. It’s not an uplifting tour, but it is exceptionally interesting, and our tour guide good-naturedly shared his haunted experiences at the jail and the well-known ghost stories as well as entertained ALL our many questions.

The tour ends, naturally, outside, where a replica gallows looms over the exercise yard. Of course, executions occurred in the county before “Board of Chosen Freeholders” built the prison in 1811, but over the years, 13 of its inmates were executed. The first inmates housed at the prison were hanged in a meadow in nearby Hainesport. After that, seven were hanged in right there, in the exercise yard. The last four housed at the prison given the death sentence were electrocuted in Trenton.

The crimes for which these individuals were executed included murder, burglary, horse theft, rape, treason, home invasion and highway robbery.

When the new jail opened up adjacent to the original, the historic building nearly met its own demise. However, local citizens realized the old jail was one of the most significant prison building in the country because Robert Mills, who also designed the Washington Monument and other significant buildings, had designed it.

The Haunting of Old Burlington County Jail

Both amateur ghost hunters and various TV ghost-hunting shows have investigated the historic building. They have recorded orb photos, EVPs (electronic voice phenomena) and more. Even during the day I grabbed several screen shots of the VOX SLS ghost app seemingly indicating an entity.

People have heard moaning and rattling chains; they’ve smelled cigarette smoke and seen apparitions. During renovations in the 1990s, several workmen reported mysteriously missing tools showing up in locked cells. Sadly, it seems as if at least some of the jail’s former inmates are ensuring forever-life sentences.

The Graffiti Is a Thing

Really, the highlight of the jail tour was the graffiti. Graffiti in prisons like Old Burlington County Jail can be significant for a variety of reasons. Such graffiti often serves as a historical record, revealing the thoughts, emotions and daily experiences of inmates. Additionally, graffiti in such settings can provide sociological insights, such as the social hierarchies and cultures within prison populations.

Unlike graffiti in many other prisons, which often consists of pornography, obscene language, and violence, the graffiti in this jail contains significant examples of convict art from the 1950s and 1960s. The graffiti serves as an intimate reflection of the artists’ thoughts and emotions. This was not public art.

Now, the graffiti offers insights into the lives of the inmates, leading us to try to understand the culture and history encapsulated within the prison walls. So, you could say, the essence of the inmates still clings to the walls.

Know Before You Go

There is ample parking available on site. The jail is not accessible, as the tour goes up and down several steep staircases. Even entering the jail requires climbing a steep staircase to the front door.

Getting there: 128 High St, Mt Holly, NJ
Hours: open from Thursday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. and Sunday, noon – 4 p.m., except on holidays and the day after Thanksgiving. 
Website: The Old Jail https://www.prisonmuseum.net/

Do you find old jails fascinating? Check out these articles to read about other old jails and prisons MidAtlanticDayTrips has visited!