One of the earliest accounts of Pittsburgh’s dungeon comes from Alexander Berkman, the anarchist sentenced to 22 years in prison for attempting to kill Henry Clay Frick in 1892.
While serving time at Western Penitentiary, Berkman was caught with a small knife in his pocket. He claimed the knife was planted. No matter. Guards stripped Berkman of his coat and shoes, marched him down a steep flight of steps and thrust him into a narrow basement cell with thick double doors.
The experience terrified Berkman. In his book “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,” he described the cell’s darkness as “massive” and “palpable.” It so robbed Berkman of his sense of direction that he stood motionless, afraid to budge. He wrote of a “sinister silence,” broken only by the gnawing and scurrying of rats. “The floor is cold and clammy,” Berkman wrote. “The gnawing grows louder and nearer, and I am filled with dread lest the starving rats attack my bare feet.”
Exhausted, Berkman leaned against a stone wall and slumped down. He felt the “slimy creeping” of an unknown creature on his face. Horrified, he rose and determined to pace in the tiny cell.
A guard finally arrived to deliver a slice of bread and a cup of water. Berkman expressed relief that his three-day sentence in the cell was nearing its end. The guard offered bad news: Only one day had passed. Berkman’s sense of time had vanished.
Western Penitentiary closed in 2017. With its looming stone-and-brick facade, parts of which date back 136 years, the prison stands as an ominous monument to emptiness. Convict artwork slowly fades from walls. Fallen chunks of paint, some the size of a dinner plates, litter floors in the old cell blocks.
In the bowels of the prison, the dungeon remains. During a recent tour, a few of us from the Post-Gazette walked down a down a series of steps in the prison rotunda and entered a dimly lighted basement. There we found two narrow side-by-side cells — they appear to be about four feet wide and eight feet long. Rust has eaten away the edges of the cells’ steel doors. Cracked paint, stained with filth, covers the walls. It’s been decades since prisoners experienced the cell’s deep darkness. In the mid 1950s, state investigators described the cells as “medieval” and recommended they be abolished.
In Berkman’s day, however, the dungeon was a place of punishment for those declared “refractory.” Sometimes prisoners were chained to steel rings secured to cell walls. Berkman wrote about an African-American prisoner named Lancaster chained in a dungeon cell for 10 days.
Berkman left the prison in 1905. Three years later the dungeon turned up in a story written for The Pittsburgh Press by an unnamed prisoner. He claimed authorities were punishing convicts accused of minor offenses by cramming them into the dungeon cells “like rats in a cage.” Prisoners who’d accumulated violations throughout the week were routed from bed at 5 a.m. on Sunday to begin their punishment, he wrote.
That account squared with the experience of Walter E. Nelson, who records indicate began serving time in 1905 for writing worthless checks. One day guards caught Nelson with an unlit stogie in his mouth. He expected some form of punishment but nothing severe for such a small infraction.
Then came Sunday. Guards woke Nelson in the early morning darkness and lead him to the basement, where he joined about 20 other prisoners, some as young as 17 years of age.
A deputy ordered the prisoners to remove their shoes, then packed the convicts into a dungeon cell. Crowded in darkness, the prisoners remained standing for 10 hours. “It would not have been so bad if all the prisoners had been men,” Nelson wrote in The Pittsburgh Press in February 1911. “But among the 21 offenders there were the three boys and they were forced to listen to language that would have made the devil himself blush.”
In 1936, the dungeon — known also as the “hole” — came to the attention of Pennsylvania State Troopers conducting a fire inspection of the prison. “Take a good picture of the ‘hole,’” one prisoner called out to the troopers. “They’ve been cleaning it out for a week.”
Another convict shouted, “I spent 46 days down there without food.”
“He’s a liar,” said warden Stanley Ashe.
After a January 1953 prison riot, state investigators looking into prisoner complaints took notice of the dungeon, a place “only hardened lawbreakers talked about among themselves,” the Press reported. The heat there was “virtually intolerable at times and the stench was terrible,” the inspectors wrote. “These medieval dungeons can only produce harm and … their very existence stands as an indictment against the prison administration.”
The infamous dungeon was then replaced by a block of 10 solitary confinement cells that differed little from normal cells.
Cells in the “hole” turned up in the news again in December 1973, after prison guard Capt. Walter Peterson was beaten to death by three inmates in a basement recreation area reserved for prisoners considered dangerous. One of those inmates was the notorious Stanley Hoss, serving a life sentence for killing a Verona police officer. Hoss had also admitted to murdering a mother and her two-year-old daughter.
In the immediate aftermath of Peterson’s murder, Warden Gilbert Walters ordered all inmates locked in their cells — “inmates considered dangerous will be placed in the basement seclusion area, once known as the dungeon,” the PG reported. Stays there might last hours or days, Walters said.
Authorities transferred Hoss out of Western Penitentiary. In 1978, he hung himself in a cell at the State Correctional Institute at Graterford, near Philadelphia.
— Steve Mellon