Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia

Working Men’s Party

Debtor’s Apartment at Moyamensing Prison

A black and white photograph of a prison building modeled after a Greek temple, in a state of severe decay after being closed for several years. A short wrought iron gate surrounds it.

Though it was never used as such, Moyamensing Prison’s Debtor’s Apartment was originally intended to hold people imprisoned for failure to pay debts. Pennsylvania outlawed debtors prisons in 1833 after years of public opposition from groups like the Working Men’s Party. (Library of Congress)

Library of Congress

One of the Working Men’s Party platforms was the elimination of debtors prisons. Debtors prisons had been in use in the United States since the colonial era, and some of the city’s most prominent members of society found themselves behind bars at Philadelphia’s Prune Street Prison, including founding father and banker Robert Morris. After the War of 1812, the debtors prison population grew immensely, mostly poor and working-class citizens who could not afford a simple debt. This photograph is of the “Debtors Apartment” at Moyamensing Prison at the intersection of Passyunk Avenue and Eleventh and Reed Streets. Construction was begun in 1832, but no debtors were imprisoned here. Through the efforts of activist organizations like the Working Men’s Party, debtors prisons were eliminated in the state in 1833, two years before Moyamensing Prison was completed. The Debtors Apartment was instead used as a women’s wing. It was closed in 1963 and demolished five years later.

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