Kentucky Penitentiary

Located in Frankfort, Kentucky, where construction began in 1799 and finished in 1800.1

The state prison is pictured in a birds-eye map of Frankfort from 1871, held at Library of Congress.

The grounds as described by Dorothea Dix (who praised Newton Craig) in the winter of 1845-1846, are included in Sneed, p. 397ff. A picture of the grounds.

Prior to 1825, items produced by convicts in the penitentiary grew slowly, though the scope of labor increased under William Hardin, who took over the penitentiary beginning in 1819. See kramer1986, 83:

In March 1823 James I. Miles, an agent for the prison, announced in the Argus that the penitentiary store had been moved into a three-story brick house on Montgomery Street. Here the public could purchase a wide variety of goods manufactured by the convicts. Among the many articles for sale were farm implements, tools, iron rods and hooks, drawing and log chains, kitchen and fireplace utensils, bridles and other leather goods, furniture, bits and screws, and a host of other items. The same year the original building was enlarged and enclosed by a stone wall twenty-six feet high.

But dissatisfaction with Hardin’s management and the lack of sufficient individual cells led to the new plan adopted by 1825, when “Joel Scott, a Scott County millwright who operated a successful cloth manufacturing business” proposed to take over the prison as a private contractor.2


Year Event
1825 System adopted to give keeper half of profits after all expenses paid (Sneed); Joel Scott the first keeper under this scheme
1844 Destruction of workshops by fire under keeper Newton Craig
1854 February 20: Zebulon Ward appointed keeper by assembly (Sneed)
1860 Sneed publishes his history


The major goal of the history by William Sneed was to argue that the prison had departed from the original intentions of the founders by shifting from “the reformation” of the prisoners to “the effort to make the inmates a source of revenue” (preface).

Mortality and Health

A table in Sneed, p. 569 abstracts deaths under keepers since 1825. The mortality increased under Ward, based on annual reports in the same volume:

Year Deaths
1855 13
1856 19
1857 12
1858 23
1859 19

One death that occurred in 1859, a few months after Ward had left, was that of a free woman of color named Julia Miles, who died from inflammation of the stomach and bowels—“the violence of whose attack gave rise to strong suspicions of her having taken an irritant poison.”3

In 1858, there were also three inmates admitted to the prison hospital for “amputations,” which were “cases in which the convicts cut off their own hands to keep from working at the bagging loom and spinning hemp,” according to a footnote from Sneed, p. 567. There were also two amputations in 1856.

The first report of the physicians who came into the prison under the new keeper reported that the “fearful mortality which the reports show to have occurred within the last five years” was “unprecedented in the annals of prison discipline in our country, and contrasts unfavorably with the past history.”4

  1. kramer1986, 53.

  2. kramer1986, 83.

  3. See Sneed, p. 564 and 566.

  4. See Sneed, p. 565.