This evocative tintype depicts the Kentucky State Penitentiary’s first three cell houses at the turn of the 20th century, roughly 14 years after the prison’s construction on the banks of the Cumberland River.
Four cell house, later erected to the right of the main administration building, does not yet exist. Based on the prison’s youthful appearance, retired Kentucky Supreme Court Justice Bill Cunningham dates this scene to between 1889 and 1910. A handwritten year on the back of the image, though unverified, suggests 1900.
On April 28, 1884, an Act passed both houses of the Kentucky Legislature, providing for a branch penitentiary to be located in what is now Old Eddyville. In the decades before the penitentiary’s construction, prison life in the Commonwealth was horrific.
An 1875 study stated that 20% of the inmates in the Kentucky State Prison in Frankfort had pneumonia, and 75% had scurvy. The prison was a place of “slime covered walls, open sewage, and graveyard coughs,” where roughly 70 of 1,000 prisoners had died in 1875. Kentucky officials had really never focused on prison life prior to Governor Luke P. Blackburn’s incumbency (1879-83). Following his election, Blackburn immediately (and mercifully) convinced the legislature to authorize a new prison site.
Former Confederate States brigadier general and Eddyville native Hylan Benton Lyon served on a commission with Judge Richard H. Stanton and William Morgan Beckner to choose a location for a branch penitentiary in 1880. Lyon was a driving force behind the decision to locate the penitentiary in Eddyville, where a sloping hill overlooking the Cumberland River was selected as the new prison site.
Construction began in 1884, utilizing massive granite blocks quarried from a site down the Cumberland. A popular legend persists that Italian stonemasons were recruited to erect the original buildings, which resemble medieval castles. Lyon’s initials are inscribed over the Kentucky State Penitentiary’s front gates to this day.
This nearly-quasquicentennial image was made over two decades before Lock and Dam F’s construction by the United States Army Corps of Engineers in front of the prison. It was also, apparently, taken during a drought as the river appears to be unusually low.