People from all over the world come to visit Eastern State Penitentiary. Most are excited to get a look at Al Capone’s Cell, learn about the penitentiary’s history, and gaze at the site’s impressive architecture. What they don’t expect to see is an historic mugshot of a four-legged friend. A story that captures the hearts of almost everyone who walks through the crumbling halls is that of Pep, the so-called “cat-murdering” dog.
It might be surprising to some visitors, but it’s definitely not unusual. Numerous animals lived or worked at Eastern State throughout its history, and animals still play an important role in many prisons today. Still, Pep was by far Eastern State’s most famous resident canine.
The story of Pep the Dog dates back to 1924, almost 100 years after Eastern State opened. The prison was massively overcrowded, and the new warden, Colonel John Groome, was trying to alleviate the many issues facing the penitentiary. In an effort to increase security and efficiency, Warden Groome ordered the addition of brick guard towers, Soup Alley (the penitentiary’s communal prisoner cafeteria), and the iron gate that still stands at the front of the penitentiary today. Overcrowding also led to especially low morale among those incarcerated, and on July 29th, 1924 an unexpected remedy for this particular dilemma arrived in the warden’s mailbox.
Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot sent a letter to Warden Groome explaining that Governor Baxter of Maine had sent a dog to the Maine State Prison. Inspired, Governor Pinchot noted that he felt “fired with ambition to do the same thing” for Eastern State. Pinchot described the dog he hoped to send as “a black Scotch retriever, very well [bred]...about a year and half old, exceedingly friendly [and] good-natured.” With Warden Groome’s permission, Governor Pinchot arranged for this “rather unusually intelligent” dog to live at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Pep arrived at Eastern State on August 31, 1924: his mugshot was taken, he was given an official intake number (C-2559), and his name was entered into the prisoner ledger with an alias listed as “A Dog.” The reason given for his incarceration is “Murder” and the sentence reads “Life.” While all of this was done in jest, it quickly became part of Pep’s story. In fact, even before Pep arrived at Eastern State, word spread that Governor Pinchot planned to send one of his dogs to a prison. Pep soon earned his reputation as a “cat-murdering” dog following allegations that Governor Pinchot sent Pep to Eastern State for killing Mrs. Pinchot’s cat.
Plenty of outrage followed. Numerous newspaper articles spoke about how Pep was being unjustly treated suggesting that, “All dog lovers will protest this sentence as an outrageous miscarriage of justice.” According to Governor Pinchot and his wife, there were hundreds of protests regarding Pep’s “incarceration,” even from as far away as the Philippines. Over the following years Governor Pinchot and his wife spoke to the press multiple times to address these rumors.
Governor Pinchot promised the world that his ultimate intention was to have Pep serve as a morale boost for the dysfunctional prison. He assured the press shortly after Pep arrived that he “goes as a missionary to show what a good dog can do in the redemption” process for those incarcerated. He would go on to explain, “The reason why I sent Pep to the eastern penitentiary [sic] is...with the hope that the lot of prisoners would be lightened and their progress advanced by having a dog for company.” In 1926, Mrs. Pinchot declared that Pep “never killed a cat or anything else...It is all a slanderous and unjustified attack on his reputation.”
Pep spent two years at Eastern State before he was eventually “transferred” to SCI Graterford (Eastern State’s “farm branch” about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia) where he spent the rest of his life. By all accounts, Pep enjoyed his time at SCI Graterford. After a long life, he passed away there and was “buried...with a tender reverence in a favorite flower bed on the prison grounds.”
Pep might be the only animal to receive such press attention, but he was certainly not the only animal at Eastern State Penitentiary. Animals worked behind the walls. For decades, farm animals were used to turn the grist mill, as modes of transportation, and to serve in other preindustrial roles. Additionally, Eastern State employed dogs to patrol with the guards at night and alert the prison staff if any people were trying to escape. Other animals provided comfort as pets. By the 20th century, incarcerated men were allowed to have pet canaries and, unofficially, some even kept rats as pets. Several of Eastern State’s wardens brought their family dogs to live in their apartments in the administration building near the front gate.
Today, a variety of programs continue to bring animals into correctional institutions. One of these organizations is New Leash On Life USA, a nonprofit committed to “saving at-risk dogs and improving the lives of vulnerable people.” New Leash On Life USA provides training to incarcerated people, teaching them how to care for and socialize shelter dogs. They live and work with the dogs enhancing their adoptability and helping them find homes. At the same time, the people participating in the program attend workshops on life skills and job readiness. This often leads to opportunities for paid internships in the animal care field when participants are paroled.
Pep left an impression on the men at Eastern State and Graterford, and he continues to win the love and attention of every visitor who sees his mugshot displayed in the penitentiary. His alias as a “cat-murdering dog” certainly makes for a sensational story, but it’s the real reason for his time at Eastern State that I find most compelling. Pep, a dog sent to prison to boost morale, is just one small part of a legacy of animals in prisons throughout history. This work continues with programs like New Leash on Life USA that aim to not only boost morale, but also provide valuable skills to people in prisons today.