1848 – Dear Governor Briggs – From Iowa State Prison.

On January 25, 1839, the Iowa Territorial Legislature in Burlington passed a law establishing the creation of a Territorial prison in Lee County near Fort Madison, patterning it after the penitentiary in Auburn, New York. At the time, new incarceration methods were spreading nationwide, called the Auburn system, so instead of prisoners being held in large rooms before paying a fine or facing flogging or execution, prison life was now designed to reform prisoners with strict habits, silence and discipline while separating them into private cells at night.

With this philosophy in mind, the historic Fort Madison Iowa State Penitentiary served as Iowa’s flagship prison until its closure in 2015. With construction starting seven years before Iowa’s statehood (1846), the Fort Madison prison stood as the longest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi River, and by its completion – near the turn of the century – the prison housed a maximum of 550 inmates.

When completed (above), the high limestone walls surrounded several buildings containing four-tiered blocks of cells, flanked by a cement walkway called a range, which, according to historical records, correctional officers patrolled – often ducking thrown objects and insults. Most cells were roughly six feet wide and twelve feet long, containing a solid metal bed frame attached to the floor and walls, a sink, toilet and two metal plates attached to the wall that served as a desk and chair.

While the Iowa State Prision eventually became a stately-looking fortress (see above), our state’s first facility – according to historic records – “started out as a hole in the ground under the floor of the warden’s mansion with seven of the first eleven prisoners escaping!” And according to an 1848 letter written by the prison’s warden – T.W. Cohick – conditions were not much better ten years after its humble beginnings. Which brings us to our rare postal cover and letter from Cohick to Iowa’s first state governor – Ansel Briggs

(JP-081) Here’s a rare postal cover and letter from Warden T.W. Cohick – who was assigned to oversee the Iowa State Penitentiary in Ft. Madison. Written on November 21, 1848, and postmarked in Ft. Madison on November 22, 1848, the letter is going to His Excellency – Governor Ansel Briggs in Iowa City. Governor Briggs (below) was Iowa’s first state governor, elected in 1846, serving in Iowa City from 1846-1850. Read more here.

Cohick’s one-page letter looks to be his annual report to the Governor’s office in Iowa City. Here, we find a number of interesting facts about the Iowa State Penitentiary as it was nine years after its creation in 1839. Below, the letter’s text is in bold italics with my commentary included along the way…

Iowa Penitentiary – Nov 21, 1848

The undersigned would Respectfully Report…
During the past year we have had one Conviction, Two Pardons, one Escape, Leaving us Without a single prisoner or convict in the State Penitentiary at this time. The Fall Term of Court is about to close without a conviction.

Wow – not much incarceration business going on at the Ft. Madison State Prison in 1848. Talk about your low crime rate! Records indicate that the prison in Ft. Madison was to house offenders who were 31 years of age or older, or Iowans convicted of the most serious offenses. There is no record as to why the state founders decided that the age of 31 would be the threshold for incarceration, but we’re guessing that those who were younger were to be dealt with by the sheriff’s department at the city or county level. With only one conviction, two pardons, one escapee, and an empty state prison – compared with Iowa’s population of 175,000 at the time – wouldn’t it be great if we had such a situation today!

While it is pleasing to have this evidence of the good morals of our citizens, it is nevertheless a cause which should be enumerated as operating against the profits of the prison. Providence would dictate that (a portion of the time) the men in charge should not be less than two. The incidental expenses are the same whether the number of convicts be more or less. The same would (apply at) the same time – employed in cooking, same (candles), repairs, etc. have to be encountered as well with one as with four or more.

So, apparently, besides Cohick serving as warden, there were at least a couple of other men working at the prison in 1848, and while Cohick’s text is a bit unclear here, he’s obviously encouraging Governor Briggs to not cut the budget and keep provisions coming in for at least two to four men on staff going forward in 1849.

A portion of the roof has been blown off and other parts lowered of the main prison building. The entire roof is almost whole useless. Indeed, the entire building is in such a dilapidated condition as to render it almost impossible should we have inmates to keep them, but as the term of courts are closing, it is expected we will have no convictions until some repairs may be done.

Yowsers! It’s a good thing the prison has no customers, because right now, the main building has no roof! Sounds like the living conditions for both the state employees and any potential prisoners is not exactly the best!

Your Obedient Servant – T.W. Cohick (Lessee)
To His Exc Ansel Briggs – Gov of Iowa
The backside of our letter indicates that Governor Brigg’s received Cohick’s letter and referred it to the Commission on P.B. (Prison Business?)

As we mentioned earlier, the historic Fort Madison Iowa State Penitentiary went on to serve as Iowa’s flagship prison until its closure in 2015 – serving as the longest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi River. Today, the facility still stands – listed on the National Register of Historic Places – with local interest in making it into a museum. Yet, as Mike Kilen, reporter for The Des Moines Register states…

Only wind whips through the prison yard where the most violent of criminals at the maximum-security “fort” once did sit-ups inside chain-link exercise cages. Stone walls surround the vast emptiness, razor wire shining in the sun, and corner battlement towers are vacant of trained weapons specialists who for 178 years watched inmates below.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Iowa State Penitentiary, Wikipedia

Go inside an abandoned Iowa prison full of beauty, sadness, Mike Kilen, The Des Moines Register, March 19, 2017

Iowa History Daily: January 25 – The Fort Madison Pen, Kevin Mason, January 25, 2023

Ansel Briggs, Wikipedia

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