“Pep the Black,” some called him. He was an accused murderer, allegedly having taken the life of a member of the Gifford Pinchot’s household. Pinchot wasn’t just anyone, either — it was 1924, and he was the governor of Pennsylvania. That combination alone, even in a land where no one is above the law, is a great way to find yourself imprisoned for a very long time. And Pep was no different. He was to spend the rest of his life at Eastern State Penitentiary, a now-shuttered prison in Philadelphia, as Prisoner C2559.
Eastern State, now a historic landmark, has a rich history. At the time of its construction, it was the largest and most expensive public building in history. It was one of the first prisons to focus on separating prisoners from society and each other as a way to rehabilitate their behavior; before Eastern State, the model focused on silent, forced labor with the goal of punishing the accused instead of reforming them.
The penitentiary had some famous inmates, too — more famous than Pep, for sure. Al Capone served time there — here’s a picture of his cell (check out the lamp!) — as did Willie Sutton, the man who robbed banks because, as he is quoted as saying “that’s where the money is.” (He never actually said that, but the quote is so wonderful, most people still think he did.) But Pep isn’t as famous. In fact, it’s really not fair to compare these men to Pep at all. But not just because of his relative lack of fame. There are two much better reasons.
One, Pep was innocent.
And two, as seen in his mug shot below, Pep was a dog.
Governor Pinchot was a believer in the idea that criminals could be reformed, taking up productive lives after a stint in prison. That’s part of the reason why Eastern State’s focus was on rehabilitation (although it was set up by his predecessors), and it’s also why Pep went there, if you believe the Gov. According to the Daily Mail, Pinchot had heard stories of dogs used in prisons “as therapy to help inmates rehabilitation.” Pep, one of the governor’s dogs, had been destroying cushions on the front porch sofa, and getting him out of the house seemed like a good idea. Shipping him to Eastern State, therefore, sounded like a great idea.
Unfortunately, it sounded like an easy punchline for a local newspaper. The paper turned the story into a fictionalized tale about a dog which came into the governor’s home, and, inexplicably (other than the fact that he was a dog), attacked and killed one of the governor’s cats. As the story goes, Pinchot, enraged, “sentenced” the dog to a life in prison, banishing the cat-killer from his presence. The prison, apparently, played along. The above-shown mug shot was taken and Pep was issued a prisoner number, one which is otherwise skipped by official prison records (that is, it wasn’t issued to a real inmate).
There’s some ambiguity as to how Pep ended up at Eastern State — either as a therapy dog or as an inmate himself. Either way, he quickly became part of the prison lore — and the subject of thousands of letters to Governor Pinchot, many objecting to his incarceration.
From the Archives: Endal: He’s not in prison.
Related: This. Halloween is coming up…