The prison's cornerstone was laid April 2, 1832, and it was finished in 1835. For nearly 140 years the Moyamensing, or New County, Prison dominated 1400 South 10th Street, at the southwest intersection with Passyunk Avenue and Reed Streets in South Philadelphia. It included a particularly fine Egyptian Revival wing. It was built to house 400 inmates, with a separate attached wing that would serve as a debtor’s prison. The Debtors’ Apartment was built in this style in imitation of the Temple of Amenophis III, on the Isle d’Elephantine on the Nile. But the Debtors’ Apartment never served as such, as changes in law ended the imprisonment of debtors and the wing was combined with the main prison in 1868 and used to house women prisoners.
Other than the Debtors’ Apartment, most of prison was built in a castellated Gothic style with towers and battlements. Its designer was Philadelphia architect Thomas Ustick Walter, who later designed the dome of the United States Capitol, and the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives wings of the Capitol as they exist today.
On July 1, 1849, when Edgar Allan Poe was in Philadelphia, he drank, became drunk and hallucinatory, and made a suicide attempt. He was detained for public drunkenness and incarcerated for one night in Moyamensing Prison. No records exist which support this story other than Poe's own account of it.
While imprisoned here in 1855, abolitionist Passmore Williamson became a focus of the press, as northern publications spread his story throughout the country. Friends comfortably furnished his cell, and he received letters and several hundred visitors including both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
On May 7, 1896, serial murderer H. H. Holmes was hanged at the prison. Holmes' neck did not snap immediately; he instead died slowly, twitching over ten minutes before being pronounced dead 15 minutes after the trap was sprung.