In 1917, 220 Irish immigrants were incarcerated for minor offenses at the Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum near Blawnox, Pennsylvania, about 10 miles east of downtown Pittsburgh.
The Irish were 4.5 percent of the 4,826 people taken to the workhouse throughout the year as the United States entered World War I. They probably emigrated from most of the 32 counties of pre-partition Ireland under British rule.
I came across these details while researching a long-deceased Irish-Catholic relation from Kerry who I thought might have spent time in the workhouse. The prisoner turned out to be a black Baptist from Ohio with the same first and last name.
Old postcard image of the Allegheny County Workhouse.
The Irish incarcerated during 1917 were third behind U.S. citizens (74.32 percent) and Austrians (7.56 percent). Strong Irish immigration to Western Pennsylvania in the 19th and early 20th century probably means the U.S. total included a significant number of first generation Irish Americans. Assuming just 10 percent of the U.S.-born prisoners had such heritage, the Irish total would increase to 14 percent of the workhouse population.
That’s more in line with the 12.32 percent of Irish natives incarcerated at the workhouse from the time it opened in 1869, according to the institution’s 1917 annual report.
Men and women who committed more serious crimes were usually sentenced to Western Penitentiary, about 15 miles west of the workhouse along the Allegheny/Ohio rivers. The original “Western Pen” opened in 1826. It was replaced in 1882 by the building now being closed after more than a century. (Allegheny County Workhouse closed in 1971.)
I’ve found only spotty historical records for Western Pen that detail prisoners’ nation of origin. Irish natives averaged 3.5 percent of those incarcerated in 1881, 1884, 1886, 1888, 1890, 1895 and 1896.
Of course, the workhouse and Western Pen statistical reports lack many details, and historical and social context, including the percentages of Irish living in the general population of Pittsburgh and surrounding counties. Other questions: What types of crimes did the Irish commit? How often was their arrest the direct or indirect result of anti-Irish or anti-Catholic prejudice? How many had been criminals in Ireland? What impacts did Irish penetration of law enforcement and the legal system have on criminal justice? How about other upward social mobility for the Irish?
One small detail is available. About 15 percent of all prisoners who entered the workhouse during its first 48 years of operation could not read or write. Among the Irish, illiteracy was nearly 18 percent over the same period. In 1917, however, only 20 native Irish were illiterate, less than 0.5 percent of all those incarcerated.
Here are more general details about the workhouse:
- In 1917, the average daily population was 843. It cost an average of 74 cents per day to confine each inmate, but earnings from their labor reduced the expense to 19 cents per prisoner per day.
- Prisoners worked on a 1,100-acre farm, which was expanded in 1917 to help feed the troops in Europe. Inmates also produced brushes, brooms, carpets, chairs, and blacksmithed goods. They provided laundry services and other hired labor.
- Of the 4,826 people incarcerated during 1917, 92 percent were men, and about 70 percent of the prison population was white. The most common occupation of the prisoners was laborer. There were 26 butchers, 27 bakers and 19 boilermakers … five soldiers, three sailors and three police.
- The most cited offense was “suspicious person” (1,317), followed by disorderly conduct (977) and vagrancy (736). A total of 602 offences were related to consuming and selling alcohol. The most frequent sentence was 30 days (2,721 prisoners,) while 27 received terms of two years or longer.
See the 1917 statistical report for the Allegheny County Workhouse, with annual updates through 1922. Here are Western Pen reports for 1881 to 1890. Workhouse prisoner names can be searched on Ancestry.com.