Home Features Recalling the bake-oven deaths at Holmesburg Prison

Recalling the bake-oven deaths at Holmesburg Prison

Allen Hornblum

Allen Hornblum last week took folks gathered at Holmesburg Library back in time to the summer of 1938.

Holmesburg Prison was overcrowded, with about 1,500 inmates, and August of that year brought a heatwave. The prison cells had poor circulation, making the heat worse. Many of the inmates protested by going on a hunger strike.

The strike made news outside the prison walls, but the protest seemed to be collapsing. Nonetheless, to punish the ringleaders of the effort, they were placed in the Klondike. The building on the prison grounds featured small, 6- by 9-foot cells, and was used regularly as a punishment block.

This time, the punishment was severe. The skylight and windows were closed. The water was turned off. The heat was turned up.

The outcome? Four men died.

“The inmates were cooked alive,” Hornblum said.

Hornblum wrote about the ugly episode, which made worldwide news, in a nonfiction novel, The Klondike Bake-Oven Deaths. He said the victims looked like “aliens from space.”

A Philadelphia Record newspaper headline screamed, 4 convicts roasted to death; 21 others nearly lost lives. Gov. George Earle visited the scene.

During his Sept. 21 talk at the library, Hornblum called the case “gruesome” and “outrageous,” arguing it would make an intriguing movie.

A blue-ribbon inquest, with the jury headed by Gilbert Spruance, was held in a City Hall courtroom, with survivors testifying that guards did little other than bring the Klondike inmates bread and water.

“The guards would just laugh at them,” Hornblum said.

The guards and wardens blamed each other.

In a 1939 trial, a warden and a guard were found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to 1 to 3 years in prison. The victims did not receive any financial compensation.

Hornblum, who once taught in the Philadelphia Prison System and served on its Board of Trustees, said the prison deaths did not remain in the news for long, as focus turned to World War II, and today most Philadelphians don’t know about what happened in the summer of 1938 at Holmesburg Prison. ••

Order The Klondike Bake-Oven Deaths at amazon.com or bookstores. To schedule Hornblum for a talk, call 215-331-0537 or email ahornblum@comcast.net. ••

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