Pep, NOT a cat murdering prison inmate

This picture has been shared online countless time with the claim of it being a mugshot of Pep, the dog who was sentenced to life in prison for killing Pennsylvania governor’s cat, 1924.

Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog”, 1924.

It is not.
This story was debunked all the way back in the 1920s and recently on many websites.
But it keeps being shared as being genuine so I thought I’d do my bit.

The photo is real and the dog is Pep who went to jail in 1924.
However although he was registered in the books as an actual murderer, HE WAS INNOCENT!

On August the 31sth 1924 Pep was taken to Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania but not because he killed a cat or anyone else.

Image by Carol M. Highsmith

The Eastern State Penitentiary Museum claims the reason behind Pep’s ‘incarceration’ is still heavily debated but of course Pep never had a proper trial and was never accused by any judge, so technically he was innocent regardless of what happened.

Governor Gifford Pinchot and his wife send Pep to the prison and when Pep first arrived, as a joke, the guards made him pose for a mugshot and listed him as a committed murderer.
They even give him the alias of ‘A dog’.
Here is the official record;

Pep the Dog Bertillon Hand Book Entry, 1924, Eastern State Penitentiary, RG 15.52: Records of Department of Justice, Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg.

When the media heard about Pep, he got quite a bit of attention.
Pep even got to speak for himself on the radio, this newspaper clipping about that radio broadcast again shares the fake crime and poor old Pep just didn’t knew how to defend himself.

And although the murder story was just made up for a bit of a laugh, it started to lead its own life and people started thinking Pep had really killed a cat and was given life without parole.
Which caused a bit of a stir, animal lovers were getting rather angry with the governor and he started receiving lots of letters and even telegrams.

Cornelia Bryce Pinchot and Pennsylvania Gov. Gifford Pinchot

So the governor’s wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot (quite an impressive and politically active woman), went to the media to publicly state the true story of Pep on the 14th of January 1926.

So Pep was a gift to Mrs Pinchot from Governor Baxter of Maine, who told her that his experience with bringing a dog to the Maine penitentiary had done so much for the morale of the convicts.
This made Mrs Pinchot decide to do the same with Pep.

We also learn from this interview that according to Mrs. Pinchot Pep was an Irish Setter, not a Labrador!
This is quite strange as Pep is described everywhere as a black Labrador Retriever.
But surely Mrs. Pinchot would know… or did she?

In 2003 the late Dick Fulmer, social worker at Eastern State Penitentiary who did a lot of the research when the prison became a historic site, found correspondence between Governor Gifford Pinchot and Warden John Groome.
The governor talks about recently reading about the governor of Maine donating a dog to a prison and that this “has motivated me to do the same if it’s alright with you,”.
The warden replied that he’d “very much like to have a dog donated to Eastern State Penitentiary…he will be a good addition to our community…so let’s make arrangements to get him down here to Philadelphia.”

So the story is still a little vague about who gave the dog to who and how it was brought to the jail.
The governor read about the Maine prison dog and this made him want to do the same, it seems that he contacted the governor of Maine who then donated a dog to his wife, who in turn donated the dog to the prison.

Other websites have made several claims that I find curious or can not confirm.
These can of course be true, but I can’t confirm or deny that they are.
Wanted to share them anyway;

  • Pep had been a gift from a Labrador breeding nephew (why would he be described as an Irish setter?).
  • Pep has been accused of damaging furniture which made him the prime candidate for being donated to the prison.
  • Pep had been a gift to the governor (wife claims that it was a gift to her).
  • Some claim Pep was later transferred to another prison but others say he stayed at Eastern State all his life and is buried there.
  • Pep was much loved by inmates and guards and as allowed to go where he wanted, he was never locked up.

Finally; I can’t find any evidence of Pep’s story being made up by some newspaper reporters, although they of course ran with it.

The Eastern State Penitentiary museum, shop and social media still share the story of Pep being send there for allegedly killing a cat and that his real reason for being send there is something people argue about.

But according to the source closest to the story, the governor’s wife, Pep was donated to improve morale among the prisoners and he never killed anything or anybody.

You can now buy a plush Pep toy on the Eastern State website where he is described as one of their most famous residents.
Click here if you want one.

Picture(s) found online, used for (re-)educational purposes only.
I do not own the copyrights to this picture, I only share it here for educational purposes to try and make sure the real story behind it becomes known and people will stop spreading false information.

If the copyright owner objects to the sharing here, kindly contact me and I shall remove it right away.

2019 Audio tour transcript Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site

Special thanks to the Pennsylvania State Archives and Tyler Stump for finding and providing me with a copy of the original prison book entry.

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