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.
It is not.
This story was debunked all the way back in the 1920s but keeps being shared online to this day.
The photo is real and the dog is Pep who did indeed go 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.
Pep never had a proper trial, was not officially arrested, not read his Miranda Rights, did not get presentation and was never convicted by any judge, so technically he was innocent regardless of what he may or may not have done.
But he wasn’t send there as a prisoner to begin with.
Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot and his wife were responsible for Pep being send to the prison, not for any crime he may have been committed but to improve morale, one could say he was an early sort of therapy dog.
Upon arrival the guards made him pose for a mugshot and listed him as a committed murderer.
They even give him the alias of ‘A dog’.
Probably just as a joke, or maybe as a way to get a daily food ration for him.
Although I doubt it, I couldn’t help but think of all the military animal mascots who all get official paperwork and ranks, part as tradition but also so they end up properly registered and the unit they belong to get extra food, cigarettes, etc.
Here is Pep’s official record;
The joke got a bit out of hand when the media got wind of poor old Pep’s plight.
They loved the story and went with it.
Pep even was invited to be broadcast on the radio, this newspaper clipping again mentions the crime but it seems like Pep didn’t know the right words to defend himself.
More and more people heard Pep’s story and believed it to be true.
The idea of Pep really being put in jail, cat murderer or not, caused a bit of a stir, animal lovers were getting rather angry with the governor and he started receiving lots of angry letters and even telegrams from all over the world.
The Pinchots regularly had to talk to the media to deal with these rumours and the outrage directed towards them.
The overnor’s wife, Cornelia Bryce Pinchot, quite an impressive and politically active woman in her own right, seemed truly upset and annoyed by the whole situation, not just because of being attacked for it so often but also because she really wanted to let people know Pep was a lovely dog and absolutely not criminal.
In January 1926 she responded;
According to the articles 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!
In his initial letter to the Warden, Mr. Pinchot describes Pep as a “Scotch Retriever.” but in the media he’s called a “black retriever”, “Dutch Retriever”, “Chesapeake Retriever” and”Labrador Retriever”.
But surely Mrs. Pinchot would know best… or did she?
It seems this part of the story may remain a mystery.
No matter what kind of dog Pep really was he clearly seemed to have felt right at home with his new large family of wardens and prisoners.
Pep was described as “unusually intelligent” and “exceedingly friendly and good-natured”.
The description of how Pep’s presence makes the grim lives of the inmates a little more bearable is quite touching.
The newspaper article claims that the stigma of cat murderer had been removed from Pep’s record.
In 2003 the late Dick Fulmer, former 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 writes 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.
But it is more than clear that Pep never did anybody any harm, never was a prisoner and was always meant to be a mascot.
What happened to Pep after his time in the spotlight is also a bit unclear, in 1935 the ‘The Lake Park News’ claimed that Pep was “pardoned” and adopted by a guard, but according to an 1963 article in the ‘PA State Archives’ Pep was transferred to Graterford (Eastern State’s “farm branch” about 35 miles northwest of Philadelphia) where he stayed till his death.
According to the museum website After a long life, he passed away there and was “buried…with a tender reverence in a favorite flower bed on the prison grounds.”.
Pep seems to have been a remarkable dog.
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 has been accused of damaging furniture which made him the prime candidate for being donated to the prison, but Mrs. Pinchot describes him as an angel.
- Pep was much loved by inmates and guards and as allowed to go where he wanted, he was never locked up, which I believe, but I wish we knew where he slept and if he had a little place of his own.
Pep of course got most of the attention thanks to the media loving his story and more recently because of that adorable mugshot being shared online, but he was not the only dog send to jail to improve morale.
There was Nero the St. Bernard whose “death sentence” for biting a doctor’s son was commuted to life imprisonment decades before Pep got send down, Nero’s story sounds very similar and it’s likely he too was meant to be another mascot.
And then there was Lady, Major Brierley’s beagle who in the 1950s was on occasion was taken along to work and also got a mugshot.
Correctional institutions, penitentiaries, etc. across the world have animal projects to this day.
Not only do animals, especially dogs, boost the morale of prisoners, being taught how to care for them, being given responsibility to look after them and simply experiencing the love and attention from these animals can improve an inmate and frankly any human being.
You can now buy several Pep related items in the Eastern State web-shop, on the museum website he is described as one of their most famous residents.
I can’t help wonder how Al Capone’s ghost feels about sharing that title with Pep.
- 2019 Audio tour transcript Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
- New York Times archives
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