Foulke, William Parker, 1816-1865.

Birth 1816
Death 1865

Biographical notes:

William Parker Foulke was a Philadelphia lawyer and philanthropist. A man of many interests, Foulke was concerned with prison reform and prison architecture, the archaeology and geology of Pennsylvania, the colonization of West Africa for settlement of ex-slaves, and arctic exploration. He was also a firm supporter and member of numerous professional and cultural organizations in Philadelphia.

From the description of Papers, ca. 1840-1865. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122616161

William Parker Foulke was a product of the distinctive culture of reform in antebellum Philadelphia, a scion of the old elite putting a conservative stamp on social change. A descendant of Welsh Quakers who had emigrated in 1698, Foulke was a tireless worker in the cause of the colonization of freedmen and in prison reform, though his philanthropic interests and financial largesse were as varied as his financial commitments.

Describing himself as a Federalist in politics even years after the failure of that party, Foulke was possessed of a rambling and incisive intellect and a strong sense of social obligation for the high standing he had inherited. He indulged an appetite for natural science, mental and moral philosophy, and literature during the 1830s, passing through a period of deep religious skepticism before emerging as a diffuse, non- (or anti-) sectarian believer. It was out of this spiritual sense of the community of man and nature that Foulke developed a distinctive social philosophy that may first have appeared in lectures he delivered at the Frankford Lyceum in 1843.

Having studied for the law under John B. Wallace and John Morin Scott, Foulke was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar in 1841, though the law could hardly be said to be his life's work. At age 29, he began an association with the two reforms that would occupy so much time and energy in his short life. Sensitized to the problems of incarceration through his legal training, Foulke joined the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries in Public Prisons in July, 1845, the first of many prison reform organizations that would attract his support. Following in the tradition of his Quaker forebears, Foulke was an assiduous student of the penitentiary and the cognate issues of instilling discipline, repentance, and social order. Directing his attention first to the nearby Eastern State Penitentiary, he was rapidly drawn into the controversy between the Pennsylvania System, in which prisoners were isolated in silent confinement, and alternate models said to be less harsh.

Foulke spent several years comparing alternative disciplinary models and writing on correctional issues in the Journal on Prison Discipline and Philanthropy and in separate pamphlets. Following a tour of mid-Atlantic correctional institutions in 1847 and 1848, Foulke was instrumental in erecting the new Lancaster County Prison, and contributed materially to later penitentiaries in several other counties in Pennsylvania. In his broad view of penal discipline he considered issues ranging from relief of the suffering to prison architecture, and he became a noted supporter of "cellular isolation" and hard labor. He was associated with the American Association for Improvement of Prison Discipline, the Convention of State Prison Wardens (becoming Corresponding Secretary in 1861), and was in regular contact with prisons and prison associations in New York, Massachusetts, and Maryland.

In October, 1845, Foulke threw his support to a second major reform, the Pennsylvania Colonization Society. An antislavery organization that resettled as many as 1,000 freed slaves per year in West Africa, the Colonization Society fell out of favor with the more radical abolitionists during the mid-1840s and was roundly opposed as well by most pro-slavery advocates. Foulke, however, committed himself to the project of resettlement, never wavering in support until the time of his death in 1865, at which time he was the Society's Vice President. His cherished scheme of locating a more healthful home for the transplanted freemen than Liberia died for lack of congressional support and from opposition in both pro-slavery and anti-slavery circles.

Among his numerous other social commitments, Foulke was a prominent financial supporter of arctic exploration at a time when it first gripped the public consciousness in the United States, assisting both Isaac Israel Hayes (1860). He was a major benefactor of Philadelphia cultural institutions, particularly the American Academy of Music, and was a member of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, and, like his grandfather John Foulke (1757-1796), the American Philosophical Society. He was, as well, an avid natural historian and geologist, active in support of the Pennsylvania Geological Survey. Perhaps his most visibly lasting achievement may have been his discovery in 1858 of a dinosaur skeleton in a marl pit in Haddonfield, N.J. Hadrosaurus foulkei, the first dinosaur discovered in America, was named after Foulke by Joseph Leidy.

In 1855, Foulke married Julia DeVeaux Powel (d. 1884), daughter of Col. John Hare Powel, with who he had seven children. He died at his residence on Pine Street on June 18, 1865.

From the guide to the William Parker Foulke Papers, 1840-1865, 1840-1865, (American Philosophical Society)


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  • Philadelphia History
  • Prison reformers--Pennsylvania
  • Literature, Arts, and Culture
  • Prisoners
  • Lyceums--Pennsylvania--Philadelphia
  • American Academy of Music (Philadelphia, Pa.)
  • Freemasons--Pennsylvania
  • Prisons--Construction
  • Geology
  • Pennsylvania History
  • Prisons--New York (State)
  • Haviland, John, 1792-1852
  • Slavery--United States
  • Law
  • Arctic regions--Discovery and exploration
  • Archaeology--Pennsylvania
  • Hayes, I. I. (Isaac Israel), 1832-1881
  • Colonization, repatriation
  • Pennsylvania--Description and travel--19th century
  • Dinosaurs--New Jersey
  • Reformers--Pennsylvania
  • Wilson, John Wall
  • Prisons--Statistics
  • Lancaster (Penn.) County Prison
  • Advance (Brig)
  • Mesmerism
  • Native America
  • Kane, Elisha Kent, 1820-1857
  • Prisons--Societies, etc
  • Antislavery movements--Pennsylvania
  • Abolition, emancipation, freedom
  • Geology--Pennsylvania
  • Philadelphia Society For Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons
  • Science and technology
  • Africa, West--Description and travel
  • New York Prison Association
  • Eastern State Penitentiary (Philadelphia, Pa.)
  • Prisons--Design and construction
  • American Colonization Society
  • Social conditions, social advocacy, social reform
  • Philadelphia--History--19th century
  • Prisons--Pennsylvania


  • Prison reformers


  • Pennsylvania (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Philadelphia (Pa.) (as recorded)
  • Arctic regions (as recorded)
  • Africa (as recorded)
  • Africa, West (as recorded)