The Tour Guide Chronicles

As part of the development team at Eastern State, I spend a lot of time focusing on our Annual Appeal. This year we are raising money to save ten endangered artifacts in the penitentiary’s collection. We are halfway to our fundraising goal of $60,000. Now that we’ve reached this midpoint, I asked our staff members to tell me about their favorites items on our endangered artifacts list.

“The mugshots! It’s so intriguing looking into the faces of people who were here and imagining what their lives were like.”

Make Tinsel Art at ESP

Posted: July 14, 2014

I am especially excited about Eastern State’s 2014 focus on collections conservation since I once studied and worked in art conservation.

Exciting history-mystery news! Today I was able to link two men featured in my book to Eastern State. They were members of the Bailey Brothers bootlegging gang, though their sentences to ESP were assault-related.

Eastern Meets West

Posted: June 16, 2014

Last week I found myself in San Francisco on a ferry heading toward Alcatraz National Park. The island has a surprisingly varied and potentially overwhelming history covering more than 200 years. Lucky for me, former Eastern State Tour Guide Matt Murphy is now a National Park Service Ranger at Alcatraz and was ready to help me understand the complicated site.

Erica at Alcatraz

Orange Is The New Black: The Prequel

Posted: June 11, 2014

Like hordes of other American pop culture consumers, I’m watching—and loving—the Netflix series Orange Is the New Black. The show, set at a minimum security women’s prison, explores the daily struggles of a diverse cast of female inmates, as well as their keepers. It’s a thoughtful and very funny look at those who have broken the law and those tasked with enforcing the law.

Organized Crime at Eastern State

Posted: May 06, 2014

A new book that I co-authored, Philadelphia Organized Crime in the 1920s and 1930s, is being published by Arcadia on June 2. This book is the first pictorial history of Prohibition-era organized crime in Philadelphia.

When I started writing this book, I had little evidence that organized crime figures were imprisoned at Eastern State. The penitentiary’s historic record, as it related to bootleggers, street corner gangsters, and big name mobsters, was as yet unexplored.

The Veil Must Be Lifted…

Posted: April 23, 2014

There’s nothing better than a juicy scandal. Starting in May, Eastern State will debut a new Hands-On History, very simply titled, “Scandal.” This short interactive experience invites visitors to review evidence from a real prison investigation and decide the fate of the penitentiary’s first warden, Samuel Wood.

Leo Callahan, Musical Muse

Posted: April 22, 2014

Museums are meant to inspire: the word museum comes from a Greek word meaning “seat of the Muses,” goddesses responsible for knowledge and the arts. That’s why the staff at Eastern State is always happy to see (and hear!) works that stem from a visit here.

Recently, one of Eastern State’s members made me aware of a local band that wrote a song based on one of Eastern’s most famous inmates, Leo Callahan (a.k.a. James Malone). Callahan’s claim to fame is that he was the only inmate to have escaped from Eastern and never be recaptured.

When I first began working at ESP nearly 14 years ago, one of my first tasks was coordinating group visits. As I began learning about the tour operators and group tour leaders that often booked tours, one name stood out – “Tony Wolf.” Back then, the tour program was still relatively young, but Tony Wolf was already an institution at Eastern State.

Making of the Pop-Up Museum

Posted: April 10, 2014

It’s springtime, flowers are popping up throughout the city, and Eastern State’s Pop-Up Museum will again be open to the public! For 11 days, the staff conference room, converted into an exhibit space, will showcase artifacts that the historic site has collected and preserved. And, like the flowers, Pop-Up Museum required weeks of unseen effort to reach its final form.

How do you communicate massive trends in a simple, striking way? In this case, you make the illustration itself massive.

Love Behind the Walls

Posted: February 14, 2014

Prison isn’t usually a place one thinks of as inspiring deep love or epic romance. It’s a place of confinement and control, where power dynamics shape every aspect of one’s experience. Even so, we know that some inmates and administrators experienced deep bonds of affection while at Eastern State.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day, here are some of their stories.

There are many ways to honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy next weekend in Philadelphia. The roundup for this year’s activities include attending a free performance by The Philadelphia Orchestra, viewing murals painted by city students, and listening to readings of Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” here at Eastern State.

Tribute to Hanley Rubinsohn

Posted: January 09, 2014

Just a few days after Irwin Schmuckler passed away, Eastern State lost another “alumn” and friend, Hanley Rubinsohn. Hanley’s first experience with Eastern State was as a child visiting the penitentiary with his father, who was a surgeon here. In the video, he recalls being present for a conversation his father had with Eastern’s most notorious inmate, Al Capone.

Let It Snow!

Posted: January 03, 2014

One of my favorite times of a year at Eastern State is the the season in which this hauntingly beautiful structure is covered in white. I don’t know about you, but when I walk the corridors and cellblocks of Eastern State, I feel at peace. Maybe it’s the beauty of those barrel vaulted ceilings or the shimmering of the locally quarried, glimmering Wissahickon schist that shines through those massive and intimidating stone walls. Now add the winter season to the mix- the cellblocks are a bit darker, much colder, and the atmosphere is stark but stunning.