The Tour Guide Chronicles

History is Scary Real, Too

Posted: August 23, 2016

I’m sure most everyone has heard the old saying “truth is stranger than fiction,” but is that really the case? This October, Eastern State Penitentiary is going to give you the chance to decide for yourself!

A few weeks ago, an 11th grade English teacher contacted me to obtain a copy of the photograph above that shows an inmate and a staff member at Eastern State Penitentiary drying doll clothes.

In this video you’ll learn more about why I’m excited to open up the Hospital Block - the tuberculosis cells! I have always been fascinated by the evolution of scientific thought, and those cells do a good job of showing how the penitentiary dealt with tuberculosis.

If you’re interested in learning about healthcare here at Eastern State Penitentiary, please consider donating to our Annual Appeal. Let’s open up the Hospital Block!

Brushing Up On Eastern State

Posted: March 08, 2016

Just before Pop-Up Museum opened, I spied this for the first time in our collections storage area, even though I’ve worked in there for the past seven years. Coincidently, that day also happened to be the day before I got a couple of cavities filled. Sometimes I think Eastern State is talking to me (though I’m not sure whether it’s advising or mocking me).

Toothbrush found in Eastern State Penitentiary archives

By 1907, Cellblock 3 was Eastern State’s official hospital cellblock and self-sustaining medical clinic.

In this video you see what looks like a small, rectangular hole in the wall. This feature actually dates back to the 1830s. As part of the separate system, inmates ate alone in their cells three times a day to maintain their isolation.

This is one of the very few surviving feeding holes in the penitentiary. They only survive in Cellblock 3.

At Eastern State, we don't just build an exhibit. So far, at least, we have had to build a small museum to house each new exhibit.

So, here it is...

...a converted set of machine shops...

Prisons Today exhibit development

1,400 square feet of brand new exhibit space, with freshly-pointed masonry walls, four gorgeously-restored skylights, state of the art heating and air conditioning systems, and brand new exhibit lighting.

Tribute to Dr. Melvin Heller

Posted: January 26, 2016

Dr. Melvin S. Heller was interviewed twice about his memories of working at Eastern State Penitentiary. Both times, Dr. Heller remarked on the importance of communication and humane treatment of people.

Dr. Heller, who was a psychiatrist at Eastern State Penitentiary throughout the 1960s, passed away January 12, 2016 at age 93. He will be missed and remembered. You can view his obituary at Philly.com.

This weekend marks the fourth annual weekend-long event commemorating the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King here at Eastern State Penitentiary. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “What purpose does an abandoned prison-turned-historic-site have in celebrating an individual who had never been imprisoned at, employed by, or even a visitor to Eastern State?” Or, “We observe Dr. King’s holiday elsewhere; why here?” Great questions that are totally understandable! I believe the answer of why Eastern State Penitentiary and why now, in 2016, we continue to celebrate Dr.

The annual Members' Photo Contest took place on Saturday, November 14 and Sunday, November 15. An incredible array of photos, submitted by members, were on view in the cellblocks all weekend. Visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary stopped by the display and voted for their favorite Black and White as well as Color entry. More than 400 visitors voted!

Adventures in Prototyping

Posted: November 19, 2015

One of my favorite childhood films, Adventures in Babysitting, spotlighted the fictional escapades of a suburban babysitter and the three kids in her charge in the gritty Chicagoland of 1987. They stole a Playboy magazine, surreptitiously drove into the city, got a flat tire, rescued a teen runaway from a seedy bus station, interrupted a gang fight on the subway, crashed a blues club and sang their way off the stage, and made it home before the parents did.

When I began working at Eastern State Penitentiary in 2004, we had one Excel document listing the first 2,700 inmates who entered Eastern State Penitentiary. The document, provided by a former staff member and researcher, had ten columns listing information such as name, age, occupation, race, crime, sentence, number of convictions, and whether the inmate could read and write.

The off-season of Terror Behind the Walls lasts a long, long time for us. As haunters, we thrive on the symbiotic relationship between actors and visitors, that exchange of screams and laughter. Most of us spend the whole year waiting to return to the penitentiary's historic walls, don our masks and makeup, and put on our tattered costumes. It's a way of life for most of us, and we carry that year round.

Thirteen days ago I started to interview Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey in front of a live audience at Eastern State. After 15 minutes, protesters shut down the discussion. I had only gotten to my first, softball question.

The Commissioner agreed to complete the discussion on video. I had warned him that I would be asking him hard, specific questions related to policing practices in Philadelphia and the high rate of incarceration, especially among our young men of color.

Tribute to Rabbi Martin Rubenstein

Posted: August 19, 2015

In his 2007 interview, much of which is used in the video played in The William Portner Memorial Exhibit on Jewish Life at Eastern State, Rabbi Martin Rubenstein discussed the camaraderie and trust among the Jewish inmates and the staff. He noted with pride that there was never a guard present in the synagogue during services and that the inmates enjoyed special privileges because of their good behavior.

Day in the Life of an ESP Intern

Posted: August 06, 2015

In my past two summers at Eastern State I have learned any number of things about working at a historic site, but most importantly, how to be prepared for anything when you walk into the office. Last Monday started like any other, until Erica Harman, archives manager here at ESP, escorted me to the artifacts room declaring, “We’re going to play with shanks!”