The Tour Guide Chronicles

New Year’s Eve at Eastern State

Posted: December 22, 2014

Ringing in the New Year from a prison cell, like celebrating any holiday while incarcerated, is a dismal prospect. But thousands of Eastern State inmates passed innumerable holidays away from their families and friends, celebrating in modest ways, always under the watchful eyes of prison officials.

What do training a dog and riding a bike have in common?

Thanksgiving at Eastern State Penitentiary

Posted: November 25, 2014

Eastern State inmates celebrated a multitude of holidays throughout its history, including Passover, Easter, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving, and Christmas.

On Thanksgiving, prison officials afforded inmates modest privileges. From the mid to late 1800s, officials distributed apples to each inmate. Prison records show that in the 1880s, inmates received six to nine apples each. Inmates rarely ate fresh fruit in this era, so this small gift was a break from their everyday diet of meat pies, soups, stews, and “Indian mush” (cornmeal porridge).

All in the Family

Posted: November 25, 2014

I had been working as a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary for two years before I discovered that I am related to one of its former inmates. Before my grandfather passed away, the whole family went out to visit him and spend quality time together. Grandpop asked me how work was going, then casually said, “You know, my cousin was an inmate there.”

Over a chilly November 15th and 16th weekend, we displayed color and black & white photographs that members of Eastern State Penitentiary entered in the annual photo contest.

This year’s guest judge was Harris Fogel, an associate professor of photography and director/curator of two galleries at the University of the Arts. Harris has exhibited in museums and galleries across the country, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The National Museum of American Art at the Smithsonian Institution.

Election Day at Eastern State

Posted: November 04, 2014

While there is no evidence that Eastern State inmates were allowed to vote in national or local elections, they and their keepers kept tabs on electoral politics. Wardens documented political change in their prison journals. Prisoners wrote about divisive early 20th century issues like women’s suffrage and Prohibition; their pieces were published in the inmate newsletter The Umpire.

Groups of inmates even held democratic elections. In the 1910s, members of the Honor and Friendship Club—an inmate social and beneficial club—cast ballots for cellblock representatives.

Eastern State Penitentiary recently received 3,068 mug shots from an anonymous donor, which about triples our collection of mug shots!

Here is a summary of the gift:

  • 120 mug shots from 1902-1904
  • 1,000 mug shots from 1906-1908
  • 1,820 mug shots from 1910-1922
  • 128 mug shots from 1926-1928

Highlights from the collection also include:

Is Eastern State Penitentiary Haunted?

Posted: October 17, 2014

Visitors often ask me: Is Eastern State haunted? While I’ve never seen a spectral figure or felt an eerie presence, the penitentiary has one of the most haunting histories a building can have. Eastern State housed about 85,000 inmates throughout its 142-year history. More than 1,200 inmates died behind the walls—about half of them from diseases like tuberculosis. More than 50 inmates killed themselves, and over a dozen died violently at the hands of fellow inmates. As actor Steve Buscemi notes on our audio tour, the building itself is certainly “haunting,” if not haunted.

Finding Balance with Garrison Keillor

Posted: September 29, 2014

Last week I attended the national conference for the American Association of State and Local History where I presented with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania about the process of creating finding aids for small archival repositories. You can see Eastern State’s finding aid, which I spoke about, here.

I was invited to present a paper on the work we've been doing at Eastern State Penitentiary to address contemporary issues in the American criminal justice system. The conference headquarters was the Hermitage museum in Saint Petersburg.

My session was presented in, of all places, the Museum of Political History of Russia, built into a mansion once belonging to the principal ballerina of the Russian ballet. She was also Nicholas II’s mistress. I presented in her former parlor, with simultaneous translation into Russian and German.

I've seen literally dozens (hundreds) of photo shoots at Eastern State Penitentiary over the years. Everything from major movies (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) to TV shows (Rachael Ray) to still photography (Sting, for the cover of his All This Time album).

But today was a first: a high-def camera mounted on an arial drone for spectacular sunrise shots of Eastern State Penitentiary. The crew is filming for Articulate with Jim Cotter, which airs on WHYY on alternate Thursdays. Can't wait to see our beloved site from sweeping arial shots!

The Strange Case of William H. Howe

Posted: August 11, 2014

While Eastern State was an active prison during the Civil War, it held only one military prisoner, who spent time at Eastern State before his execution 150 years ago this month. This is the story of Private William H. Howe.

History Found and Lost (and then Found)

Posted: August 06, 2014

This morning I read an article about how the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology re-discovered the identity of a 6,500 year-old skeleton that has been in the collection since the 1930s. The article details how the curator knew that the skeleton was in the museum, but that no one knew where it came from or why it was important until a new digitization project unearthed the skeleton’s documentation.

Bathroom Discovery

Posted: July 31, 2014

A recent project undertaken by the collections department here at ESP was the digitization of photograph negatives that had been in storage for about two years. The negatives include images of various ESP buildings, construction projects, staff portraits, and inmate workers learning new trades in the dental and print shops. Among the 200+ photos that I scanned, a perhaps under-appreciated image caught the attention of several employees.

Sunday at work: prototyping the size and height of interpretive signage in our new Catholic Chaplain's Office exhibit. Should I base the text treatment on Lester Smith's murals themselves? The text might be a bit overwhelming, but it's really beautiful.

Catholic Chaplain's Office at Eastern State Penitentiary

Catholic Chaplain's Office at Eastern State Penitentiary