The Tour Guide Chronicles

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!”

About Philadelphia: A City of Firsts

Posted: July 02, 2015

This morning I was honored to represent Eastern State at the unveiling of About Philadelphia: A City of Firsts, a new exhibit in Terminal A-East at the Philadelphia Airport (PHL) as a part of the Wawa Welcome America week of festivities.


Posted: July 02, 2015

Last night I attended an "Inside-Out" class at SCI Graterford to talk to the guys about our 2016 exhibit, titled Prisons in the Age of Mass Incarceration. I wanted to get their reactions to an unconventional idea we've been developing.

I first heard about Eastern State in February, when one of my professors at University of Massachusetts, Amherst sent me a link to the website. I took one look and immediately knew that this was where I wanted to spend my summer internship. As a master’s student in the Public History program at UMass, I study modern U.S. history, particularly the built environment, mass incarceration, and social justice. Because of its fantastic architecture, preservation as a stabilized ruin, and programming related to current corrections issues, Eastern State piqued my interest in all of those areas.

Last year, Danielle Bergmann, another intern, wrote a blog about her harrowing search to uncover the origin of a soda can. If you read it, you know how disheartening it can be to have the artifact you have been coveting suddenly reveal itself to be a dusty piece of trash, and the subsequent realization that you have just wasted time researching a piece of garbage.

I started thinking about the experiences of African American guards at Eastern State after a visit to the Black Police Precinct and Courthouse Museum in Miami, Florida. While I was there, I had the opportunity to speak to Lt. Archie McKay, who worked out of the building before the police force of Miami became integrated. Lt. McKay shared many of his experiences with me, highlighting the inequalities faced by Black officers and how receiving benefits and respect was a constant, and often public, struggle.

STAMP on the Parkway

Posted: May 12, 2015

Looking for a fun way to kick off summer break? On Thursday, May 28th, STAMP (Students at Museums in Philly) is throwing a huge party and scavenger hunt for teens on the Parkway. Find clues to piece together this one-of-a-kind scavenger hunt at your favorite Philly museums, including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Barnes Foundation, Franklin Institute, Academy of Natural Sciences, and, last but not least, Eastern State Penitentiary.

Beyond Capone

Posted: March 03, 2015

Eastern State Penitentiary is preparing to unveil a new exhibit this spring, titled Beyond Capone: Prison Gangs Then and Now.

I’m familiar with the organized crime figures incarcerated at Eastern State in the 1900s: Chicago mobster Al Capone, Philadelphia bootlegger Mickey Duffy, and others. I’ve studied the stories of inmate cliques fighting in the penitentiary yard and distributing contraband alcohol and drugs.


Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times last week about a debate within the American Institute of Architects. Should the AIA censure members who design solitary-confinement cells and death chambers?

For starters, as much as I trust Kimmelman and The Times, I suspect this claim is over stated: "There is a lot of research documenting how the right kinds of design reduce violence inside prisons and even recidivism."

Exploring Prisons around the Globe

Posted: January 14, 2015

When the 2014 season of Terror Behind the Walls ended, I decided to take a big leap in my life and accomplish a long time dream of mine: travel across the world.

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.”