The Tour Guide Chronicles

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

One historic site's trash...

Posted: July 26, 2014

Part of the novelty of working at a site like Eastern State is that you never quite know what you might end up having to do on any given day. One of my more interesting, and occasionally amusing, tasks is answering questions about "artifacts" found on site. Because ESP was abandoned and empty for so many years, objects found on site fall into two categories: historical artifacts from the building's history as a working prison and trash left here in the years it sat abandoned.

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.