The Tour Guide Chronicles

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

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