Usually I tell people that my favorite part about working at Eastern State is that almost every day something surprising happens or we learn something new about this fascinating building. I’ve been working here eight years, and the many facets of the building, as well as the people who work and visit here, never fail to delight me.
Today’s event, however, surpassed all the others so far.
Our intern Candace and I are working on surveying some cells in non-public areas. We’re hoping to complete an ongoing study of the furniture and fixtures in the building in the next few months. The survey will help us determine which samples should be saved for long-term reference and preservation, and which samples should remain on the site for our visitors to see and enjoy.
Candace and I take a picture of each cell and mark down the number of beds, toilets, light fixtures, outlets, nightstands, footstools, or tables that are inside. When we can safely go inside the cells, we make a rough estimate of the furniture’s condition and make sure nothing is stashed inside drawers or footlockers. I’ve never found anything, but some other employees have found scraps of paper, magazines, and chessboards painted inside the drawers.
Today I came across one small table that was wedged in the corner of a cell. I examined the sides to try to determine whether it had a drawer. I couldn’t tell by sight, and I didn’t want to disturb the artifact more than necessary, so I reached underneath. I hadn’t really expected that particular piece to reveal anything special, so I was shocked when I felt something wiggle and heard a slight scrape. I was even more amazed when an object dropped right into my palm. As I pulled my hand from under the table, I found that what had landed in my hand was a shank that had been wedged under the corner of the tabletop for the last forty years!
I have accepted many items into the historic site’s collection, and I cherish them all for the unique perspective that they give to the history of this building. And I am thoroughly grateful to the donors who trust our organization with their precious mementos of the building as an active prison. However, the thrill of uncovering an item on my own was entirely new and totally exhilarating.
Although it is not possible for our visitors to engage in any archaeology on the site, I hope that each one gets to experience that sense of unexpected revelation when they walk through the gates. Because there is always discovery in this mysterious and surprising place, even a typical visit should be extraordinary.
Senior Specialist, Collections and Administration