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New Year's at Eastern State

For most people, December 31 is a day spent with loved ones counting down the last minutes of another year – reminiscing about days past and sharing wishes for the months ahead. Ringing in the New Year from a prison cell, like celebrating any holiday while incarcerated, is a dismal prospect. But thousands of Eastern State prisoners passed innumerable holidays away from their families and friends, celebrating in modest ways, always under the watchful eyes of prison officials.

It is unlikely that people incarcerated at Eastern State were encouraged to celebrate the New Year in the prison’s early era. After all, they were to obey a strict code of silence and solitude, a far cry from the rambunctious, noisy celebrations we often associate with New Year’s Eve now. Prison officials marked holidays with special dispensations of food, but inmates in the separate system had no say in their holiday festivities. Boisterous activity on the part of inmates, in any era in the prison’s history, was quickly curtailed.

In the late 1800s, Eastern State officials granted prisoners a brief window to celebrate the New Year. On New Year’s Eve in 1899, Warden Daniel Bussinger noted that the 1800s had officially given way to the 1900s, which called for a special celebration:

“Previous to last year it had been customary to allow a slight demonstration in passing from the old to the New Year. Last year Warden Cassidy requested that no demonstration be made which was adhered to by the inmates. I have felt inclined to adhere to Mr. Cassidy’s order, but as it is the closing of the century as well as the year have concluded to allow a five minute demonstration, that at the sound of the bell from the Centre all noise should cease.”

Bussinger conjures a strange image of prisoners, isolated in their small cells, whooping it up—alone but together, separated but unified.

Warden's Daily Journal Entry by Warden Michael Cassidy

Though kept apart from the male population, Eastern State’s female prisoners were treated to brief moments of merriment as well. Warden Charles Church wrote on New Year’s Day in 1906 that “The day matron gave all the women in the 2nd Block a concert for one hour from 3:30 to 4:30 p.m. with a phonograph in the sewing room.”

We don’t know what record the women listened to, but we do know that music played a big role in making holidays festive. In 1908, a prisoner gave a solo mandolin concert in the center surveillance hub on Christmas. Throughout the congregate era (post-1913), the inmate orchestra and band played a celebratory concert on New Year’s Day. Outside groups came and sang Christmas carols around the holidays, too.

In the mid-1900s, New Year’s traditions included special TV programs. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the institution’s TVs were turned on so that the prisoners could watch the Rose Bowl football game and the annual New Year’s Day Mummers Parade—a Philadelphia tradition.

Warden's Daily Journal Entry by Warden William Banmiller

January 1 proved singular for certain prisoners for reasons entirely unrelated to beginning a new year. On January 1, 1837, prisoner William Hamilton escaped over the front wall using a rope. And on January 1, 1856, prisoner Ann Miller gave birth at the prison.

Today, some prisons serve special meals on holidays and expand their visiting hours, so families can see their incarcerated loved ones longer. On New Year’s Eve, many incarcerated people count down the seconds bridging the old year with the new, whooping and celebrating much like folks on the outside do. New Year’s resolutions made inside prisons mirror those on the outside: eating healthily, focusing on creative projects, vowing to be more selfless.

While the ways we mark the beginning of a new year, both inside and outside prison walls, have evolved over the years, one thing remains constant. Time keeps moving forward. The present quickly becomes the past, and the moments we live in become part of history.

Annie Anderson
Manager, Research and Public Programming

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner