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Opioids at Eastern State

From debates about opening the first safe injection site in America to a televised six-part special about people battling addiction, there’s no doubt Philadelphia has recently found itself at the center of the ongoing national conversation about the opioid crisis. And the statistics help reveal why.

Philadelphia’s opioid crisis has reached record proportions. The Philadelphia Department of Health reported that between 2013 and 2015, fatal overdoses in the city increased by more than 50%, totaling over 700 deaths in 2015. In that same year, there were twice as many deaths from drug overdoses in Philadelphia as there were homicides and 80% of those overdose deaths involved opioids.1 While there’s no doubt opioid use in Philadelphia is currently seeing unprecedented growth, opioids have a long history of impacting Philadelphia’s citizens. And, that impact was also deeply felt by prisoners and staff at Eastern State.

Throughout the first half of the 20th century, Eastern State Penitentiary faced a rising opioid crisis outside and, then, within the prison’s walls. Countless people arrived at the prison addicted to an opioid like morphine or, later, heroin. In some cases, prison officials believed prisoners attempted to bring opioids into the prison upon intake.

On January 22, 1907 Warden Charles Church reported:

“Upon searching the cell of B-2312 (J.W. Grawal) I found a syringe which pointed to the use of morphine. B-2312 is a dope fiend. Also upon inspection examining B-2343’s (Fred Willis) cell, I found a small quantity of morphine and a syringe. B-2343 is a dope fiend.”

Similarly, on April 8, 1901 the warden reported:

“On November 24, 1900 B-781 was received. Through some unexplained reason or cause, at present unknown, he became possessed of some morphine, whether he brought it in with his property, or had it brought in by friends am unable to say.”

We don’t know what became of every Eastern State prisoner with a reported drug addiction, but we do know that the person classified as B-781 was diagnosed with “morphinomania” and sent to “the hospital department in the 3rd block, where he [remained] under the physician’s charge” for five weeks while he detoxed.

While the reports above come from the early 1900s, one of the most intense periods of opioid use at Eastern State occurred in the spring of 1923 involving a small gang of prisoners and their associates known as the Four Horsemen. Initially, the Four Horsemen were tasked by Warden Robert McKenty with handling small disputes among fellow prisoners. According to an April 1923 grand jury investigation, the Four Horsemen abused this authority to large scale, criminal proportions.2

Under their watch, an elaborate heroin trafficking operation smuggled drugs into the prison and introduced younger, less seasoned prisoners to heroin in order to create a vulnerable, confined clientele. One prisoner claimed there was enough heroin inside the walls to “keep a city going.”3 Another, while receiving treatment for his addiction, told a prison physician, “We can’t keep off of it, they stick it under our noses.”4

This increase in drug activity led to more stringent security measures at the penitentiary. Warden McKenty was forced to resign and replaced by John Groome, the first commissioner of the Pennsylvania State Police. Groome implemented changes to security, many of which are still visible at Eastern State today. A formal visitation room, now part of our admissions area, was constructed in an effort to reduce contraband from entering the penitentiary. Brick sentry boxes (guard stations) once kept on the ground were elevated to the top four corners of the perimeter walls and armed with Thompson machine guns. The basement of Cellblock 14 was converted into a punishment area for prisoners who committed violations while incarcerated. You can see the Punishment Cells by taking a Hands-On History tour today.

Ultimately, while the national spotlight might be on Philadelphia’s opioid crisis in recent years, issues stemming from drug use and addiction, and questions about how to address them, are nothing new. The turmoil of the early 1920s at Eastern State highlights the challenges of managing an overcrowded prison in an era when temperance and prohibition were highly contentious issues in American society, not unlike today. While drug use was and is criminalized, the records above suggest that Eastern State treated opioid addiction as a disease as far back as the early 1900s.

So, what, if anything can we learn from Eastern State’s past as our community struggles to address the impact of opioid use and addiction today? While there is no easy solution, it’s clear that conversations about drug use and addiction as well as decisions made in the name of prevention and treatment had and continue to have, real and lasting implications for those who are most affected.

Damon McCool
Tour Guide
Supplemental Report of the April Grand Jury Investigating Conditions at the Eastern State Penitentiary, May 1923, pg. 18
Ibid, 4.
Ibid, 6.


2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner