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Research Resources

Interested in learning more about Eastern State? We offer a genealogy research service in which we search our archives for information regarding a specific prisoner, staff member, or topic. More information about this service can be found below. In addition, we have compiled a list of other resources that may prove useful in your research.

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site (ESPHS) has a small but fascinating collection of historic materials from the penitentiary’s past. While our collection is not currently publicly accessible, we do offer genealogy research services for individuals interested in learning more about a specific prisoner or staff member.

Ready to get started? Click here to submit a genealogy research request form. A staff member will respond to your request via email as soon as possible with information about the research process. While there is no set charge for this service, the email will also include information about how you can make a suggested, but optional, tax-deductible donation to help sustain this program.

The purpose of Eastern State Penitentiary’s collections is to identify, acquire, preserve, and make accessible documents and artifacts relating to the administrators and prisoners of Eastern State Penitentiary, the physical structures and objects within the walls of the penitentiary, the Pennsylvania System of Punishment, and Pennsylvania corrections policies. We appreciate all additions to the collection, as each one brings us a new and better understanding of this National Historic Landmark and the people who lived and worked within it.

We are also interested in conducting video or audio interviews with people formerly incarcerated at Eastern State, guards, and staff members. If you are (or know) someone who lived or worked inside the building, or if you are interested in donating items to Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site’s collections, please contact us at 215-236-5111 x223 or [email protected].

There are a surprising number of books with information about Eastern State and its inhabitants.

  • Bibliography 
    This is a list of several books regarding Eastern State and penology created by our supporters.
  • Google Books 
    In addition to searching on your own, be sure to check out The Annual Reports of the Inspectors (1830-1917). These books often give information about prisoners by their number and you can access them for free. At Google Books, type in "annual report of the inspectors," (use quotation marks) and the first link will be an edition of the report. Click “more editions” for the full run of what’s available. You may be able to determine the prisoner’s number by looking at these reports. The University of Pennsylvania has additional years and hard copies of many of these books. Click here for UPenn’s library catalog. Search for “Annual report of the Eastern State Penitentiary” (use quotation marks) to see the record. Also at Google Books, type in “a concise history of the eastern penitentiary,” (use quotation marks) and you’ll see the minority report of an investigation of the penitentiary published in 1835 by Thomas McElwee (Eastern State staff often refers to this document at “The McElwee Report”). This book provides an in-depth look into the general conditions of the penitentiary in its early years. At Google Books, type in "warden cassidy on prisons," (use quotation marks) and you’ll see a book written by Warden Michael Cassidy in 1897. This document contains a lot of information about the penitentiary in general in 1897 as well as some photographs.
  • Library Company of Philadelphia 
    The Library Company houses a collection of rare books, manuscripts, broadsides, ephemera, prints, photographs, and works of art.
  • Your Local Library 
    Click the link above to find the library nearest to you (you may need to zoom out if your library is more than 2 miles away from your location). Make sure you let the librarian know what you’re looking for: they might have more helpful tips!

The Eastern State staff often relies on newspaper accounts to create programs on site. Searching for newspapers is fun, and is made increasingly easy through online databases. When searching, keep in mind that names are often misspelled and you may want to try several variations. Also, try searching for various keywords, dates, and names of people involved in the case to find the best results. Remember that Eastern State was called by different names throughout its history (e.g. Cherry Hill, Eastern State Penitentiary, Eastern Penitentiary, the penitentiary in Philadelphia, etc.).

  • Google News Archives 
    For best results, after entering your search, click the “Search Tools” button below the search bar and then change “Any Time” to “Archives.” Please be aware that some articles you find may require a fee to see them, while others are completely free. Although The New York Times is included in this search engine, you can also search The New York Times separately (some articles require a fee).
  • Your Local Library
    Your library may have copies of newspapers that have not been put online, or may be able to obtain copies for you for free. Click the link above to find the library nearest to you (you may need to zoom out if your library is more than 2 miles away from your location). Make sure you let the librarian know what you’re looking for: they might have more helpful tips!

  • American Philosophical Society
    A search on APS’ Digital Library for the word penitentiary will reveal many full text free online sources. Of particular relevance are their Eastern State records from 1819-1955. You can see a finding aid for that collection here.
  • Cumberland County Archives
    Cumberland County’s Archives holds several series of documents concerning Eastern State Penitentiary up to the year 1887. These documents include annual bills from Eastern State for maintenance costs of prisoners convicted in Cumberland County and discharge certificates for those prisoners. To see lists of holdings and some images, go to Cumberland County's Listings Page and search all archives for the word “penitentiary.”
  • The Pennsylvania State Archives 
    Click here for information specifically about prison records at the State Archives. The Pennsylvania State Archives has the most comprehensive collection of prisoner records from Eastern State Penitentiary. Click here for the Genealogical Research at the Pennsylvania State Archives web page.
  • University of Pennsylvania
    The Rare Book & Manuscript Library Collections hold the daybooks of Eastern State architect John Haviland from 1820-1837 as well as the papers of J. William White, who was a surgeon at Eastern State and a member of the Board of Inspectors in the late 1800s. For information about modern penology, also see the Johan Thorsten Sellin Papers.

  • Greater Philadelphia GeoHistory Network
    This website gathers geographic materials like maps, atlases, city directories, and industrial site surveys documenting historic Philadelphia from the 1600s to today. The Interactive Maps Viewer allows you to view 19th and 20th century maps of the region that document how land use in Philadelphia evolved.
2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner