I saw a ridiculous number of historic sites during a quick trip to Philadelphia last weekend and eventually, you’ll hear about many of them. But I want to start with my hands-down favorite: the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.
Eastern State is a huge, stone medieval fortress-like building in downtown Philadelphia, just a few blocks away from the Philadelphia Museum of Art. My husband, a native Philadelphian, warned that the neighborhood was a bad one but it seemed to us — me and my regular history touring companion, Patricia — to be quite upscale, with large, well-kept Victorian houses and lots of trendy restaurants and shops along the main road in front of the prison. It’s been many years since he lived in the city, so maybe it’s gentrified. As with any large inner city neighborhood, though, it’s never a bad thing to be careful.
We parked in a car park next door to the prison. In front of the prison gates, a docent was giving a talk about the gates and he invited us to stay and listen before we went on to the ticket booth inside. We did, so the first thing we heard about, before we even got in, was how to escape. There were about 100 escape attempts at Eastern State. Most were able to get outside the prison walls (tunnels, makeshift ladders to climb over the wall, and hiding in delivery trucks). And most were recaptured almost immediately.
I’d bought tickets online, so we got quickly through preliminaries and into the prison. The tour is via an audio guide (voiced by actor Steve Buscemi) and it went chronologically. We started in Cell Block 1, which was shown as it would have been in the 1800s. Story boards supplement the audio tour with stories about life in the prison in the early times.
Eastern State was the first prison in the US, opened in 1829 as the Quakers’ attempt at a more human punishment system based on “confinement in solitude with labor.” The theory that solitude would make a criminal penitent became known as the “Pennsylvania System” of criminal justice. The inmates wore a hood covering their eyes at all times, except when in their cells or in their individual exercise yards. The only people they saw were the guards and the chaplain. Sentences averaged two to eight years. While in their cells, they worked. Charles Dickens visited and thought that it was cruel. Dorothea Dix visited and thought that it was wonderful.
A typical prisoner was John Arnen, a gardener who stole a neighbor’s horse and was sentenced to two years in Eastern State in 1830. He was prisoner #6. He was allowed a one-half hour of exercise in the individual exercise yard attached to his cell, twice a day. Other than that, he spent all of his time in his cell, where he worked alone making shoes. Since he could read, he was allowed to have a Bible. He was released after his two year sentence, but they don’t know what happened to him after that. They only know that he didn’t return to the prison system. That’s a recreation of his cell, in the photo below.
Eastern State is big on identifying prisoners by number. A plaque on a wall lists all of the inmates who served in World War I, only by inmate number. And at the bottom, this:
A second semi-renovated cell block took us through prison life in the 20th century. By then, the “solitude with labor” policy had been thrown over and communal meals, sports and exercise, and work became the norm. Eastern State’s most famous prisoner was Al Capone, who spent eight months there in 1929/30 on a concealed weapons charge. It was his first time in prison and as you can see, he didn’t exactly suffer while there.
The prison is shaped like a wheel, with cell blocks/spokes coming out of a round, central room. There was a docent stationed in hub, to answer whatever questions visitors had. There were, actually, many docents stationed all around the site to answer questions and all of them seemed very enthusiastic and knowledgeable.
Eastern State closed in 1970 and, after preservationists won a fight against turning the land over to commercial development, restoration of the property as a museum began in 1991. Between 1970 and 1991, however, the building was completely neglected and the roof collapsed and trees began growing through the floors.
So while some of the site has been restored enough to safely guide visitors through, most of it is still untouched. Which brings me to my favorite part of the Eastern State experience: the Hands on History tours. These are short (15 minute-ish) tours where a guide takes a group into some of the more interesting but still unrenovated parts of the prison including death row, the kitchens, and the operating room.
The photo below is from a tour of the Catholic chaplain’s office, with walls covered with murals painted by an inmate. There are nine Hands on History tours, and each of them are scheduled several times a day. You can do them one right after the other. There’s also a one hour guided tour once a day, and several art installations throughout the site, inspired by some aspect of Eastern State or the criminal justice system.
For me, Eastern State was the perfect touring experience. We wandered independently, poking into cells and other exhibits at will while the audio tour, the Hands on History tours, the story boards, the docents every few feet and the art installations provided as much or as little information as each visitor would want. I wanted it all but sadly, only had two hours to devote to the site. I was actually in Philly for a baby shower and if the shower hadn’t been for my first grandchild, I seriously would have considered blowing it off to stay at Eastern State. As it was, the thought still crossed my mind. Not that I’m not beyond excited about my first grandchild, but baby (and wedding) showers…ugh…talk about cruel and unusual….