Eastern State Penitentiary

Warning: this post will be rife with pictures. Sorry if it takes forever to load, I have a lot of images I want to share.

When you first arrive at ESP, you are confronted with dark stone walls that make it look more like a medieval castle than a prison. This, in fact, is for looks. The arrow-slit windows in the perimeter wall are fake, and the battlements on top of the wall are only ankle-high. Turns out the gargoyles over the front gate are frighteningly real (as real as stone gargoyles can be).

Our vocabulary lesson for today will be to figure out the root of the word "penitentiary." Have you found it?

ESP was designed for penitence. It was first built in 1829, with the idea that the inmates would repent their crimes there. They lived in complete solitude from others, with a small door out into the main hall of the block that was locked very tightly. There was another small door out into a personal exercise yard that was about five paces by seven. The rooms had an iron bed, a bench, and a window in the ceiling that was designed to remind the inmates that "God is always watching." They spoke to no one and had tasks to keep them busy (there is a picture of one inmate caning a chair). What really made me understand the level of solitary confinement was that inmates wore thick wool socks over their shoes to muffle the sound of their footsteps. The floors were wooden, the walls plaster, and all the metal was iron. They had cast-iron toilets that were flushed once a day. This is amazing for the time, because the then-President, Andrew Jackson, didn't even have indoor plumbing in the white house and had to use a privy.

It was built with a design idea based on a wheel's spokes. That is, the center chamber is a guard post, with cell blocks radiating out of it. This way, a guard can stand in the center and look around 360* and see down every hallway. They were originally built to be single-floor blocks, but as the building got older and more and more inmates were admitted, they began to stack second floors onto their blocks. Originally, there were only eight cell blocks, but over the years this was expanded to fourteen, including death row and solitary confinement.

The solitary confinement that ESP started with didn't last forever, and near the 1900s it was gotten rid of, and communal cafeterias and a baseball diamond were conceived. This, then, found a need for solitary confinement cells, called "Klondike" or "The Hole." There was a block that contained ten of these cells, each one just large enough for a bed and a place to stand next to it.

This, however, brings me to death row. If you look at the death row cell block (number 13), you might notice that on the floor there is a row of iron spikes that were sawed off, matching spikes in the ceiling. These were in place to keep the guards as far away from the inmates as possible, though many touted this as a blow to the ego and walked on the inmates' side of the bars to show they were not afraid. Death row inmates were not allowed to have anything but a bed, and barely left their cells even for medical work. The audio tour tells a story about a dentist that was called to death row to work on an inmate. They wouldn't let him into the cell; instead, with the guards' rifles held firmly at the inmate, the dentist had to work on his mouth through the cell bars.

Al Capone was incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary, and his cell is preserved the way he kept it. It's so out of place, it's laughable. An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929, describes Capone's cell: "The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk.... On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish..."

There are many ghost stories about ESP, and many different ghost hunting teams and TV shows have been through to investigate. Honestly, if there were ever ghosts anywhere, it would be in this dark, cold place. You get an eerie feeling as you walk through, though whether that is the atmosphere or something else, I don't know. Caryn and I were turning around a lot, because we felt like someone was watching us. And, being as it's a holiday and there were more people than usual, we figured it was other patrons, waiting for us to move. Usually wasn't.
I will cap off the post with a few more pictures.
"The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong...."
~Charles Dickens, writing about Eastern State Penitentiary

1 comment:

Donna Lee said...

It's as gloomy and spooky as I imagined.