A TOUR OF EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
This past summer, I had the great fortune and opportunity to embark on a very cool and historical photo-shoot adventure to Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pa with two of the most amazing photographers and story tellers around. It certainly was a thrill to hang out for the day with friends and fellow photogs Andy Wheeler and Walter Arnold. Both of these artists have inspired me and continue to push me further in my photography, editing and story telling skils. It was going to be a great day.
Andy arrived and my place around 7 am and we hit the road for Philly in his little green machine Veloster. I of course needed to sleep some on the trip down as this adventure, like many others, took place following a twelve hour shift for me the previous night. So as I settled into my pillow, Andy hit the tunes and we were off. I must admit I didn’t sleep well. I was quite anxious for this shoot and for the opportunity to hang with Andy and Walt again. The last time we hung out was earlier in the year during a shoot in Canandaigua, NY to visit an abandoned chapel in a very cool old cemetery. Just talking, eating out, listening to great tunes and talking shop is enough for me. The actual photoshoot was a bonus thrown in.
I joked about getting lost in a bad part of town but Andy assured me all was fine. He after all had a the latest GPS and tracking gadgets known to man. He told me numerous times to “relax dude” and “don’t worry bro” but alas, there we were, SMACK in the center of what had to be the roughest part of Philly. Yes, I was scared…officially and the doors were locked..We didn’t stand out at all in his little suped up lime green sports car..Yep, um, ok right. LOL.
Finally, we arrived at the massive gothic stone fortress. Holy crap it was like a castle and its outer walls were a staggering 30 feet high and 12 feet thick at their base with stone towers at the corners. The huge 11 acre stone and iron prison was awe inspiring from the outside alone. We could not wait to get inside. Walt had beat us there and had a two hour head start on us..Time to getbusy. We paid the $12.00 entry fee and the $10.00 photographer fee and we were in.
Eastern State Penitentiary sits on a rise in the middle of the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, which operated for 142 years held the likes of famous criminals Al Capone and Willie Sutton.
The first inmate was brought to Eastern State on October 23, 1829. He was 18 year old Charles Williams. His prison record states: “Burglar. Farmer by trade. Can read. Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement.”At one time this prison was the largest and most expensive building in America. It drew visitors from around the world to review its penal system and architecture, both of which influenced prisons worldwide for the next century.
The inmates were not allowed to communicate with each other or meet for any purpose, not even for religious services. Ministers preached to the inmates while walking through the prison, their voices echoing through the cellblocks.
The inmates weren’t allowed to sing, whistle, have visitors, look at a newspaper, or hear from any source about the outside world. They were allowed in their exercise yards, which were attached to their 8 by 12 foot cells, just one hour per day. At Eastern State, you went into your cell and you stayed there. You saw no one except a guard, and you spoke to no one.
The Quakers explained the policy as such: “No prisoner is to be seen by another after he enters the wall. When the years of confinement have passed, his old associates in crime will be scattered over the earth, or in the grave and the prisoner can go forth into a new and industrious life, where his previous misdeeds are unknown.”
The cells were damp and musty with very little air circulation. The original sewer system didn’t work properly so the cells smelled foul of sewage. The central heating system, another new idea at the time, didn’t work very well either.
Andy, Walt and I went our separate ways for most of the day. We did, however seem to keep bumping into each other periodically in the main “hub” of the decaying institution. The concept plan, by the British-born architect John Haviland, reveals the purity of the vision. Seven cellblocks radiate from a central surveillance rotunda. Haviland’s ambitious mechanical innovations placed each prisoner into his or her own private cell. In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (shoemaking, weaving, and the like) to lead to penitence. In striking contrast to the Gothic exterior, Haviland used the grand architectural vocabulary of churches on the interior. He employed 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout. He wrote of the Penitentiary as a forced monastery, a machine for reform. But he added an impressive touch: a menacing, medieval facade, built to intimidate, that ironically implied that physical punishment took place behind those grim walls.
Some of America’s most notorious criminals were held in Eastern’s cells. When gangster Al Capone found himself in front of a judge for the first time in 1929, he was sentenced to one year in prison. He spent most of that sentence in relative comfort at Eastern State, where he was allowed to furnish his cell with antiques, rugs, and oil paintings. Bank robber Willie Sutton joined eleven other men in a doomed 1945 tunnel escape. Some other notable inmates included as cited from ESP website are the following:
Perhaps no family had a closer connection to Eastern State than the Buzzards of Pennsylvania’s Welsh Mountains. From the late 1800s to the mid 1900s five brothers (Abe, Ike, Jacob, Martin, and Joe) were all imprisoned at Eastern. Joe Buzzard, the youngest of the clan, considered himself one of the premier horse thieves in the country. A remnant of a past era, Joe was the only horse thief in the prison when he entered Eastern for the final time in 1939. There was a time when horse theft was the number one crime at the prison.
Of the approximately 100 inmates to escape from Eastern State, Leo Callahan is the only one that got away with it. Assault and Battery with Intent to Kill brought Callahan to ESP and a makeshift wooden ladder brought him out. In 1923 Callahan and five other inmates built a ladder that they used to scale the East wall of the Penitentiary. His five accomplices were all eventually recaptured, but Callahan is still at large (although he would now be over 110 years old).
Frederick Tenuto was a hired gun with long standing ties to the Philadelphia world of organized crime. In 1945 he escaped from Eastern State in the doomed tunnel escape with 11 other inmates. He was the last to be recaptured. Tenuto was caught in Brooklyn, NY two months later when he was apprehended planning a bank robbery. A transfer to Philadelphia’s Holmesburg Prison in 1946 did not help matters much. He escaped from there too. He was never recaptured.
Convicted of killing a Pennsylvania State Trooper in 1937, Victor Andreoli arrived at Eastern State Penitentiary to serve a life sentence for 1st degree murder. He escaped in 1943, apparently by hiding in a delivery truck that was leaving the prison. Several weeks later the police caught up to Andreoli in a Chester, PA diner where he was shot dead.
I found myself somewhat amazed at the drab sameness of the the cells. Most of the cells were quite deteriorated with the walls crumbling and tree roots growing through them. They all had the same small doorway however some in the older sections thick wooden slab doors were used as opposed to the newer iron bars. Most cells had a single skylight which was the only source of illumination in the early days. Most were small single units used for constant segregation from other inmates. Over time, heating units, elctericity and double iron slat bunks were added to the cells. One long cellblock appeared like the others. From the central hub, long cell blocks appeared as spokes eminating from the center of the sprawling complex. At the time of our visit only 3-4 of the seven cell blocks were open to the public. A few were closed off due to severe deterioration and unsafe conditions. We were however able to view the length of the closed of cell blocks.
I have often heard that Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most haunted places in Pennsylvania. This may be true given the nature of the early punishments, the deaths and the countless number of inmates that went insane behind its forboding walls. I have had a few weird feelings while out adventuring and urbexing. The most scary place I ever visited was the abandoned Penhurst asylum. That place was dark, eerie, completely abandoned and almost seeping in pain. At Penurst I felt a sense of doom and dispair to my core upon entering the buildings and lasting days after leaving. Several unexplained events occured while at Penhurst as well that I wont mention in this post. At Eastern State I felt overall at ease as the place was crawling with tourists and tour guides. It was for the most part well lit and accessible. Only one time at Eastern did I feel a sense of unexplained discomfort. While shooting down and abandoned and closed off cell block that was quite deteriorated and gloomy, I felt like this area had some sort of energy or presence. It did not bother like Penhurst, however the feeling was still there.
Of all the cell blocks I wish were open to the public, the medical/hospital wing was probably the one I really wanted to explore the most. I was hoping to get a glimpse of and photograph the old medical equipment, labs and rooms. However this was not to be. I am not sure why this area was closed off. I do not recall seeing any photos of the interior of the hospital cell block but only the famous or infamous red cross on the gate marking the entrance to the wing. I did not want to appear cliche by photographing what is probably the most photographed item at Eastern State, but…I had to. It was my only comfort for not gaining access to the actual hospital block. Still very cool by the way.
A couple of cool modern twists at Eastern State are the annual “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted attraction that ESP puts on each year as well as the artist installations and exhibits. I definately plan to participate in one of the annual fall “Terror Behind the Walls” attractions as well as return for another photoshoot. Check out the cool links to the two attractions.
All in all it was a great day. I was able to hang with some cool friends, eat some great Philly food, visit a very cool American institution and take some photos. I slept fine on the way home until I was awoken when Andy got pulled over by PSP for “going with the flow” LOL. For me the cost was $22.00 to tour and photograph Eastern State. You are required to pay an equipment fee if you bring professional gear and tripods into the prison. The $15.00 I spent on lunch was WELL worth it as well. But the chance to hang with cool photographers and the experience of visiting and photographing one of the most iconic and historical prisons in the US was absolutley pricelesss. It cost Andy a little more.
By the 1960’s, the aged prison was in need of costly repairs. The Commonwealth closed the facility in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980, intending to reuse or develop it. In 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment. The Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the Penitentiary for the first season of regular guided interpretative tours in 1994, and, in 1997, signed a twenty-year agreement with the City to operate the site. A new non-profit corporation, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., took over the agreement 2001.
View the entire Eastern State Penitentiary and purchase prints directly from machiiiphoto.com
Several historical references in this post were taken and used directly from Eastern State Penitentiary and Mission Creep websites.