We spent the weekend of the fourth doing some conventional things: beach day, swimming, family bbq with Maryland crabs, and some otherwise not so conventional things like visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philly. This fell under the ‘let’s spend some more time exploring Philadelphia’ category and seemed somewhat appropriate for us to experience a bit of US history on July 4th, however macabre. Up until then, I’d never been there. I’d skillfully avoided attending their legendary ‘Terror Behind the Walls’ Halloween haunted house with the kids for years. I will say now that I’m so happy that we went (and that is was in the light of day), it’s a must for everyone visiting the city. It truly was a place of decrepit beauty in addition to its historical significance.
According to their website: ‘Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world, but stands today in ruin, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers.
Known for its grand architecture and strict discipline, this was the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of convicts.
Its vaulted, sky-lit cells once held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.’
The audio tour stated that when it first opened in 1829, it was part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through ‘confinement in solitude with labor.’ Prisoners would spend 23 hours a day in confinement with two 1/2 hour breaks. That would definitely inspire some penitence.
As a civil war era homeowner, I will say that architecturally, it was a visual smorgasbord – every inch of crumbling stone and paint, ironwork detail and original lighting was as ‘perfect’ as the next. This presented a real dichotomy. Decades of chronicled suffering and agony is evident in every nook and crevice. The ‘energy’ there was overwhelming, it was incredibly emotional.
The prison was all but abandoned between 1971 to the mid 1980’s.
It wasn’t until 1991 that true preservation efforts began. ESP is now home to many artist’s installations, including James Mill’s ‘Dark Tourism‘ signage which detailed the longitude and latitude coordinates of death sites such as the sinking of the Titanic and JFK’s shooting in Dallas. ‘Manifest Destiny’ represents the doctrine that rationalized of the US expansion over the North American Continent in the mid 1800’s that directly resulted in ‘Dark Sites’ such as The Alamo and Little Big Horn.
Something to think about on any day.