Philadelphia Vacation, Day 4:
I'll admit, I'm not exactly the first to jump at 'educational' sightseeing; I'd much rather gravitate towards local hangouts, scenery, and art museums. However, online I'd read that East State Penn had audio tours recorded by Steve Buscemi, which had peaked my interest enough to suggest it as a stop. Unfortunately for us, (again as you'll see why) we chose one of the busiest days of the year for a visit, and all audio guides wee overbooked. Even walk-through tours were at capacity, though, like any good state ran 'museum' or program, they were happy to take the same amount of money from us and let us wander. If we weren't going to hear form Mr. Buscemi, it was my preferred backup plan anyhow. It turns out wandering the grounds freely was much more exploratory and quicker than being bound to a group. I also had the chance to snap a few cool photos! I know a prison isn't exactly your typical photography subject, but there was something dramatically....empty, that struck me about this place.
But not all of Eastern Penn State's visitors were stone cold killers and maniacal crimelords. In August of 1924, perhaps one of the most beloved inmates was checked into this facility. Pep, the Labrador Retriever, was sentenced to life without parole for killing the Governor's wife's cherished cat. Of course, in a clear case of swaying influence, the Governor was not about to admit he had sentenced a harmless dog to life behind bars; he claimed that he had merely made Pep a 'mascot for the prisoners'. And in prison is precisely where Pep lived out the remainder of his 10 years. Quirky stories like this littered plaques and background guided tours during our visit.
While one hallway after the next tended to blur into the same thing, there were a few sections of dramatic note. In particular, the gate to the penitentiary's infirmary, marked with peeling and rusted paint, bearing a traditional Red Cross peered into an eerie green corridor. There was something simply mesmerizing; perhaps it was the padlock of this 'restricted' wing, or the fact that time seemed to almost stand still, quite the opposite of the sights and sounds this area would have been accustomed to in it's Hey Day. There was also a 'Barber's Room', reduced primarily to dust and rumble, but with a few eerie components strewn about. There are stories this particular room was used for torture at one point in the prison's history. Of course, as time moved on there was less leniency for 'reform' techniques that involved torture and physical discipline.
Recall how I mentioned we'd arrived on an unfortunately busy day? Having been raised on the West Coast, where things such as Columbus Day aren't much of an event, we were out of our element to walk into Philadelphia's Bastille Day celebration, which took place directly in from of the Penitentiary, and blocked off an entire 6 blocks in either direction. Upon exiting our visit to East State Penn, this was the sight we beheld. If you'll glance past all the drunk and smiling bystanders, to the left, you'll notice a harmless watermelon, and...oh, yes, a guillotine. For the better part of an hour we observed some festive hosts parading this fruit back and forth before CHOP slicing it in half and passing it through the crowd. We didn't happen to stay long enough to observe the mock beheading (of Marie Antionette) with the actors, but I'm sure it was a sight to behold. The crowd seemed to be very rowdy when we left- I never know the Pennsylvanian's got so into their history!