Momma Told Me: Vacation Files #4: Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary

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Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Vacation Files #4: Philadelphia Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia Vacation, Day 4:

Okay, I know I've been taking forever to get through this series recapping our trip to Philadelphia to visit Momma, back in June (2012). I'm sorry, it was just a hectic year, and hopefully these little peppered posts have been a nice surprise here and there. So far we've recapped the horrors of our initial flight and how Sheraton had no rooms for us with $1800 paid 4 months in advance, our maiden voyage on the Spirit of Philadelphia (and trip to Penn's Landing), Reading Terminal Market, Philadelphia Chinatown, and the amazingly beautiful and obscure Philadelphia Magic Gardens. Well on the same dreary day that we had visited the Magic Gardens we decided to stop by the wildly popular Eastern State Penitentiary, known for it's tours, including a late night 'ghost' tour. By the time we got there in the afternoon the drizzle had cleared up, and the sky was mostly overcast. Thank goodness, because, as you'll find out, we picked a heck of a day to visit this Philly landmark.
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.
Walking down the hallways of this starburst shaped building was a very poignant experience. I can't speak as to if it's haunted or not, but there was a certain sadness to the state of the crumbling foundation and the desperation within the barren cells. Outside, in the narrow halls and courtyard, looking up, we could see the watchful eye of the guard's tower. For those unfamiliar with the poignancy of this particular penitentiary, Eastern State was once one of the most expensive and elaborately funded containment facilities taking in some of the country's most disturbed criminals, and infamous Al Capone. But to truly understand the purpose, and significance of Eastern State, one would have to relive the era. At it's apex, this was a well oiled machine intended to break hardened criminals, sinners, bringing them to repentance and rehabilitation, even at times to the cost of questionable 'treatment' and methods. I do not doubt many poor souls lamented for their choices while here.
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!


  1. We are heading here in April so was nice to see your photos and commentary.

  2. I want to go so badly, thanks for the story about the dog, I had no idea!

  3. Sounds like an interesting tour. I'd like to go on one like that someday. That tidbit about the dog was interesting and amusing.

  4. Looks like you had a great trip. It looks very authentic - Love it!

  5. This looks like a place I would love to visit. Sorry that you didn't get your Steve Buscemi guided tour {love him!} but at least you got to learn some fun facts. Poor Pep!


  6. Great photos! I love visiting places that are a little different. This is definitely a place I would visit if I'm ever in that area.

  7. Phenomenal photos. First one is my fav. Looks like a very lonely place. I enjoyed seeing through your eyes and interpretation.

  8. Amazing photos. Really like that I found your site.

  9. Sounds like it would be a fascinating visit!

  10. OH!! I have been wanting to go there for years! Will have to check when a good day to go would be!

    Great commentary on the place!