The more I travel and explore historic, abandoned, vintage, and forgotten places, I learn everything revolves around the adventure, the experience, the journey… My recent road trip from North Carolina to New York was no exception. The first leg of my journey took me to Philadelphia, PA where I was to meet up with fellow photographers A.D. Wheeler and Lou Quattrini. I set out from Hendersonville, NC at the crack of 9:15am and made my way up. My iPhone decided that a simple straightforward trip would not be in my best interest and routed me through the heart of DC during 5pm rush hour traffic. It could have just kept me on I95 North but instead it took me on a wild goose chase through traffic jams, road accidents, through the slums of Baltimore and then slapped me right back on I95. The three hour detour allowed for a late arrival to my hotel at around 10:30pm. After checking in I discovered that my right rear tire was completely flat… So after hauling my bags up to the dingy hotel room I was staying in I called AAA hoping they could patch the tire for me. As I waited for them to arrive I listened to a couple screaming obscenities at each other and throwing things in the room next to me and considered calling the cops but after about 10 minutes the fight ended in silence and I simply figured one of them had killed the other and took solace in the fact that maybe now I might have a peaceful night’s sleep (I’m kidding of course )
AAA arrived a few minutes before midnight and informed me that my tire was so damaged from the object that I hit, that I would need to have it replaced. He put on the doughnut for me as I googled directions to the nearest tire shop. Luckily there was one just 4 blocks away that opened at 8am. Back in my hotel room I all but passed out after the long and crazy day of travel.
My iPhone alarm roused me at 7am and I begrudgingly pulled myself out of bed, showered, and gathered my gear into the car. Before I checked out I used my pass for a free breakfast and a nice Jamaican gentleman directed my to the breakfast buffet and gestured to the food explaining that I could help myself to “All this cool stuff over here!” So I loaded my plate up with bacon, sausage, some hash browns, and a cup of yogurt and plopped down at a table. A minute later the same guy ran over angry about something. He explains that the free breakfast pass was only for the COLD items… Oops!
So after stealing my hot breakfast I dropped my car at the tire shop and one of the mechanics gave me a lift over to Eastern State Penitentiary. I was the first person there at 9:40am and followed the girl in as she unlocked the prison for business.
Eastern State “was operational from 1829 until 1971. The penitentiary refined the revolutionary system of separate incarceration…which emphasized principles of reform rather than punishment. Notorious criminals such as bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone were held inside its unique wagon wheel design. When the building was erected it was the largest and most expensive public structure ever constructed, quickly becoming a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. The halls were designed to have the feel of a church.”
As I walked the long halls which radiated from a center hub like spokes on a wagon wheel, I truly got the feeling of walking though a crumbling sanctuary. If the high ceilings with arched skylights had sweeping frescos painted on them I would have sworn I was in a church. A church with iron bars and locking doors on the end caps of the pews!
“The Quakers were the moving force behind construction of the prison, and they wrote that the exterior appearance should be “a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters.”
“During the previous thirty-five years, the reform-minded Quakers tirelessly lobbied the Pennsylvania legislature to build a prison based on the idea of reform through solitude and reflection. The Quakers hopefully and naively assumed that an inmate’s conscience, given enough time alone, would make him penitent (hence the new word, ‘penitentiary’). “
“Some believe that the (cell) doors were so small so as to force the prisoners to bow while entering their cell. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the “Eye of God”, hinting to the prisoners that God was always watching them. Outside the cell, there was an individual area for exercise, enclosed by high walls so prisoners couldn’t communicate. Each exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time. Prisoners were allowed to garden and even keep pets in their exercise yards. When prisoners left the cell, a guard would accompany them and wrap a hood over their heads to prevent them from being recognized by other prisoners.”
Each cell had accommodations that were advanced for their time, which included a faucet with running water over a flush toilet, as well as curved pipes along part of one wall which served as central heating during the winter months where hot water would be run through the pipes to keep the cells reasonably heated. The toilets were remotely flushed twice a week by the guards of the cellblock. Other than a bed inmates had only a copy of the bible to keep them company. The exception to this rule was Al Capone’s cell:
The Famous Barber Chair:
Cell block 15 aka “Death Row” housed some of the most violent inmates in the Pennsylvania prison system. The building was the only one as Eastern State that had electronic door locks. The inmates were only housed here, none of the executions actually took place at Eastern State.
Over the years only about 100 prisoners managed to escape, most were recaptured but one man Leo Callahan managed to escape completely.
I walled the long halls imagining what life must have been like in a place like this. It was around 85 degrees outside but inside with no air moving it was stifling and muggy. I can’t imagine what life must have been like for prisoners during the heat of the summer… Although given some of the horrors that took place at Eastern State in the form of punishments for the prisoners, I’m sure that a hot summer day was the least of their concerns.
Distant murmurs of other visitors quietly echoed around the halls like detached voices of ghosts of old prisoners giving a flicker of life to the quietly decaying cells.
The amazing thing about Eastern State was that they kept the majority of the facility in a decayed state. They had done and were doing many repairs but they left the crumbling rocks in the cells and piles of dust and dirt as the were. It was a very odd feeling exploring this place as I am used to exploring locations like these with no one else around. One minute I’d feel completely alone and then next a tour group would pass by talking and laughing. It was a strange juxtaposition for me!
After a long day of shooting from 10am-4pm we called it quits and the three of us debriefed at Luigi’s Pizza a few blocks down the road and scarfed down slice after slice of delicious Neapolitan pizza. I picked up my car which now was outfitted with 4 brand new tires and hit the road for the four hour drive from Philly to Elmira, NY. Day one of my road trip was in the bag! I had memory cards full of images, and a head full of stories and history from Eastern State Penitentiary. I could not have been happier!