Much to Larissa’s chagrin it is hard for me to pass up a prison tour. I’ve dragged her along to some of the classics from Alcatraz to Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin and even to the interrogation center used by the East German secret police in Berlin.
But somehow it took me until this year to visit one of the most historic jails in the world, Eastern State Penitentiary, located in our hometown of Philadelphia. In prison terms Eastern State is the mother of them all, the one that put the “penitent” in penitentiary.
Philadelphia was founded by pacifist Quakers. They believed that criminals would be better human beings if they were given the opportunity to live in solitary confinement 24 hours a day; then they could find God and reflect upon what got them there in the first place. Such solitary soul-searching would lead the wrongdoers to become penitent about their actions and eventually lead a better life. Among the more famous prisoners at Eastern State for whom this philosophy turned out to be wrong were gangster Al Capone and notorious bank robber Willie Sutton.
Completed in 1836 the massive structure, with its crenelated towers and 14-foot thick stone walls, resembles a medieval European castle more than a New World institution. British-born architect John Haviland designed it to intimidate. It certainly did then and still does now. It was the first of America’s mega-prisons, a step up from the town or county jail.
For all the Gothic charm on the exterior, on the inside its architecture was revolutionary and quite modern. The design consisted of a radical new idea; it featured a central guard tower with long corridors radiating from it like spokes on a wheel, so the guards could monitor all the cells from one location. It became the model for over 300 prisons worldwide.
Despite its foreboding image, not all inside the walls was gloom and doom. Each prisoner had their own private cell which was centrally heated and they even had running water and a flush toilet. That was pretty radical at the time when you consider that President Andrew Jackson was still peeing into a chamber pot at the White House.
Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens were among the luminaries to visit Eastern State. When Dickens visited America he had two sites on his must-see agenda: Niagara Falls and the prison. De Tocqueville was so impressed that a few years later one could buy a complete dinner service from a French porcelain factory that featured plates depicting various views of the prison. How’s that for a festive supper?
The prison today provides a fascinating 45-minute self-guided audio tour narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. The site appeals to travelers on many different levels. There are the prison people who just like seeing old jails (sorry Larissa); historic preservationists who recoil at the fact that at one time the prison was going to be torn down for a strip center; ghost hunters (the prison hosts the top rated Halloween haunted house in America each year); and film buffs who want to roam the corridors that portrayed the psyche ward in the movie 12 Monkeys (starring Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt).
And to those who think crime does not pay I leave you with two photos. The first shows a typical cell, albeit in somewhat dilapidated condition, but you can tell it wasn’t like staying at The Ritz. The second photo is a recreation of Al Capone’s cell, decorated as it was when he was a prisoner with cushy furniture and an Oriental rug.
For the latest visitor information go to their official web site: Eastern State Penitentiary. And if you’re in the area, remember that the world famous Rocky Steps are only a few blocks away.