Oh, the tales an old prison can tell

Fran­cis Dolan dis­cusses “The Ru­ins of Death Row.” MARIA POUCH­NIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

— New East­ern State pro­grams will take vis­it­ors to death row, as well as the old op­er­at­ing room.


There are two ba­sic types of spec­tacles to be seen at East­ern State Pen­it­en­tiary.

There are the ghostly brick and mor­tar re­mains of what two cen­tur­ies ago was the most ex­pens­ive and fam­ous pris­on in the world. And there are the uniquely dis­turb­ing men­tal im­ages con­jured by vis­it­ors while stand­ing amid the ru­ins of the old “wag­on wheel.”

The former al­ways seem to be­get the lat­ter and surely will con­tin­ue to do so dur­ing the Na­tion­al His­tor­ic Site’s 2012 tour sea­son as two of the old pris­on’s darkest, most dis­turb­ing places will be in­cor­por­ated in­to in­ter­act­ive ex­hib­its for the first time.

The Op­er­at­ing Room and The Ru­ins of Death Row both de­but this year, along with a third pro­gram ex­amin­ing fam­ily re­la­tion­ships at East­ern State. A new art in­stall­a­tion will also de­but. The Battle Between Car­ni­val and Lent by Ju­dith Schaechter fea­tures 17 ori­gin­al stained glass mur­als ex­amin­ing the con­flict between good and evil with­in those once housed at the pris­on.

East­ern State oc­cu­pies an 11-acre site at 20th Street and Fair­mount Av­en­ue. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with many sched­uled guided tours.

The non-profit mu­seum’s ad­min­is­trat­ors re­spon­ded to pub­lic de­mand per­haps more than any oth­er mo­tiv­a­tion in for­mu­lat­ing the 2012 pro­gram­ming.

“This is something vis­it­ors have asked to see for years and years. It’s an eer­ie and fas­cin­at­ing place,” said Sean Kel­ley, dir­ect­or of pub­lic pro­gram­ming.

Kel­ley was speak­ing spe­cific­ally of the then state-of-the-art med­ic­al fa­cil­ity that opened at the pris­on in the 1870s.

Death Row garners sim­il­ar curi­os­ity.


“In gen­er­al, there’s a mor­bid fas­cin­a­tion with something called ‘Death Row,’” said Fran Dolan, as­so­ci­ate dir­ect­or for tour pro­grams. “It’s the same thing with East­ern State in gen­er­al. People want to see an­oth­er side of so­ci­ety. … To ac­tu­ally have a chance to come in­to the space and think about it is very power­ful.”

Ac­cord­ing to Kelly Ot­ter­son, the tour pro­gram man­ager, phys­i­cians per­formed many sur­gic­al pro­ced­ures in the pris­on “hos­pit­al” in­stead of tak­ing in­mates in­to less-se­cure en­virons. They did tu­mor re­mov­al, her­nia sur­gery, ap­pendec­tom­ies and emer­gency sur­gery on trauma in­jur­ies, such as stab wounds in­curred dur­ing a cell­b­lock fight.

“Al Ca­pone had his ton­sils re­moved in this room,” Ot­ter­son said.

Doc­tors ex­per­i­mented with cos­met­ic sur­gery, too, work­ing on the widely be­lieved the­ory that cer­tain fa­cial fea­tures in­flu­enced a per­son’s like­li­hood of crim­in­al be­ha­vi­or.

The med­ic­al cen­ter was in Cell Block 3, one of the sev­en that made up the ori­gin­al wag­on-wheel lay­out.

When East­ern State first opened in 1830, Cell Blocks 1 and 2 filled quickly, while 3 was still un­der con­struc­tion. So the ad­min­is­tra­tion housed the older and sick in­mates in 3, even be­fore locks had been in­stalled on the cells.

It re­mained as the pris­on’s sick­bay un­til con­ver­ted in­to a full-fledged med­ic­al of­fice. The op­er­at­ing room opened in 1910 in a con­ver­ted ex­er­cise yard. Not much is left of it today. Crews had to clear tons of debris that had fallen to the floor from the crum­bling walls and ceil­ing.

The over­head lamp is a de­fin­ing fea­ture.

A fund-rais­ing cam­paign is un­der­way to fund an ar­che­olo­gic­al study and to sta­bil­ize the de­teri­or­at­ing ar­chi­tec­ture.


Death Row, also known as Cell Block 15, was com­pleted in 1959 as the last of many ret­ro­fit­ted blocks ad­ded to ac­com­mod­ate the grow­ing in­mate pop­u­la­tion.

With 36 cells on two tiers, the block also housed in­mates con­sidered too dan­ger­ous to live in gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion, even if they had not been sen­tenced to death.

Vis­it­ors are per­mit­ted in an ad­join­ing, ded­ic­ated and quite cramped “ex­er­cise” yard. The tri­an­gu­lar space is tucked between blocks 2 and 11. Tree-sized weeds and col­lapsed walls make it an urb­an ru­in while al­low­ing for bet­ter visu­al in­spec­tion of the design and lay­out.

“We’re go­ing to leave it like it is. We really like the ru­in of East­ern State and vis­it­ors like the ru­in of East­ern State,” Dolan said.

Re­mind­ers of the people who once in­hab­ited Death Row are evid­ent. There’s a ded­ic­ated guard tower over the yard. In­side each cell, in­mates had a single plumb­ing fix­ture that served as both sink and toi­let.

“That’s par­tic­u­larly hor­rendous,” Dolan noted.

Ex­e­cu­tions were per­formed else­where in the state. Oth­er­wise, in­mates rarely if ever got out of Death Row. In one case, the ad­min­is­tra­tion sent a dent­ist onto Death Row to pull an in­mate’s in­fec­ted tooth, rather than to risk trans­port­ing the in­mate.

Fear­ing for the dent­ist’s safety, the ad­min­is­tra­tion had him stand out­side the cell as the in­mate pressed his mouth against the bars for the ex­trac­tion. Mean­while, armed pris­on of­ficers stood guard.


Not that any com­pas­sion­ate vis­it­or would have dif­fi­culty ima­gin­ing the hor­rors of pris­on life, but Schaechter’s stained glass art places those sor­rows and con­trast­ing en­light­en­ment in­to a com­pel­ling meta­phor­ic­al con­text. The win­dows are new and will be re­moved fol­low­ing the 2012 tour sea­son. Yet, they cap­ture the pris­on’s haunt­ing nat­ur­al light as if they’ve been there since Day One.

“This is my dream loc­a­tion for where my work should be seen,” said the artist, who is known for the somber, in­tro­spect­ive sub­ject mat­ter of her work. “Even though it’s a pris­on, a place of hor­rible­ness, each cell is re­min­is­cent of a sac­red space.”

Con­struc­ted of sec­tions of painted and ground glass, the com­pos­i­tions re­flect mat­ter-of-factly on the hu­man struggles faced by all people, in­clud­ing those doomed to in­car­cer­a­tion. They con­trast tempta­tion with spir­itu­al en­light­en­ment.

“Every­one has felt the prob­lem of im­pulse con­trol in their lives,” Schaechter said. ••

For a full list­ing of East­ern State Pen­it­en­tiary at­trac­tions and events, vis­it www.East­ern­State.org or call 215-236-5111.

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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