UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – On this 4th Tuesday of the month, our focus isn’t on a specific feature per se, but more on a combination of features; a whole architectural style, in fact. And we’re focusing on how mutable cultural values created and then reviled that style, resulting in its being the focus of nightmares in popular culture. To honor Halloween season in a preservation-minded way, instead of covering traditional hauntings, we will examine how the aforementioned phenomena collectively created our modern vision of what is “creepy.” This month’s feature is: “HAUNTED” VICTORIAN HOUSES. 

Prototypical image of a “haunted” Victorian house. Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash.

 

Why are “haunted houses” usually Victorian in style?

Many authors (here, here, here and here, to name a few) have pondered and analyzed this question. Sarah Burns (2012) summarized it best in her article “Better for Haunts”: Victorian Houses and the Modern Imagination, querying: 

“If we consider the Victorian house in its own time and place…there is nothing ominous about the mansard-roofed house…Half a century later, however, that very same style had become a signifier of terror, death, and decay. How, when, and why did the ghosts take over?”  (p. 3)

 

The answer comes down to what Burns refers to as a “shifting context” (p. 3), where architectural changes coincide with and are influenced by cultural and social reforms. There are many reasons for these shifts.

People deem all kinds of trends – from fashion, to food, to entertaining, and even to architecture – to be out-of-date or out-of-touch after a time. Many people naturally rebel against what their parents’ generation considered en vogue. The generations after the Victorians were no exception. The fact that the height of Victorian homes’ popularity coincided with the old tradition of laying out the dead in the family parlor (prior to the advent of the funeral parlor) did not help their image and may have added to the “creepy” mystique as trends moved away from wakes at home. These small scale reasons contributed to aesthetic preferences shifting away from Victorian style.

On a greater scale, aesthetics were influenced by social reform and philosophical ideals. The Victorian era – especially the latter-half – was a time of great economic (and other) disparity. Traditional Victorian homes visually represented this disparity with ostentatious displays of wealth, frequently characterized by conspicuous consumption by the nouveau riche. Heavy ornamentation and detail indicative of most Victorian styles – inside and out- represented the wealth of a small portion of the population. Some of this ornamentation was also made possible due to the second Industrial Revolution (itself a partial cause and manifestation of wealth disparity). Mass production enabled cheaper, quicker access to materials. But this also meant the wealthy became wealthier, the middle class became wealthier, and the poor stayed poor. In fact, the increase in urbanization made for overcrowded, unhealthy living conditions for the poor (who made up the greatest number of factory workers). They were also practically chained to their factory jobs and seen as inhuman machines by their employers.

Social reforms, including the arts and crafts movement and the labor movement, gained ground in government but also influenced architectural design. Many reformers (arts and crafts movement) saw industrialization as an undesirable replacement for craftsmanship as well as a social problem, and advocated craftsman style in architecture in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Home interiors were not immune to the changes, as the sanitary or hygiene reform movement also impacted design, especially in the bathroom; wood and heavy fabrics were seen not only as outdated but also unsanitary. These architectural style changes became an expression of political, economic, and social values in addition to quality materials and workmanship. Architecturally, craftsman styles flourished through the 1920s. By the 1930s and 1940s, modernism and colonial revival styles took hold, continuing to move away from Victorian style.

For all of the above reasons, Victorian homes fell out of favor, and people moved away from the old neighborhoods, leaving Victorian homes to be broken into apartments, turned into boarding houses, or derelict looming figures thanks to demolition by neglect, their once grand neighborhoods dilapidated and run-down. This likely furthered the view that these homes were “haunted” or “creepy.” This status was perfect creative fodder for authors and artists, who subsequently demonized these types of homes. As entertainment technology evolved, movies and TV shows followed suit (e.g., The Addams Family, The Munsters, and Psycho) further solidifying a negative view of these homes in the popular imagination.

The conglomeration of influences cemented Victorian homes as the style of haunted house for generations to come. The issue is that by doing this, in some cases, it has damaged the reputation of these houses leading to improper care for them, or even destruction of them. Luckily, enough of the population cares for these homes to have saved many of them, and we can see examples of Victorian architecture in nearly every town and city in the United States today. 

Letting Victorian homes wither away or even demolishing them due to misplaced fear is much scarier than actually saving and preserving these historic treasures. Anything that is dilapidated and not maintained will look creepy!

 

Examples of “haunted” Victorian architecture:

 

Gothic Revival architectural style seen in the caretaker’s home at Woodward Hill Cemetery (burial site of President James Buchanan) in Lancaster, PA. The gravestones seen in the foreground add to the foreboding ambience. Build date unknown. 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

Another Gothic Revival building at Woodward Hill Cemetery in Lancaster, PA. Build date unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

Photo above courtesy of Laura Kise.

 

View of the Winchester Mystery House in San Jose, California. Primarily identified with Queen Anne architectural style, this now-infamous home that began as a simple farmhouse was renovated and added onto by Sarah Winchester (widow of William Winchester) from 1886 to 1922 in an effort to protect herself from vengeful spirits. Purported to actually be haunted, the architectural design elements as well as Sarah’s purposeful twists, turns, and “booby-traps” make for a creepy home inside and out, despite its obvious beauty.

The image above was taken by Liz Jandoli, for Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), date unknown. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

The Biltmore Estate – home to the Vanderbilts and America’s largest home – in Asheville, North Carolina, is constructed in the Châteauesque architectural style, and was built between 1889-1895. This home is also rumored to be actually haunted, but anyone might feel intimidated by this imposing, gorgeous structure.

 

 

 

The image above was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston for the Library of Congress, in 1938. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Victorian Architecture Today

 

Where to see it. 

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in most towns and see how many Victorian houses you can find; despite the negative connotations over the years, we are lucky to have many fine examples of Victorian homes throughout the United States. 
  • (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums – if you’re lucky enough to find an open museum right now following CDC guidelines, visit in-person. Otherwise, see if their website has a virtual tour. Biltmore Estate can be toured virtually at the bottom of this page. You can virtually visit the Winchester Mystery House here. You may also choose to visit a purportedly haunted house (assuming you feel safe during this time of COVID) and given the time of year, there are many options as we get closer to Halloween.
  • Photo gallery – View Victorian architecture images on flickr or explore sites like Library of Congress. 

Get (or protect) your own.

  • Real estate – There are many ways to find your own Victorian, and by doing so, you can help save these treasures and contribute to a more positive view of these historic structures. The National Trust for Historic Preservation has archives of real estate agents who specialize in historic properties, here. They also include listings of properties for sale, here. You can also peruse independent sites such as Circa Houses and Cheap Old Houses
  • Protecting, preserving, and maintaining – Not maintaining your historical home will guarantee that it looks creepy, so maintain your home so you don’t contribute to the negative mystique! Visit the many resources on our website (or contact us for help), and view our Fall Maintenance post, here. Visit The National Trust for Historic Preservation, as well as The National Park Service for more information on protecting and preserving your historic home. 

 

For further resources and reading:

  • You can read Sarah Burns’ thorough analysis of the “haunted” mystique of Victorian homes – and JSTOR is currently offering free access if you create a login – here.

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on Butler’s Pantries.

 

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DO YOU OWN A VICTORIAN HOME? DOES IT HAVE A REPUTATION FOR BEING CREEPY OR HAUNTED? OR, IS THERE A VICTORIAN HOME THAT YOU DON’T OWN BUT LOVE?

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In honor of the ever-approaching spooooooooky Halloween holiday, we’ve been highlighting haunted historic buildings (or historic buildings that by all rights should be haunted) for you to virtually explore so you don’t have to meet the ghosties face-to-face.

One of our recent blog posts was about the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia – the state’s first attempt at humane treatment of prisoners that opened in 1829.  After implementing Penitentiaries as prison management reform, the state then turned its eye towards reformation of the way the mentally ill were treated with the opening of the Harrisburg State Hospital in 1850.

Haunted Historic Buildings

The History Behind these Haunted Historic Buildings

Pennsylvania State Lunatic Hospital, as it was then called, was also built by architect John Haviland (who built Eastern State Penitentiary, another haunted historic building in Pennsylvania)  The cost for patient housing (paid for by families of the patients or the county in which they lived before admission to the hospital) was $2.50 per week and the facility used an adjoining 130-acre farm for work therapy and to grow food and provide other necessities for the hospital’s operation.

Originally, the hospital was a single structure that housed all administration, staff, and patients.  In the late 1800’s and very early 1900’s, the hospital was rebuilt in the increasingly popular “cottage plan” style.  At its peak, the facility had 70 buildings spread out over 1,000 acres and was completely self-sufficient with its own farm, power plant, and stores.  This “City on the Hill” as it became known, operated as a hospital facility for mentally ill patients until 2006 and has been housing various government administration offices since then.

The Hauntings

Since the closing of the insane asylum the place has been haunted. Noises, screams, shadows, apparitions, and footsteps have all been heard and seen within this place. The basement, morgue, and the tunnels underneath the basement are the areas of heightened supernatural interest.  Blood like stains are sometimes found on the floor of the exam room in the morgue and poltergeist activity runs rampant on the property.  Paranormal activities are reported by visitors, staff, maintenance crews, contractors working on the property, etc.

So rampant that the Everyday Paranormal and Ghost Lab television crew from Discovery Channel came to investigate the building for one of their episodes.  The Ghost Lab show explores haunted buildings, which are often haunted historic buildings.  For this episode, they explored a private residence in Arkansas and the Harrisburg State Hospital.

NOTE: The segment on the Harrisburg State Hospital starts at about 6:42 in the first video.

Readers beware: this is some spooky stuff, please watch at your discretion.

httpv://youtu.be/oV_dCRVO_3c

httpv://youtu.be/1h1VZ7tb6kI

UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES On this 4th Tuesday of the month, we focus on another historical feature designed for form and function. It provided light, air circulation, and sometimes identifying information for homeowners and businesses, while also maintaining security. This month’s feature is: TRANSOM WINDOWS. 

Transom window featuring “Bullseye” glass at the John Maddox Denn House.

 

What is a transom window?

According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, a transom window is:

“A window above a door or other window built on and commonly hinged to a transom.”

 

These windows initially enjoyed popularity in the gothic period of the 14th century in Europe, and really became popular in the 18th century during the Georgian architectural period. Some authors suggest that the fanlight transom design that was so popular during the Georgian period came about as a natural aesthetic extension of Palladian designs, which tended toward arched windows. Stained glass was traditionally used in church transom windows and later used in private homes in the Victorian era and subsequent design periods. These windows provided more than visual enjoyment, as they also served practical purposes. Some buildings utilized transoms as the location of a painted or stained glass address number or location of the owner’s or building’s name. In buildings without electricity or fewer windows (like row homes), they provided extra light. Both exterior and interior transoms also allowed for increased air circulation. And because of their locations high above doors, these benefits were afforded without sacrificing privacy and security. Transoms were so ubiquitous in use that their open state in publishers’ offices theoretically allowed aspiring authors to pass on their unsolicited, amateur work directly to the publisher by throwing them through the opening. This led to an idiom used in analogous situations, as follows:

 

“It came in over the transom.”

 

Examples of Transom Windows:

 

A lovely stained glass transom window from St. Anne’s Episcopal Church in Lowell, MA has an even lovelier message behind it – click here to learn more about its meaning and gain a stunning illuminated view of the window. The church was built in the Gothic Revival architectural style between 1824 and 1825.

 

 

Image source: EmwBear ye each others burdens, main entrance transom window; Saint Anne’s Episcopal Church; Lowell, MA; 2012-05-18CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

In striking juxtaposition to the purpose behind the previous image, here is a beautiful example of a personalized transom window from the former Storyville Madam Lulu White’s address, a vestige of the long-gone structure, Mahogany Hall; it was built sometime between 1897 and 1917 during Storyville’s heyday, and demolished in 1949.
 

 

Image source: Infrogmation of New Orleans, Storyville exhibit, Historic New Orleans Collection – Lulu White TransomCC BY 2.0.

 

Stained glass transom window (and sidelights) in foyer of the John L. Wisdom House, in Jackson, TN, built in the Queen Anne architectural style between 1880 and 1881

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Transom fanlight window above door at the Chretien Point Plantation in Sunset, LA. Built in the Greek Revival architectural style in 1831
 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1947. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Transom Windows Today

Where to see them.

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in a historical neighborhood and spot as many transom windows as you can. Also look at historic churches.
  • (Virtual) museum and other tours – Check out historical house museums in-person or virtually. Many Georgian style homes are guaranteed to have transoms in the form of fanlights. Victorian era and later homes may have stained glass transoms.
  • Photo gallery – View transom window images on flickr here and here.

Where to get them (i.e., how to design or create one). 

  • Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a transom window, consult resources in this article to create one if you have the space. Try to find salvaged or antique materials to be most accurate (and sustainable) – here is some inspiration. 
  • Restoration and Design tips – Find inspiration to restore your existing transoms here, here, and here

For further resources and reading:

  • For thorough information on window restoration in general, check out NPS guidelines for windows, here
  • Read more about the history of transom windows here and here.

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES! See last month’s post on “Haunted” Victorian Houses.

 

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DO YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL OR MODERN TRANSOM WINDOW IN YOUR HOME?

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

Chris Vera, president of the Columbia Historic Preservation Society in Columbia (Lancaster County), PA, joined the Practical Preservation Podcast to discuss Columbia history, legends, and lore. We covered multiple topics, including:

  • Chris’s background as a child growing up in Columbia, whose passion for local history developed from working for elderly neighbors – people who preserved local heritage through storytelling 
  • The Columbia Historic Preservation Society’s role as a center for local Columbia history
  • The Society’s own preservation and adaptive reuse story: transforming and reinventing itself from a circa mid-19th Century Lutheran Church to a historical society, and its brush with destruction due to a case of severe mold contamination, and one former staff member’s desire to tear it down rather than save it 
  • Unique aspects of Columbia historyits nearly becoming the capital of the United States, rich African-American and underground railroad history, the Columbia-Wrightsville Bridge Burning, and its historical role as a beacon of industry and railroads
  • Local legends and lore – from cryptids like the Albatwitch (or “apple snitch”), to ghosts said to haunt the buildings and local trails and hills, and the many events celebrating these folk tales
  • Trends and challenges in history and preservation – funding being the number one challenge, followed by garnering interest in and support for these areas

 

Contact/Follow:

Website

Facebook

YouTube

Contact Information – General contact info located at the bottom of this page

Chris encourages supporting local Columbia heritage by visiting the nearby natural and trail areas (start here), as well as learning more about the history of the region from the Columbia Historic Preservation Society and other interesting historical sites to visit. You can also discover more museums, activities, and yearly events, here

There are several opportunities to explore the legends, lore, and supernatural side of Columbia, including the 7th annual Albatwitch Festival on Saturday, October 17th, 2020 – including Albatwitch and Haunted trolley tours – as well as a “Fright Night at the Museum” Saturday, October 31st, 2020 

 

Preservation Pennsylvania has released their “Pennsylvania At-Risk: Twenty-Year Retrospective of Pennsylvania’s Endangered Historic Properties, Where Are They Now” edition. It’s a fascinating look at preservation in action and we’ll be posting a look at each property in a series of posts over the next several months.

INTRODUCTION
Preservation Pennsylvania established the annual Pennsylvania At Risk list in 1992, making us the first statewide preservation organization in the United States to have an annual roster of endangered historic properties. Since 1992, we have listed and worked to preserve more than 200 endangered historic resources, including individual buildings, historic districts and thematic resources statewide. For 2012, as we celebrate the 30th anniversary of our organization, we are presenting a 20-year retrospective edition of Pennsylvania At Risk. In this issue, we revisit some of the amazing historic places across the Commonwealth, some of which have been rescued from extinction through preservation and rehabilitation efforts, and others that still need our help.

Approximately 18% of Pennsylvania’s At Risk properties have been lost, having been demolished or substantially altered. Another 32% have been saved or are in a condition or situation where the identified threat no longer poses a problem for the historic property. Approximately 50% of the 201 At Risk resources remain in danger, or we have not been able to confirm their current status as either saved or lost.

By monitoring these properties over the past 20 years and working with individuals and organizations trying to preserve them, we have learned many valuable lessons. Those lessons are called out throughout this publication.

 • AT RISK •

2008 — Pennhurst State School and Hospital, Chester County

Chester County

After five years of planning and construction, the Eastern Pennsylvania Institution for the Feeble-Minded and Epileptic (Pennhurst) opened in 1908. Situated on 1,400 acres of rolling hills overlooking the Schuylkill River, Pennhurst was the model mental facility of its time. The self-sustaining campus of 25 buildings included administrative and medical facilities, dormitories, workshops, a firehouse, a general store, a barber shop, a greenhouse, a fully functioning farm and recreational facilities such as a baseball field and playground, and was intended to isolate its residents from the rest of society. Just four years after its completion, the facility was overcrowded; it housed 3,500 patients at its peak of occupancy in space federal regulations later determined to be habitable for just 700.

More than 50 years later, Pennhurst became infamous for its unsanitary conditions and degrading and sometimes abusive treatment of the patients it was meant to protect.  Dormitories were overcrowded, and facilities designed for daytime play and exercise were packed tightly with beds. Staff was overextended and not able to give their patients the care they needed. Those with the most severe disabilities were often confined to cribs or beds with little or no treatment or education. Receiving insufficient attention and care, the physical, mental and intellectual health of patients often deteriorated.

In 1968, the NBC investigative report Suffer the Little Children brought national attention to the conditions under which the mentally and physically disabled of Pennsylvania were living, exposing Pennhurst as a notorious example of a national trend. In the 1970s, a series of landmark lawsuits arising from Pennhurst led to reforms that put Pennsylvania at the vanguard of disability advocacy. One lawsuit reaching the U.S. Supreme Court determined that the forced institutionalization of disabled people was unconstitutional. This ruling against Pennhurst established the foundation for reforms in similar institutions across America and became a benchmark for safeguarding the rights of mentally and physically disabled persons in the United States. As a result, Pennhurst is now regarded as the epicenter for the modern disability rights movement. Despite its tumultuous past, Pennhurst is significant as an example of an early 20th century state institution reflecting American beliefs and practices regarding the care of the disabled.

Pennhurst closed in 1986, and its 460 remaining patients were discharged or transferred to other facilities. Since that time, Pennhurst has stood vacant. In 2008, a developer acquired the majority of the formerly state-owned campus and concluded that the historic buildings should be demolished to make way for development. To date, the buildings have not been demolished; two buildings have been stabilized for use as a haunted attraction, Pennhurst Asylum. Many disability advocates have opposed the operation of Pennhurst as a haunted attraction, feeling that it portrays people with disabilities in a demeaning and degrading fashion, capitalizing on a dark past without interpreting its meaning. A new owner assumed responsibility for the site in 2012 and is interested in finding development partners to facilitate the site’s long-term preservation. A local group of concerned citizens formed Preserve Pennhurst (now known as the Pennhurst Memorial & Preservation Alliance, or PM&PA), which has spearheaded the effort to preserve the campus and history of the institution. PM&PA is working to raise awareness in the local community and demonstrate that preservation and adaptive reuse of the campus is possible. The group worked with a wide range of partners to prepare a Reuse Design Feasibility Study. That was followed by completion of market studies intended to determine what the redevelopment potential was in the area. Most recently, an economic feasibility study was completed for the property. These studies concluded that rehabilitation as market rate housing is feasible and would allow 11 of the campus’s most important historic buildings to be reused, while allowing for compatible development on the remaining 75 acres. There is particular interest in the community for age-restricted and senior housing. Control within the entity that owns Pennhurst has recently shifted, and the new manager has welcomed the opportunity to explore preservation and reuse. PM&PA is now seeking preservation-oriented development partners interested in utilizing the planning done so far and putting it into action: “Finally, there is an opening for a creative developer to restore this place, so long a white elephant on our landscape and our collective conscience. Reusing these buildings is, of course, a preservation win with all of the environmental and economic benefits that entails. But here, perhaps more than at any other place, reuse is palliative and regenerative in a way that clear-cutting them could never be,” said PM&PA founder Nathaniel Guest. PM&PA hopes that a ortion of the property will be used as a Center for Conscience, to preserve the lessons and stories of those forced to live at Pennhurst. The PM&PA hopes to create a modest memorial and museum on the campus, while reusing the property in a manner that provides economic and environmental benefits to the region.

The other week, Lois, Danielle, Katie, and Karri’s family took a field trip to see the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.  A nearly 200-year-old prison that looks like an abandoned castle and held scores of the dangerous, morally bankrupt, and sometimes the completely innocent for about 150 years… does it get any spookier than that?

Take a few minutes to explore with us.  We’ll begin with some basic history of the prison and then you can “walk” around the grounds with us as we comment on what we saw and learned.  The spoooooooooooky stuff we saved until last, because we didn’t want to scare you away from all of the rest of the fantastic stuff in this post.  But if you like to be scared first, feel free to scroll on down to the end.

After you’re done with our article, there is an excellent detailed description of the daily life and operations (including some surprisingly horrendous punishments for a “more humane” approach to imprisonment) at Eastern State read “Solitary Confinement: History & Hauntings of Eastern State Penitentiary”.

Note: Click on any of the smaller pictures to see them in full size.

Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary

Built in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA was the world’s first, true penitentiary.  After gaining their independence and launching a new nation, America’s founders were eager to lead the way in social development too.  At the time, prisons were nothing more than places to hold large groups of criminals, and not necessarily even humane or safe places.  Overcrowding and abuse of prisoners was common, as were unsanitary conditions and horrific physical punishments.

Inspired by Enlightenment thinking, a group of Philadelphians founded The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in Benjamin Franklin’s home.  The goal of the Society was to establish a ground-breaking prison system that would encourage true penitence and spiritual change in a criminal’s heart.

Designed by John Haviland, the Penitentiary turned the concept of incarceration at the time on its head and strove to rehabilitate instead of punish.  Based on the Separate System principle of isolation, the Penitentiary used solitary confinement to encourage self-reflection.  Not only were daily schedules and activities structured to encourage that self-reflection, the Penitentiary’s architecture was too.

Katie: It was interesting that the Pennsylvania System was used in most of Europe but the New York System was popular in the United States.

Note: The New York (or “Auburn”) System also strove to rehabilitate prisoners.  It did so by having prisoners work in silent groups during the day. At night they would retire to solitary, and once again silent, confinement.  This was to teach them discipline and respect for work, property, and other people.  An example of a prison founded on the Auburn System principles is Sing Sing in New York.

Eastern State Penitentiary’s overall design was seven main cell blocks arranged around a center hub, like spokes on a wheel.  This enabled the guards to watch each cell block from the center hub.  For the exterior of the Penitentiary, Haviland deliberately chose the intimidating gothic style to both keep outsiders at a distance and imply the kind of fortitude we associate with massive, stone castles.

Lois: The layout may look like wheel spokes from an arial view, but walking around inside the Penitentiary felt much more like a maze!  If an inmate, used to walking around with a hood over their head, managed to get into the main part of the building, they would never have been able to find their way out.

Aerial View of Eastern State Penitentiary Layout

[pe2-gallery] Watchtower at Eastern State Penitentiary   Eastern State Penitentiary   Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Front Wall at Eastern State Penitentiary

[pe2-gallery] Eastern State Penitentiary   Eastern State Penitentiary   Front Entrance of Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Note: The gargoyles are not original.  They are circa 9/20/2012 when they were erected for the Penitentiary’s annual “Terror Behind the Walls”.

Danielle: Eastern State Penitentiary definitely seemed like a fortress from the outside.  As imposing as it seems today, it must have been more so sitting on top of a hill in the midst of fields and forest a few miles outside of the hustle and bustle of the “civilized” city in the 1800’s.

The Cells at Eastern State Penitentiary

Individual cells were small, sparse, and closed off by a heavy wooden door that had a hole just large enough to pass food through.  At the back of each cell was an entrance to an outdoor exercise yard that was also small, sparse, and closed off from the rest of the prison and prisoners (though there was no roof).  Inmates spent all of their time in their cells, and were allowed a single hour out of every day in their exercise yards.  For those rare times a prisoner needed to be anywhere other than his cell or exercise yards, they were transported with hoods over their heads to eliminate contact with others and keep security tight.  After all, inmates couldn’t escape if they didn’t know the layout of the prison they were held in.

[pe2-gallery] Later Cell Skylights at Eastern State Penitentiary  Original Cell Skylights at Eastern State Penitentiary  The Exercise Yard at Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Note: The original cells had the much-smaller circle skylights seen in the second picture instead of the larger rectangle seen in the first picture.  To give you an idea of the size of the exercise yard – those cute kids of mine are standing at the door to the cell and I am back against the outside wall.  That was all the space they had to “exercise” in.

Katie: The solitude the prisoners felt must have been unbearable.  I can’t imagine being walked into a prison with a hood on my head and not really knowing the layout of the building.

Karri: I see the roots in Enlightenment philosophy and the mimicry of monastic life, and I see where it would be easy to think of a place like Eastern State Penitentiary as being a much better approach than the traditional prisons of the time.  But were they really?  Or were they just a horror of a totally different sort?  It seems akin to sensory deprivation and other kinds of psychological torture – to subject another person to such complete isolation against their will.  And I wonder how well this approach really worked?  How many inmates truly changed and were successfully rehabilitated?  How many simply went mad?  (Is it perhaps telling that no one really talks about whether or not this revolutionary approach worked?)  Oh, and can you imagine the eye strain the prisoners must have experienced working in such low light?  My eyeballs are hurting just thinking about it.

Lois: This humane system’s intent was to repair souls that had gone astray.  But we will never know if more harm than good was accomplished.

A special note about this very topic… Some deeper research after our field trip reveals that prisoners often did go mad while imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary.  During the 1800’s, the many cases of insanity that were documented by prison doctors at Eastern State were listed as being caused by one of two things: genes and excessive masturbation.  Never once was the total isolation of the prison listed as a cause of any of the breakdowns.

During the 23 hours out of a day that inmates spent in their cells, they were expected to work diligently and studiously at a vocation.  The founders of the Pennsylvania System believed that lack of training in a trade or education in general was a contributing factor in someone developing a criminal career.  They also believed that providing criminals with education and training in a vocation or trade was a critical aspect to rehabilitating them.

[pe2-gallery] Recreated Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary       Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Tucker: Someone really should have invented TV back then so the poor guys could sit back and watch the game after they were done working.

Katie: The cells even had feed doors and doors to their own exercise yards to minimize contact between other prisoners and guards.

The Door System at Eastern State Penitentiary

[pe2-gallery] Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Cell Door Track at Eastern State Penitentiary  Original Door Hinges from Eastern State Penitentiary  Gratuitous Cute Kid Shot at Eastern State Penitentiary  Cell Numbers at Eastern State Penitentiary  The Doors of Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

The door system for each cell was intriguing.  There was a solid iron interior door (the grated one you see in the pictures) that swung out on hinges, and a heavy solid wood exterior door that slid on a track.  Both of the doors were secured with a locking system, and both locking systems had special little “tricks” to them that weren’t easily figured out in the event that an unauthorized person did try to let someone out.  The pictures below show the kids trying their hand at getting into a cell – not an easy task.  Note: not all of the doors that are currently at the Penitentiary are original.  The wooden doors that are original have a cross in their ironwork, as pictured above.

Karri: I think there is something so much more final, and foreboding, about a sliding door like the wooden doors on the outside of the cells.  I think it’s those little things that might have added up to a terrible madness.  Think about it, put yourself inside that cell.  What seems more restricting to you – a door that slides back or one that swings open?

[pe2-gallery] Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  Unlocking a Cell Door at Eastern State Penitentiary  [/pe2-gallery]

Bean: I could have TOTALLY picked that lock if I was a prisoner!
(Let’s not burst his little 5yr-old bubble and tell him if he was a prisoner he would have been on the other side of the doors.)

Gracie: I would have thought, “Oh crap I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my sentence because I’mnever breaking out of here.”  Then I probably would have asked, “Can I have Al Capone’s cell?”.

The front gate of Eastern State Penitentiary had a similar set-up.  There were three sets of doors at the entrance to the Penitentiary, and only one set was opened at a time.  This ensured that people and deliveries could be moved in and out of the Penitentiary without any chance of someone slipping in or out.  Again, there were “tricks” to the locking system so that someone unfamiliar with how it worked couldn’t quickly unlock the door.

[pe2-gallery] DSC05046.JPG Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary Unlocking the Front Gate at Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Mason: Opening up the front gate was really neat.  I can’t believe it weighed 3,400lbs and I could move it.  See, Mama, you were wrong – I don’t actually need spinach to grow big and strong!

With all that time in their cells, inmates often “decorated”.  Perhaps not quite as lavishly as Al Capone’s cell, or other inmates of higher status, but many painted murals in their rooms or faux-finished their walls.

[pe2-gallery] Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary Cell Decorations at Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]

Karri: The story behind that eye above the door was intriguing.  Positioned like that above the door, it’s unlikely that guards or prison officials ever saw it, or at least didn’t see it right away – which makes me wonder if the positioning was chosen deliberately to remain as “hidden” as possible.  The kids and I also couldn’t decide if the tear of sorrow was for the prisoner, or the guards.  Because we’re really not sure who’s fate was more sorrowful.

Eastern State Penitentiary is self-described as a “stabilized ruins” – an apt description of the property.  Some improvements have been made. There is a modernized admissions office and gift store, and a few places in the Penitentiary that have been restored to original condition to show visitors what it would have been like.  But largely, the Penitentiary remains as it has been since it was abandoned in the 1970’s.

Lois: “Stabilized ruins” isn’t just an appropriate title, it seems an appropriate manifestation as well.

Danielle: Not only are there guides throughout the Penitentiary to answer questions and host demonstrations and tours, the Penitentiary also offers an “audio tour”.  When we arrived, we each received headsets to wear as we walked around.  While at a specific spot (the exhibit on women in the prison, for example), you could play a recording of information about that topic.  These recordings included a lot of first-hand accounts of life in the prison – something I found incredibly valuable.

[pe2-gallery] Eastern State University  Another Gratuitous Cute Kid Shot at Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Gratuitous Cute Husband Shot at Eastern State University  A View from the Center Hub at Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Eastern State University  Gratuitous Cute Family Shot at Eastern State University  Eastern State University  The Greenhouse at Eastern State University  The Greenhouse at Eastern State University  The Bocci Court at Eastern State University  The Visiting Room at Eastern State University[/pe2-gallery]

Bean: Those prisoners were pretty lucky – they got to play Bocci!

Pep the Dog

Although Eastern State Penitentiary housed some pretty big names (Al Capone spent almost a year there), perhaps its most infamous “inmate” was Pep the Dog.  Legend has it that Pep killed the Governor’s wife’s cat and was sentenced to life in the penitentiary.  Pep even had a mug shot taken, and was wearing an inmate number in that mug shot.  The Governor’s official story is that he donated the dog as a “prison mascot” of sorts to improve morale among the inmates.  But skeptics of that theory point out that Pep’s inmate number was never assigned to a human inmate and is completely missing from prison records….almost as if it had been assigned to Pep.

Danielle: Pep might have been a bad dog, but he must have been a very popular prisoner – he had the most items devoted to him in the gift shop!  Of course, the gift shop also had shank magnets available, so……  (And really? Shank magnets? Who buys those for their fridge?)

Katie: I thought the story behind Pep the dog was cute, but I think he was really just donated to the prison.

The Kids (resoundingly, as in all four of them): Somebody should have helped him escape, it’s not fair to lock a dog up behind bars and never let him out again.

The Inevitable Escape Attempts at Eastern State Penitentiary

Speaking of escape attempts, Eastern State Penitentiary did have its share of them.  Over 100, in fact, though only two go down in history.  The first because it was the only time a prisoner escaped and wasn’t recaptured when six men used a 30-foot ladder to climb over the Penitentiary walls in 1923.  All were recaptured, except Leo Callahan.  Callahan vanished and no one knows where he went or what happened to him after that.  The second, perhaps most infamous simply for its audacity, is the tunnel escape in 1945.  In that escape, 12 men crawled through a tunnel to escape under the Penitentiary wall.  The tunnel went down 15 feet from an inmate’s cell, across 97 feet under the courtyard, and up 15 feet outside of the Penitentiary’s 30-foot walls (which also ran 10-foot deep below-ground).   The first prisoners were recaptured within minutes of escaping, and all were recaptured within weeks.  One prisoner even turned himself back in after just a few days on the outside – he was tired, hungry, and cold and needed somewhere warm to sleep and eat.

Karri: Leo Callahan fascinates me simply because he’s the sole successful escapee from the Penitentiary.  Where did he go?  How did he just disappear?  What did he do that the five other men who escaped with him and were re-caught didn’t do?  Did he plan better?  Did he run further?  Was it just luck?  The tunnel escape was brilliant, but how did they do it?  It took them years to dig that tunnel, where did they put the dirt?  How did they hide what they were doing?  How did they keep it secret from other inmates? And just how on earth did they know that the exterior walls of the Penitentiary went down 10-foot underground?  That’s got to be the most brilliant of all, to have taken into consideration that those walls just might go deeper than normal.  Me?  I would have dug down a couple feet and then dug over to the wall and smacked straight into the stone.

[pe2-gallery] 1945 Escape Tunnel at Eastern State University 1945 Escape Tunnel at Eastern State University 1945 Escape Tunnel at Eastern State University[/pe2-gallery]

Surprising Details

[pe2-gallery] Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University Barber Shop Chair at Eastern State University Barber Shop Chair at Eastern State University Al Capone's Cell at Eastern State University The Greenhouse at Eastern State University The Greenhouse at Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University Eastern State University [/pe2-gallery]

Danielle: Despite the somber Gothic architecture and serious nature of what the purpose of the Penitentiary was, it was equipped with beautifully ornate details and very modern amenities.  Every cell block had its own barber shop that would (in later years) become the “social spots” where inmates gathered.  There was a “hospital” where inmates received medical care and a greenhouse where they grew fresh foods.  The Penitentiary even had running water and a central heating system before the White House did. 

As part of the modern preservation of Eastern State Penitentiary, there are a number of different “artist installations” around the Penitentiary that are all commentary on the Penitentiary – some good commentary, some purely historical commentary, some critical commentary.

[pe2-gallery] Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University Art Installation at Eastern State University [/pe2-gallery]

Karri: In 2012, we look back at history and the things our culture has done in the past and often think, “How could they have done that to another human?”  It is certainly easy to wander the Eastern State ruins and wonder that very thing, and then breathe a sigh of relief that we were born in a much more progressive time.  Until you come across the art installation that depicts a Guantanamo Bay cell sitting inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell.  For as little as the Eastern State cells looked (and they were indeed tiny), the modern-day Guantanamo Bay cell was significantly smaller.  And looked like a dog cage.  A dog cage.  Let me correct that….looked like a cage most of us wouldn’t even house our dogs in. Somehow, the stone cell of Eastern State with its chipping whitewash, total silence, small cot, toilet, and a sink seemed so much more homier and comfortable than a dog cage with no light, no ventilation, and two buckets instead of plumbing.  How could we still be doing that to another human being?

Speaking of doing things to human beings… punishment was horrific at Eastern State Penitentiary – a penitentiary founded as a humane alternative to prisons at that time. In the beginning of the Penitentiary’s long existence, punishment didn’t happen – administrators and the Penitentiary’s founders and designers believed the solitary confinement in small cells was punishment enough.  But as prisoners continued breaking the rules, punishment began to be used and progressively worsened stepping far outside the Quaker roots of the prison.

“The Mad Chair” was a punishment where an offending inmate would be strapped to a chair so snugly that they could not move at all and was left there (without food and water) for a period of time that depended on the severity of their offense ranging from hours to days.

“The Water Bath” punishment involved dunking or dousing an inmate in ice cold water, hoisting them up onto a wall with chains, and then leaving then leaving them there overnight (a “treatment” method used at that time in mental hospitals).  When used during the winter months (the time of year the guards most often used this form of punishment), a layer of ice would form over the inmate’s skin by morning.

“The Iron Gag” was the most popular form of punishment at Eastern State – and the most feared by prisoners.  The gag was an iron collar that went around a prisoner’s neck, with a metal piece that went in the prisoner’s mouth to suppress their tongue.  The prisoner’s hands were then crossed and pulled tight behind their necks and attached to the collar as well.  Any movement of their hands or arms would pull at their tongues and prisoner’s mouth was usually bloody and sore by the time their punishment was over.

“The Hole” was a set of incredibly small, completely windowless and utterly dark, rooms beneath the Penitentiary where inmates could be thrown for weeks at a time.  While in The Hole prisoners were given one cup of water and one slice of bread a day, and did not leave the dank cells for anything.  Not even bathroom breaks.  They were left to sit in their own filth, fighting off rats and other vermin until their punishment was done.

The Spooooooooooooooooooky Stuff at Eastern State Penitentiary

Rumors of ghosts at Eastern State Penitentiary have been around since the early 1900’s.  Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the first solid ghost story at Eastern State Penitentiary involved Al Capone.  Purportedly, Capone was haunted mercilessly by one of his St. Valentine’s Day Massacre victims and could be heard repeatedly screaming and begging in his cell for the ghost to go away and leave him alone.

But even before Capone getting his just desserts, prisoners and guards alike have reported supernatural goings-on at Eastern State Penitentiary – footsteps in empty halls, pacing in empty cells, wails coming from empty darkness, and dark shapes that resembled human forms drafting past.  Since the site has been opened to the public in the middle of the 1970’s as a National Historic Landmark, tourists and staff confirm even more supernatural encounters.

In Cell Block #12, independent witnesses have reported hearing laughter in certain cells and shadowy apparitions.  Similar shadowy apparitions have been sited in Cell Block #6 and “Death Row” Cell Block #15.  The most frequent “ghost” siting occurs in the older cell blocks, where visitors report a dark, human-like figure who just stands there emitting angry energy.

Mason: It doesn’t seem like it’s actually haunted – I checked pretty thoroughly.  Maybe even in a few spots I wasn’t technically supposed to.

Gracie: Eastern State Penitentiary was creepy, mysterious, intriguing, and ancient all at the same time.

[pe2-gallery] Spooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State PenitentiarySpooky Eastern State Penitentiary Spooky Eastern State Penitentiary[/pe2-gallery]