Archives Month: Eastern State Penitentiary

[Posted on behalf of Shaun Kirkpatrick]
The last week of Archives Month Philly kicked off with the first day of behind-the-scenes tours at the archives of Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), part of the historic prison’s Hands-On History programming.
Erica Harman shows visitors toys made by prisoners
ESP’s Erica Harman (Manager, Archives and Records) is the tours’ host, taking visitors into a collections space that is small (though the ESP is working to improve that) but dense with materials that provide a fascinating window into the lives and art of its inhabitants.
Visitors were first greeted by two large directories or “mug shot books” – literal facebooks – of inmates, one of which we learned suffered some damage in Superstorm Sandy but will soon be sent out for conservation work so its haunting headshots can be better preserved and utilized. Harman then opened drawer after drawer of donated or found “curios” from former residents, including both the amazingly creative – figurines whittled out of as little as a matchstick – to the dangerous yet mundane, small inmate weapons called “shivs” or “shanks.”  A final remarkable item was a baby doll with clothing handmade by a female inmate, the only material in the collections known to have been created by a woman.
photo albums on display in the Eastern State archives
Rounding out the whirlwind tour was brief passage through the archives’ cozy dedicated research room, perhaps inspiring a visitor to return sometime to study the penitentiary’s historical gems further.
Intrigued? The 15-minute tours continue to be offered through Friday, Oct. 28, at 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. (with regular museum admission). So take an afternoon off work and spend a bit of the Halloween season behind-the-scenes of one of the city’s eeriest destinations.

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