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Shivs, more on display at historic Philly prison

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 21, 2013 at 9:16 am •  Published: March 21, 2013
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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A mounted wooden fish. Dog figurines. Colorful soap carvings of clowns and Santa. A wallet made of interwoven cigarette packs. It sounds like a bad garage sale — until you get to the shivs. And the century-old mug shot book. And the inmate death ledger.

Those items are among dozens of prison artifacts set for display at the historic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. The brief exhibit opens Saturday and runs for 10 days.

The defunct and decayed prison, which once housed gangster Al Capone, was abandoned in 1971 but has since been preserved in a state of semi-ruin, becoming one of the city's eeriest and quirkiest tourist attractions.

The objects have never before been exhibited because the dank, decrepit facility didn't have any climate-controlled rooms. But recent renovations will allow the prison to temporarily convert its staff conference room into a "pop-up museum."

Chronicling the inmates' arc of arrival, hard time and departure, artifacts range from mug shots and the prison's original front-gate key to handicrafts, shanks and a death ledger. Many died of tuberculosis; some were executed elsewhere; others served their sentences and went home.

The objects remind visitors that hundreds of people once lived and worked in the now spooky and silent cellblocks, said Sean Kelley, director of public programming. The site also featured amenities such as a synagogue, chapel, print shop and curio store, where inmate crafts were sold to the public.

"Life here was incredibly varied. ... A lot of people find that surprising," Kelley said. "It's amazing how this place was really a small city."

The prison sits behind forbidding, 30-foot-tall walls in the city's Fairmount section. It was an architectural marvel when it opened in 1829, boasting indoor plumbing and central heat even before the White House. Such conveniences enabled solitary confinement that would, ideally, lead to penitence — thus the term "penitentiary." The solitary system was scrapped in 1913.

After closing more than 40 years ago, the facility largely became a crumbling mess until historical preservationists stepped in. It reopened for daily tours in 1994.

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