We Want Answers: Sally Elk, CEO, Eastern State Penitentiary

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

Photograph by Claudia Gavin

For years now, you’ve witnessed the phenomenon of people paying money to be petrified by other people. How do you explain this strange desire? It’s amazing to me. I guess it’s the unknown, it’s going around the dark corner, it’s somebody getting close to you and breathing on your neck and touching your cheek. I don’t know. It’s so crazy. But it’s been good for us.

Have you ever been sued by a visitor? I mean, there must be liability issues. The place is like a haunted torts case. Ummm, sued … We have had injuries. We have a lot of people going through, and it’s at night, so we have had some injuries. But the thing is, we’re classified as an amusement by the state, so the state comes to inspect, and the city also inspects. We’re very aware of safety issues for people going through.

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Restoration of the Chaplain’s Office Murals at Eastern State

EASTERN-STATE-MURALS-RESTORED-13-6925-Andrew-Fearon-Materials-Conservation-Bobbi-Munn-940x540

Tuesday night at Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) sponsors and board members gathered to celebrate the newly restored Chaplin’s office and murals at the popular tourist site.

The murals were discovered in 1995, 23 years after the active prison stopped housing prisoners, and two years after the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force took over the building to preserve it. Now the crumbling murals are now restored. Active fundraising began in 2007, and the work started last summer with the restoration completed this month by a team of art conservators.

From June 2013 through August 2014, the team carefully removed the protective Japanese tissue paper and wax that had obscured the paintings for 18 years while preventing the total loss of the 23 murals that line walls of the two rooms used by the Catholic chaplain. (Learn about the process here.)

The murals were painted by self-taught artist inmate Lester Smith in 1955, who signed them “Paul Martin” after his two favorite saints. When Father Edwin Gallagher, the penitentiary’s Catholic chaplain (1952-1958), witnessed Smith painting in his cell, he invited the inmate to decorate the offices where he met with and counseled inmates. Smith covered nearly every wall space with a beautiful mural. The Lester Smith family donated photos of the murals to the museum and they were used to help restore the murals.

Photos after the jump »

Eastern State Penitentiary to Open Eerie Machine Shop for Terror Behind The Walls 2014

"Terror Behind The Walls" at Eastern State Penitentiary.

“Terror Behind The Walls” at Eastern State Penitentiary.

You have likely already explored—or at least heard of—Eastern State Penitentiary’s Terror Behind The Walls (TBTW), America’s largest (and in our biased opinion best) haunted attraction. Each season, the theatrical production offers fright seekers the chance to explore the massive prison, once home to notable kidnappers, gangsters, and murderers.

Last year TBTW included an opt-in feature, where visitors could elect to take a more interactive tour. This involved being removed from your group, grabbed by the inhabitants of the cellblocks, sent alone into dark hidden passageways, or even thrown into the show.

Sounds terrifying, huh? But Eastern State Creative Director Amy Hollaman says people couldn’t get enough of it. “We found it was really popular,” she says. “Sixty-seven percent of visitors decided to opt-in.”

With that in mind, they’ve come up with a whole new interactive attraction for 2014: The Machine Shop.

According to Hollman, The Machine Shop is a former prison factory that’s never been opened for public tours. “It’s tucked down beneath the cellblocks in an area by Death Row,” she says.

Inside guests will find saws, drills, blades, and chains, and, because the attraction is designed for interactive activity, there will be grinders and welders pulling people away from their groups into dark corridors and murky corners.

“It will feel really different every night,” Hollman says. “If someone comes on Saturday, and returns on Sunday they could get a completely different experience, because there are so many different paths and ways you can be pulled into.”

Wear a diaper.

Terror Behind The Walls will run on selected evenings from September 19th through November 8th. For more information, click here.

Orange is the New Black Sparks Renewed Interest in Eastern State Penitentiary

eastern state orange is the new black crazy eye

Photos courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary. Embarrassingly basic Photoshopping by Josh Middleton.

Recently my roommate and I decided to take a tour of Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP.) Neither of us had ever been, and I assume it was a fairly standard visit. But after the obligatory let’s-make-this-look-scarier-than-it-really-is Instagram shots, I realized we were both thinking about the same thing—our recent binge-watching sessions of the second season of Orange is the New Black (OITNB).

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WATCH: The New York Times Captures Philly’s Bastille Day Celebration On Tape

John Jarboe Bastille Day

Yesterday we shared photos from this weekend’s 20th annual Bastille Day celebration at Eastern State Penitentiary, but The New York Times showed us up by putting together a whole video of the day. Check out the video below to see NYT’s interpretation of our “spirited and unconventional re-enactment.” Lots of local folks show up, including ESP’s Sean Kelley, Bearded Ladies Cabaret‘s John Jarboe, and London Grill‘s Terry McNally, who donned a powdery wig and pink silk dress to portray Marie Antoinette.

PHOTOS: Crowds Pack Eastern State Penitentiary for Bastille Day

On Saturday Fairmount celebrated the 20th Annual Bastille Day at Eastern State Penitentiary. The event commemorates the beginning of the French Revolution with the Storming of the Bastille on the 14 July 1789. The Bearded Ladies Cabaret Company performed an artistic interpretation of the story, with founder John Jarboe playing French cabaret great Edith Piaf. Terry McNally, co-owner of the nearby London Grill reprised her role as Marie Antoinette, telling the citizens from the roof of the “Bastille,” “Let them eat Tastykake!”

This year I wanted to do something a little different and photograph the event from the performance stage as well as from behind the scenes, which my partner Mike Toub photographed. Check out our shots below to find out why Marie Antoinette’s head was spared at this year’s celebration.



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Dice Raw Performing Free Show at Eastern State Penitentiary

Courtesy of Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins

Courtesy of Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins

Philly The Roots rapper Karl “Dice Raw” Jenkins is coming to town next week to host a free talk and performance at Eastern State Penitentiary.

Dice Raw will discuss his new solo album, Jimmy’s Back. The work is inspired by Dr. Michelle Alexander’s New York Times bestseller The New Jim Crow, and focuses on America’s black male incarceration epidemic. According to a press release from ESP, “black men are overrepresented in America’s criminal justice system, incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of White men. If current trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison in his lifetime.”

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Sample Prison Food… Without Prison

Prison

The popular event is back this year, featuring a dish that most likely won’t end up having you beg for the recipe. This Saturday and Sunday, June 14th and 15th, from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Eastern State Penitentiary is hosting Prison Food Weekend. And on the menu this year is the controversial Nutraloaf, an item that is served as a punishment for many American prisoners today. The event is giving participants a sample of Nutraloaf that was made using the official recipes from Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Maryland. Visitors will also be able to check out sample menus, prison reports and more.

Nutraloaf is generally accepted in prisons as a form of punishment, though the issue does remain controversial. After you’ve sampled the product, you can write your thoughts on a taste card and decide for yourself whether or not it is cruel punishment. So while it may not be the tastiest event we’ve ever written about, you’ll get a sample of something you’ve wanted to know about, but hoped you’d never have to.

Prison Food Weekend [Official]

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