Eastern State Penitentiary, a gateway to America's past

April 18, 2013 3:39:35 AM PDT
It's been on Fairmount Avenue for two centuries, and an active prison for most of that. But today, Eastern State Penitentiary is your gateway to America's past.

Always a fascinating place to visit, this year's new "Hands On History" programs add interest and keep history buffs coming back.

One new attraction this year is "soup Alley", a partial re-creation of the kitchen area operated by and for inmates.

Much like KP on a military base, inmates were assigned responsibility to kelp out in the kitchen on a rotating basis, and most of what they cooked was soup.

Interviews with actual inmates from 50 or so years ago confirmed that most of what they produced was considered pretty good.

Today, most prisons contract inmate feedings to outside firms. Hands On History also spotlights one of the prison's most famous or infamous incidents.

One day in 1945, about a dozen inmates succeeded in tunneling their way to freedom. Some were captured in minutes but at least two stayed out for days. Among them, notorious Philly bank robber Willie Sutton.

How long and how often he got out is subject to speculation. One popular story has it that Sutton "escaped" on a daily basis to enjoy a cocktail at the bar up the street. We will never know for sure.

Part of the Hands On History program means displaying some artifacts from the prison's archives on a day-at-a-time basis.

You never know what might await you on any given day. Self-guided tours are available daily from 10:00am to 5:00pm or you may rent the audio tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.

Each fall, the prison operates "Terror Behind the Walls", widely regarded as America's most successful haunted house program.

Proceeds from that ambitious program fund operation and preservation of the site year-round. It also makes it possible to create and run temporary attractions like this year's features.

Many visitors who budget an hour or so to visit the prison museum end up staying all day, and, even then, leave without having seen everything.

If you're a history enthusiast, it belongs on your must-see list. For information, visit their website at Eastern State Penitentiary or phone 215-236-3300.