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.
That’s about when former staff and ex-inmates started returning keepsakes of their time at Eastern State, Kelley said. One guard’s widow showed up with a bag full of her husband’s mementos, including a nearly complete set of a magazine that prisoners published from 1956-67. “The objects have been coming back to us for years,” Kelley said.
That includes an inmate-made model clipper ship, which was returned in 2010 by Edwin Feiler Jr., of Savannah, Ga. Feiler had bought the foot-tall boat — and dozens of smaller ones, also crafted by prisoners — for a Navy-themed party at his University of Pennsylvania fraternity in the 1950s after hearing about the inmates’ handiwork through word of mouth.
Feiler vividly recalled “the crash” of the penitentiary gate as it closed behind him when he picked up the crafts. The ship would later spend decades as decor at his beach house on Georgia’s Tybee Island. He decided to give it back to Eastern State after his daughter, Cari Feiler Bender, began doing publicity for the site.
“When something like that’s on display, it becomes more meaningful to everybody,” Feiler said. “All you have now are those (prison) walls, but there were people there. It was alive.”
Eastern State archivist Erica Harman said one of her favorite objects is a 2-inch-tall decorative cutlery set that an inmate carved from soup bones in 1856. He used a jackknife, which was allowed during the era of solitary confinement.
Harman called the exhibit “a great reminder of the inmates’ humanity.”
“They’re not just numbers, they’re not just criminals. They’re people,” she said. “That can be hard to remember when you’re looking at locks, cells and keys.”