Camp Martin Travels

These entries will be a combination of historical day trips, graduate level travel courses, and just little stops along the way. I have been teaching 8th grade American History for over 25 years. I am also a Civil War Reenactor and have traveled to Germany and Austria with several groups of exchange students and written about our adventures. Please check all my posts by using the monthly Blog Archive tabs shown below. I have posted over 150 Blog Episodes since 2009... Please explore them all!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Eastern State Penitentiary / Part # 1

Eastern State Penitentiary
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
PART # 1 
The Walnut Street Jail / Gaol
(Engraving Credit: William Birch) 

Charles Williams stood in front of the courtroom on Walnut Street in Philadelphia in late October of 1829 and awaited the judge's verdict concerning his case.  He had been labeled a burglar by the prosecution, accused of stealing several items from a home, including a $20 watch, a $3 gold seal, and a gold key.  He was a farmer by trade, a literate black man on a visit to the city who now faced an uncertain future beyond his control.  He closed his eyes as the judge rendered his decision with the word guilty ringing loudly within Williams' ears.  He was sentenced to two years of confinement in the newly opened prison on the hill a mile outside the city of Philadelphia known as Eastern State Penitentiary.  Williams had never heard of the word penitentiary and had no idea what it meant. 

Walnut Street Jail Cell
(Illustration Credit: E.S.P. Museum)
On the morning of October 23, 1829 Charles Williams was informed he would be transported from the Walnut Street Jail to the new facility within the hour.  He was escorted from the loud, crowded jail cell and was placed inside the Black Maria police wagon for the half hour journey.  He took in his last glimpse of busy Walnut Street as the wagon door was closed tightly shut and the interior became dark.  The horses jutted forward and the chains on his wrists and ankles began to jingle with the rhythm of the cobblestone streets below.  The ride became increasingly rough as the wagon navigated the rutted dirt country roads outside the city.  Finally, the wagon came to a stop and the door was abruptly jarred open, allowing the outside light to penetrate the space and chase the darkness away.  He was pulled from his container and stood on his feet.  As his eyes began to adjust to the light, an ominous castle of enormous scale and size came into focus, with stone walls thirty feet high. 

Eastern State Penitentiary Castle Exterior
The sight of the stone structure before him was surreal but before he could absorb the scene further, a thick cloth bag was placed over his head and tied fast around his neck.  Again he was in darkness as a pair of guards led him forward up a few steps and through a blind route to a room where he would be processed into the system.  Soon he was seated in a chair and the cloth bag around his neck was loosened and pulled off.  The room was dimly light and his eyes adjusted more quickly, revealing a man behind a desk who studied him with interest.  He introduced himself as Warden Samuel R. Wood who notified Williams that he would have the distinction of being Prisoner # 1 of Eastern State Penitentiary.  He was told he would be isolated in solitary confinement in a private cell with little contact with the outside world.  He would not be permitted to see any visitors nor receive any mail during his stay at the penitentiary.  Warden Wood said that he hoped the silence would provide Williams the opportunity to consider the weight of his crimes and seek repentance as a form of rehabilitation for his sins.

 Prisoner in Blindfold Bag
(Later Version with Eye-holes)
Prisoner # 1 saw Warden Wood disappear from view as the cloth bag was replaced over his head once again.  He was stood up and turned around to exit the room as he attempted to digest the instructions the warden had just handed down.  He was aimlessly led forward in darkness through long straight spans and multiple twists and turns until he was suddenly pulled to a stop.  He heard the jingle of keys and the creak of a heavy door as the guard placed a hand on top of his head and instructed him to stoop and step forward.  Helpless, he stood and listened trying to gain clues that might offer a hint of his unseen surroundings.  The door slammed shut and the key revolved in the lock chamber and all fell silent at once.  However, he was not alone as he felt his hood strings loosened again and the bag pulled from his face.  He was surprised to see the blue sky and feel the heat of the sun's rays on his face.

 Eastern State Prison Cell /Yard Model
He was standing within a small stoned walled space that was open to the sky above him free from bars but at least ten feet in height on all sides.  There was a heavy door on either end of the stone walled rectangular shaped space.  He guessed the one he just passed through led to the cell block corridor and the other door possibly to an enclosed cell.  The guard notified him that with good behavior he would be awarded two half hour sessions per day in the individual exercise yard.  The other door was opened and he peered inside the cave-like cell.  The cell inside contained a bed off the floor, a small wooden night stand and a circular stool with an opening on top.  The guard must have noticed his curious expression and told him it was a toilet, a necessary built into the cell that could be flushed twice a day with a bucket of water.   The braces on his ankles and wrists were opened and his limbs were released.  The guard backed out of the cell door, the iron door creaked shut, the lock turned, and he was alone in silence.

Cell Ceiling Skylight
Williams examined the space that would be his home for the next twenty-four months.  The room appeared to be similar in size and construction to the small exercise yard outside.  The ceiling arched high to a narrow rectangular slit that allowed light to pour into the cell, like light that brightly bursts through a small opening in dark clouds.  The light was so bright that he could not see outside beyond the opening's glare but it only illuminated a small space in the center of the floor.  The light faded to the edges of the room.  On the wall opposite the cell entrance was a rectangular wooded panel about the size of his chest.  He ran his fingers around the edges but it would not move, keeping its purpose a mystery.  He sat down on the hard iron frame bed topped with a thin mattress, covered by a single blanket of gray wool, and a thin pillow made of linen.  Several pipes were stacked on top of one another and attached to the side wall but their purpose, he could not guess.  He laid down on the bed, closed his eyes, and listened for any evidence of sound.

Cell Sliding Food Door
If there were other prisoners above, below, or beside him, he could not detect their existence.   He gazed at the light coming from the thin slit in the ceiling but he could not detect what time of day it might be by now.  When working in the fields he could always track the passing of time by the movement of the sun but this light was fixed and only changed when a cloud might obstruct the strength of its light.  His stomach began to growl and he sat up and filled a tin cup from a matching pitcher filled with water.  He looked at the curious cement chamber pot in the corner but was startled when the wooden square door slid open and a plate of food was handed to him by a faceless guard who did not speak.  The door closed tightly shut as quickly as it had opened and he was contained once again in quiet.  He dined on a small loaf of hard bread and warm beans with a large provided spoon. He wiped his plate clean with the remaining crust of his bread and placed the open face upon the wall, resting his ear on the bottom side.  He began to tap a cadence with the spoon on the wall and held his breath, listening for any hint of response.  After several minutes, the one sided effort became tiresome and the cell fell back into lonely silence.     

Suffering in Solitude
(Illustration Credit: Charles Dickens)
Over time, a routine developed with long spans of solitude and four brief contacts with prison personnel for meal deliveries, exercise yard access, and routine counts.  Warden Wood stopped in once a day to check on him but the staff interacted very little with him.  Other than the warden, he did not know the guards' names and still could not detect the presence of other prisoners.  The thick walls of his cell revealed little and when outside in his walled yard, he could not hear any human sounds.  When his food door opened, he gazed into the corridor but the wall on the far side was solid blank plaster. On rare occasions he was removed from his cell to visit the prison doctor or barber but was always covered by the canvas bag to block his sight during transit.   As the weather cooled through fall and winter approached, he noticed that the stacked pipes along his cell wall began to give off heat to keep him warm.  It was a strange phenomenon he could not explain nor even begin to comprehend.  He had no books to read, or cards to play, and he began to drown in the deafening silence that consumed his world. Without notice, he began to talk to himself, as isolated people often do in an attempt to keep hold of their sanity. 

Deteriorating Cell Block Today
It is impossible to know what ever became of Charles Williams, AKA: Prisoner # 1.  He was most likely released and disappeared into obscurity.   We hope his experience at Eastern State Penitentiary had a positive impact on his criminal tendencies and rejoined society with a new outlook on life.  Perhaps he returned to his old trade of farming the land in the wide open spaces, where he could once again track the passing of time by the movement of the sun.  Or he may have quickly fallen back into old habits that repeatedly returned him back into the system.   On Part # 2 of our visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, we will examine the prison further and outline the purpose of the worlds first true penitentiary that became praised by some and criticized by others.   We will also look at other personal stories of prisoners, including gangster Al Capone and bank robber Slick Willie Sutton.  Remember kids, Crime Doesn't Pay... It never has!

PLEASE NOTE: The above narrative was written by me personally.  The story is based on my research concerning prisoner Charles Williams, Eastern State Penitentiary, and my historical imagination after touring the site.  It is not a factual published account of real events.

Please See Additional Photographs at....

Individual Cell Toilet and Heating Pipes


Eastern State Penitentiary / Part #2

Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 1930
(215) 236-3300


No comments:

Post a Comment

Total Pageviews