Eastern State Penitentiary (all photographs by Michelle Enemark unless indicated)
Earlier this month we launched our new Road Trip series of get-out-of-town adventures with a day of exploration in Philadelphia. Below are some photographs from this exciting new programming of our events branch — the Obscura Society.
After departing New York City bright and early in the morning we started at the Mütter Museum. The medical history museum located at the College of Physicians is a treasure trove of anatomical specimens, from the skeleton of the tallest man in North America to slides of Einstein’s brain. We started our visit with a talk on the “Science of the Sideshow” that looked at the real medical conditions behind the “giants,” reptile-skinned people, bearded ladies, and other historic sideshow performers.
Next we journeyed over to the Edgar Allan Poe National Historic Site, where the author lived in the 1840s and wrote such harrowing tales as “The Tell-Tale Heart” and was inspired by the odd bricked in space of the basement to imagine “The Black Cat.” The rooms are bare and the paint has long ago peeled, but our excellent tour guide brought the place to moody life, even recounting some of the tales right in the places they were written.
Last stop was Eastern State Penitentiary. The 19th century prison was revolutionary in a “penitence”-minded system of reform, with an exterior like a foreboding fortress and an interior with skylights streaming down light like in a cathedral. Unfortunately, the system of solitary confinement where prisoners wore masks whenever they left their cells was far from effective, and that combined with later overcrowding resulted in Eastern State becoming obsolete. Then it was abandoned and turned into an urban forest before it opened in the 1990s as a museum. Still, though, it feels like a ruin, and our tour took us behind-the-scenes into some of its usually off-limits reaches.
THE MÜTTER MUSEUM
Entering the Mütter Museum
Comparing hands with a cast of the hand of a giant
Learning about the Science Behind the Sideshow, the details of medical history in circus “freaks”
EDGAR ALLAN POE NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Exterior of the former home of Edgar Allan Poe (photograph by Allison Meier)
In the basement, which is said to have inspired “The Black Cat”
Poe mural across the street
Statue of “The Raven”
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
Exploring the prison, where rain made fog creep into the halls
Learning some of the history of the penitentiary, where inmates were initially kept completely isolated, only going outside in private exercise yards and wearing masks when they left their cells
Standing in the center of the prison’s radial plan, a single guard could turn and monitor all the halls of cells
Rain in the exercise yard
Descending into the solitary cells
A tunnel that was once where prisoners were kept in solitary
The prison was abandoned for years, and plaster still crumbles from the walls
Moldering furniture in a cell (photograph by Allison Meier)
Fog dissipating in the air
One of the off-limits halls (photograph by Allison Meier)
The cell of Al Capone
View the cell of Al Capone
Light coming through skylights was intended to give the prison a spiritual tone
The old operating room in the prison
This hall is said to be the most haunted of the prison
Fog in the hallway
Outside Eastern State, with its fortress-like exterior
This is just the first of the road trips we plan to take through our events branch — the Obscura Society — so keep an eye on our events page to stay informed about future explorations.
The Obscura Society is the real-world exploration arm of Atlas Obscura We seek out secret histories, unusual access, and opportunities for our community to explore strange and overlooked places hidden all around us. Join us on our next adventure!