You might be aware that my former employer, Eastern State Penitentiary (yes the initials happen to be "ESP"), has a 7-hour live broadcast upcoming this weekend on the Travel Channel. Shame on both of them, because the broadcast isn't history-related at all, but instead consists of a 420-minute wild goose chase for "ghosts."
Eastern State truly is "America's Most Historic Prison." It held inmates from 1829 to 1971, was the first institution on Earth to call itself a "penitentiary," and had a corrections method and radial design which influenced prisons and similar institutions all over the world. De Tocqueville, Dickens and Lafayette visted the site; Al Capone and "Slick" Willie Sutton were held there. If you want to study penology, criminology, sociology, even architecture, if you want to gain some sense of how America came to hold 2 million prisoners, or what we might do now that we're there, this would be a prime place to study.
Or at least I should say it should be a prime place to study, if the management were composed of history professionals with the slightest interest in the importance of the place in Philadelphia's history, and that of the larger world. The site could and should be an internationally recognized center for the study of criminology and penology, but instead it's known on the web mainly as a place to take "ghost tours." This should be of special concern to Philadelphia residents, as although access to the site is run by a private non-profit corporation, the fact is that the site itself has been owned by the City of Philadelphia since 1970. It's ours, and we should have some say in how it's run.
A few years ago an entire generation of tour guides, of which I was one, was let go in favor of hiring lower-paid workers with less education hand out a for-profit corporation's pre-recorded audio tours to visitors. Admission prices went up and the quality of the experience went down. One of the features of the "audio tour" (a name which never made sense to me, as our human-led tours were naturally always spoken aloud as well ...) is a section on "haunting" which takes no overtly firm position while dropping heavy hints (the fact that this page is extant on their website should make ESP's staff the laughingstock of Philadelphia's historic community) that workers have experienced strange things on-site. When we worked there we weren't encouraged to say the place was haunted, but people were discouraged by management from stating to the public that it certainly wasn't haunted, and/or that we didn't believe in ghosts.
Have I heard noises at ESP? Sure. There are pigeons, cats, rabbits and other critters living there. The roof leaks, plaster drops and everything echoes. Seen weird things? Distances can be hard to judge and the eye is forced to readjust frequently. It's a friggin' prison built in the 19th century; what would be paranormal would be if it were just like your living room.
Yet think about this for a moment, the management of a historic site which should be used to shed light on our society instead is playing into unscientific, irrational fear. Why might that be? The Almighty Dollar!
ESP's biggest annual fundraiser is turning this historic buidling filled with 150 years of very real painful memory into a goofy Halloween attraction called Terror Behind the Walls. This and not historic content is management's main priority, with the blessing of the board of directors, as it's easy money. This prime event on the prison's calendar has featured such noted historians as Insane Clown Posse. I was a tour guide at ESP for all or part of two seasons, and I can assure you that the place has a "creepy vibe" based in the fact that an abandoned 4-acre maze of cells, cellblocks, bars and walls does play off of natural human fears of confinement, solitude and the unknown.
What is not particularly frightening is having a heavily made-up art student jump out at you in the same building you were working in 3 hours earlier with an awful rap-metal soundtrack. Irritating? Yes. Does it play off of my fears... for the future of America as a rational nation? Yes, you bet. But is it creepy like ESP on its own on a quiet night? No, not by half.
Let me state that after having spent well over 150 days and at least a few dozen nights at ESP, I have never experienced anything remotely "paranormal." Nothing. I've even signed up for overnights as a tour guide supervising "ghost-hunters," (the prison management rents the place out for cash to people who want to play ghost hunter at night, and needs staff to show them around and make sure they don't get hurt in the ruins; it's a large, crumbling complex) and the only abnormal things I've seen have been the ghost-hunters themselves.
These chuckleheads bring cameras (digital and film), tape recorders, thermometers and flashlights as their "paranormal" equipment, and we weren't allowed to make fun of them. I had a hard time keeping a straight face. The first time I signed up I was half interested in the extra cash (tour guides being paid hourly) and half interested in what sort of "ghost equipment" a person might buy.
One hardly expects the Tandy Ghostometer X-3000 (although if Radio Shack sold one, these folks would buy it), but I also expected something better than the crap you'd take to record a Cub Scout camping trip! The best/worst has to be the interpretation of every bad photo as "orbs." ESP is dusty as only an abandoned prison complex can be, thus there do tend to be "orb-like" objects in the air when you take flash photos at night. Duh.
Just Google "EASTERN STATE ORBS" though, and you'll be treated to more bad photos of the prison than you can shake a black cat at. Each and every one its own little miracle of the paranormal. Of course.
These people will hold a stud finder to a stone wall and get "readings" all over the place. They'll note a temperature change of -1 degree Fahrenheit while standing over the grate to a stone basement and note a "presence." For cryin' out loud, people, visit the Bad Physics site early and often!
Thus ESP collects a few hundred bucks from each self-deluded "ghost tour," it makes tens of thousands on the Halloween haunted house shtick and they rent the place out for classy events like the Emeril Lagasse Halloween special. With crapola like this bringing in the long green, who has time for real history?
One would hope the staff of an important historic site would, instead of inciting the public with tales of supernatural madness to turn a quick buck, use it as a major interpretive center. This route is the history professionals' equivalent of malpractice. I'm forwarding this to the good skeptics over at the James Randi Educational Foundation in the hopes that the site management and our absentee landlords in the City of Philadelphia get the wider audience of ridicule they so richly deserve. Something stinks on that hill in Fairmount, and we need to take out the trash.
By the way, the photos of the site itself are mine. Give a guy a digital camera and few thousand hours to while away and a few good photos will amass.