Newspaper writer haunts Eastern State Penitentiary|
Wednesday, October 31, 2012
By Josh Woods Staff Writer
PHILADELPHIA - Chicago's most famous mob boss had a relatively luxurious eight-month stay at Eastern State Penitentiary. But even he might have been jealous of The Progress' first known "prisoner" there.
According to ESP's website, Al "Scarface" Capone served his first prison sentence at Eastern State from 1929-30 for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon. He did his time in relative luxury; his cell on the Park Avenue block had fine furniture, oriental rugs and a cabinet radio, the site says.
As prisoner No. 871, I roamed freely in front of Capone's former cell.
My "incarceration" stemmed from a September media invitation addressed to The Progress from ESP. It offered access to its Terror Behind The Walls haunted attraction - an experience I had previously enjoyed as a patron.
Eastern State Penitentiary National Historic Landmark's haunted appeal brought me there for the first time in 2010. The prison has been featured on Travel Channel's Most Haunted Live, Ghost Adventures and Paranormal Challenge, Fox TV's World's Most Scariest Places, TLC's America's Ghost Hunters, MTV's FEAR and SyFy's Ghost Hunters.
A behind-the-scenes glimpse brought me back this year.
On Sept. 29, my return to ESP began in the parking lot of Philadelphia Zoo where a Ghost Bus whisked my girlfriend, Amanda, and me away to the prison. During our brief jaunt to Philadelphia's Fairmount section, our tour guide regaled us with the story of Pep the cat-murdering dog. Pep, he said, was a black Labrador retriever admitted to Eastern State on Aug. 12, 1924. According to prison folklore, Governor Gifford Pinchot used his executive power to sentence Pep to life without parole for killing his wife's cherished cat, he said. Killing cats, coincidentally, is also a crime in Amanda's book. But mercifully, we arrived at ESP.
We exited the Ghost Bus and followed a sidewalk to the front of the ominous-looking prison. We located the large tent that serves as the attraction's command central.
To gain admittance, we were asked to wear a nametag and fill out a waiver.
With a few minutes to spare before show time, we snapped a few photos and read the Eastern State Penitentiary historical marker. The marker reads, "Original prison built 1822-1836 by John Haviland. Linking solitude with moral and vocational instruction, it exemplified the Pennsylvania System of penology and became a model for over 300 prisons worldwide. Closed in 1971."
At approximately 6:30 p.m., we were introduced to Marketing Director Ellen Feist, Marketing and Interactive Media Specialist Nicole Fox and Associate Director of Design Services Jason Ohlsen. Ohlsen said the gothic style prison was built on 10.5 acres, opened in 1829 and had indoor plumbing and central heat before the White House. Its outside walls are 30 feet high, 8 feet wide at the base and a half-mile in length, he said. The aptly named Terror Behind The Walls haunted attraction serves as ESP's largest annual fundraiser, he said.
Ohlsen escorted us, along with other members of the media, to the front of the Terror Behind The Walls line. We were split into groups at a gated area where we awaited our journey through six haunted zones.
I volunteered to go first.
Needless to say, my trek through The Gauntlet, Lock Down, Detritus, Infirmary, The Experiment and Night Watch was startling. Fortunately, our experience working at Beccaria's Ravenwood Manor haunted mansion came in handy. Amanda and I appeared calm and led the way, leaving our obviously fearful counterparts at the mercy of the prison's undead.
We survived unharmed.
After the show, I met up with show manager Amy "Knuckles" Hollaman who arranged for me to moonlight as a TBTW actor. Hollaman joined TBTW as an actor in 2005 and later served as attraction zone manager and employee services director, she said. As show manager, she oversees casting, theatrical direction, stage management and human resources for the cast.
Hollaman introduced me to Makeup Director Lauren Palmer and makeup and effects artist Kaitlin Kennedy. According to information provided by ESP, Palmer's work has been seen on New York runways, in the film Transformers 2 and in Coastal Living magazine.
Kennedy served as my personal makeup artist for the evening. She attended college at Complexions International in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. At Complexions she learned the skills required to rough up my smiling face. Kennedy said TBTW employs 14 makeup artists who are tasked with making up over 200 actors. The makeup process takes 10-15 minutes per actor, she said.
After a few dabs of makeup, swabs of fake blood and sprays of airbrush paint, I was ready to meet Costuming Director Keith Lambert. Lambert has a background in independent films and theater and recently created costumes for The Ghost Ship at Morey's Pier in Wildwood, N.J. He loaned me a traditional-looking prison costume and directed me to the locker room. I slipped on the two-piece costume, laced up a pair of black boots and returned to the hallway for last looks.
There I was, transformed from terrified to terrifying.
Prisoner No. 871 was ready for Hollaman's instruction. Hollaman reviewed with me the prison's safety rules and led me through a few warm-up and vocal exercises. Then, she taught me an act.
I would work as part of a three-person team, posing as a chain gang. Myself and another man would be shackled to a third man who would yank on our chains, pretending to pull us away from guests.
The act, of course, is an illusion.
Our guests visibly breathed a sigh of relief when the middleman of our chain gang restrained us. They shrieked in terror when we broke free from him. Under Knuckles' watchful eyes, we freely roamed the entrance line armed with insults and sledgehammers.
My experience entering the prison as a free man was bone chilling, but staying there as a prisoner was delightful. If I make a third visit to Eastern State Penitentiary my decision is clear.
I'm asking for a life sentence.