27 April 2009

Penitentiary Life, Weeks 5 and 6

Yep, a two-fer - I forgot to post last week, and figured I'd just combine things. I'm sure we'll all live ...

Al Capone and Death Row (Week 5)

This picture, as you may know, is of Al Capone, the famous Chicago mob boss. My mother spent part of her growing up years in Chicago, during the time that Al Capone was around. She always used to tell us that gangsters back then were not really scary to the average person, since they left you alone - they were really only "interested" in the other mob guys. Whether or not this is true, I can't say, but as a result of her stories, Al Capone was never any more or less interesting to me than other famous gangsters. True, his nickname was "Scarface" and I respect any gangster with a decent nickname. (Nowadays, they don't have good nicknames like they used to. But I digress.)

Anyway, Al Capone experienced life in prison for the first time here in Philadelphia, at Eastern State. After the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, Al apparently thought it was a good idea to get out of Chicago for a while. So he headed to Atlantic City, and on his way back, stopped in Philadelphia for a movie. When he came out of the theater, the police stopped him, and found that he was carrying a concealed weapon, which is against the law in Pennsylvania. He was sentenced to a year in prison at Eastern State. He served 8 months. Some say that he had arranged the whole thing so that he could lay low for a while, but at the same time, he spent thousands of dollars in lawyer's fees trying to get out, so who knows.

As part of the tour, the public gets to see Al Capone's cell, which as you may imagine, is quite a bit nicer than the average inmate's cell.

Also on the tour is Cellblock 15, aka Death Row. It is the last building added to the prison complex, and also the most modern, as the guards could close all of the cell doors via an electronic panel. It's a pretty creepy building, partly because it's gloomy, but also partly because it ended up with broken windows, etc., while the pentitentiary site was abandoned.

No one was ever executed at Eastern State, rather Death Row was where people would be held awaiting execution. There is one prison in the state (Rockview) where executions were done.

Why am I telling you this? Because, every single day, two of the most frequently asked questions of visitors to the site (maybe even more than "Where are the rest rooms?"), involve directions to Al Capone's cell and Death Row. Often, there is disappointment when the visitors later find out that a) Al Capone didn't die at Eastern State (he died years later at his home in Miami from syphilis), and b) no one was executed at Eastern State.

I am intrigued with the extreme interest (obsession?) with these two topics. There is so much else there, and yet these two things seem to capture the public's imagination.

Rat-a-tat-tat (Week 6)

This past Friday night, a local chamber music ensemble held the first of several performances in Cellblock 7 of the penitentiary. I had signed up to work some extra hours, and my post was in front of the administration building, inside the main gate. It was the first time I had been on site when it was nighttime, and it was really cool! The place looked completely different, and really exotic. (This is of course because I knew exactly where I was. If I had been dropped there unexpectedly, I'm sure I would have died of fright.)

Anyway, at various times during the evening, the rat population made itself visible (get over it, it's not like they were trying to attack ...). I'd see something out of the corner of my eye, in the shadows, and when I'd look, a rat would scurry by. Of course, I would have to say something each time. Usually something real imaginative, like, "Hi there, Ratso," which would of course freak the rat out much more than he/she had bothered me. I figured that they were surprised to find that there were still humans around at a time when the place was usually theirs, and that we were interfering with their Friday night plans. In my own way, I was glad for the diversion, 'cause not much else was happening.

(No they weren't playing the piano, but the image seemed appropriate for the occasion.)

In other news, I passed my first evaluation of my tour-giving abilities, which was really exciting (two glasses of wine-worth, to be exact). I still feel like I'm missing things, but was glad/relieved to know that they weren't considered to be egregious roadblocks. (Egregious? Where did I get that?!)

And I have decided, that - speaking in general terms - French-Canadian teenagers (at least those traveling in a group) are much more polite and well-informed than American teenagers. I'm sure there are exceptions in both groups, but the above has been my recent experience.

Plus, when I introduced myself to one of the groups of French-Canadians, one girl turned to the boy next to her and said, "Ah- her name is Brigitte!"

Such a nice break from "What did you say your name was? Did you say Richard?" ...


Mr Puffy's Knitting Blog: said...

The public is about to be intrigued with gangsters! There is a movie coming out about Dillinger. How do I get to his cell? Be prepared for that question - LOL

After the amusing exchanges you have, I would think every night a 2 glass occasion :)

Marie said...

Bridget, I enjoy your posts about the penitentary. I think you're brave for working in such a gloomy place. Are there ghosts?

Channon said...

I love history, and used to swing in my hometown's "Olde Gaille Museum" (pardon the spelling) regularly, just because...

Quilting Mama said...

Congrats on the successful review! I'm sure any missing pieces in your touron talks are only small ones.

The rat piece is a bit creepy but also good to hear that the pen is home to something.

Carol said...

So if I bring Elvis, will you give us a personal tour? And will you make sure you show us the place where Al Capone was executed??

Lisa said...

I have me some mad gangster (gangster, not gangsta) love. Rats, however, belong waaaaay over there.

Lisa said...

Hmmmm...Ratso makes a good gangster nickname. Maybe some of those rats are reincarnated gangsters who fell a considerable distance down the karmic food chain?

Lorraine said...

Bridget- My doctor went on a tour of Alcatraz, and they had Al Capone's medical and psychiatric notes there, and he got to read them.

You would definitely want to keep on his good side, but he was a fascinating character.