Philadelphia, PA is a wonderfully weird place. Though famously rich in early American history, I chose to forgo exploring old city for my first visit. My apologies, dear founding fathers, but two strange places beckoned me: the Mütter Museum and Eastern State Penitentiary.
I write this many months after my visit – the summer of 2016 was one adventure after another that collided into an eventful fall and winter. Anyway, recounting these excursions makes me long to return.
For anyone with an interest in medical history and a fondness for the historically strange, the Mütter Museum is a must. Affiliated with the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Mütter Museum is a medical museum exhibiting a range of anatomical specimens and medical instruments. The Museum began with a donation of 1,700 objects and $30,000 from American surgeon Thomas Mütter (1811-1859), who aspired to improve and reform medical education. The museum is probably most famous for its permanent display of 139 human skulls collected by Viennese anatomist Joseph Hyrtl (1810-1894). This installation takes up an entire gallery wall.
The museum is certainly not for the squeamish. My curiosity overpowered much of my squeamishness with some exceptions: I skipped a display of various eye diseases and injuries and select skin conditions. Some things are just a little too … graphic.
I recommend setting aside at least two hours for the museum. I read nearly every label and also spent a good chunk of time in the museum’s fabulous gift shop. Here is a photo of my Mütter swag: a t-shirt, tote bag, and an exhibition catalogue on Victorian post-mortem photography.
It happened to be Bastille Day on my visit – just an excuse to make Eastern State Penitentiary even stranger. The prison museum hosted a highly entertaining drag reenactment with a, let’s say, interesting cast of characters, like a dancing block of cheese and a baguette. Napoleon also made an appearance and of course, there was Marie Antoinette, who shouted from the roof “let them eat tastykake!” At that moment hundreds of tastykakes were tossed to those lucky to be in the VIP section.
Following the reenactment the prison gates opened for a special twilight tour. I’m amazed the building is considered up to code for visitors. I suppose the rusting and chipped paint helps project the gloomy aura that attracts so many to wander its spooky, hollow halls.
What I found most fascinating was how the prison’s architecture was designed to encourage penitence. It’s unfortunate that the prison has such a sad history, for it was built with good intentions. Reformists constructed the prison to rehabilitate inmates, as opposed to punishing them. Isolation, they believed, prompted reflection, leading to penitence. And so the world’s first “penitentiary” was born. Completed in 1829, the architecture reflects the prison’s religious intentions. The doorways to each cell are so small as to force one to bow into them. The only source of light is a single skylight meant to represent the “eye of God.”
Unfortunately, these good intentions produced disastrous results, driving many prisoners insane. Over time the prison became overcrowded and closed in 1971.
One of the prison’s most famous inmates is Al Capone, who was permitted a rather sumptuously furnished cell:
If you wish to encounter ghosts of long times past, by all means, venture to Philly…
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