Monday, May 09, 2005

Where I’ve been
Eastern State Penitentiary revisited
Spent most of Saturday at the marvellous yearly jumble sale* in the streets all around this old prison and finally walked around inside most of the prison itself with an audio tour I flipped on occasionally.

There are several art exhibits going on at once. One uses sound — taps and booms — to give the impression of being haunted. When I first saw another — white statues of cats on the roof and pavements — I thought they were supposed to scare away birds and rodents! No, they’re sculpture, ‘Ghost Cats’, a tribute to the colony of semi-wild cats who lived at Eastern from its closing until only a few years ago, and the man who fed them for 20 years. (The cats were caught by the museum staff about 10 years ago and neutered as a humane act; the colony then slowly disappeared.)

Whoah-ho-ho-ho! Look at all those toilets!
- Bart Simpson

The oldest cell-blocks like the façade are towering and oddly beautiful like a cathedral; the one place where I felt the presence of evil was the most modern block, No. 14, dark and dripping with condensation and icicle-like stalactites. Death row oddly enough didn’t scare me.

But the scariest story comes from one of the old blocks I walked through:

But of the many graphic reports of ghostly activity at E.S.P., the story of a middle-age locksmith is perhaps the most powerful and most frightening.

Not long ago, the man was alone there, at dusk, in “four block” (Cell Block #4), performing routine restoration work.

At one particular moment, he was removing a 140-year old lock from the door of an abandoned cell when he encountered an energy so incredible and so powerful that to this day, he shudders when he recalls his introduction to the ghosts of Eastern State Penitentiary.

It was as if that locksmith somehow possessed the key which opened the portal to Eastern State’s tortured past – and was ushered through that ghastly getaway by the phantoms who dwell in those cells.

Faces in the walls … a glowing, floating rock … a foggy, steamy, form which seemed to beckon…

These images were only part of the man’s encounter with the unknown in Cell Block 4 that night.

He was physically transported into a nether world by a tidal wave of energy upon which as many as 100 ghosts spiraled.

In what might be described as an “out of body” experience, the locksmith felt drawn not only to, but into, the horrible supernatural stew.

One spirit seemed to dominate and rise above the others. It rose as the form of a man, with three rings of steam, or mist swirling around it. But within a short time, others … hundreds … of bizarre forms materialized.

He describes his emotions at the time in weird and confounding terms – “It was as if I was inside a microwave oven,” he says. But then, there when he recalls, it was as if he was “standing buck naked in a sandstorm at the North Pole!”

So confounding and confusing was the episode that the locksmith was riveted in place, unable to move, as spirits cried from every chamber and wall of “four block.”

He could do nothing but stand petrified amid the ghosts – or at least some of the ghosts – which haunt that very special … and very haunted place.
Sometimes, as in some southern and eastern European countries, holiness and extreme evil can be in the same place. The RC chaplain’s office has murals of biblical and church scenes painted by an inmate who was baptized while in prison and after his release never committed a crime again.

*At which I rescued some sacramentals including Seven Dolour beads, a third-class relic of St Frances Cabrini and a Mexican folk-art glass-doored little box with a holy-card portrait of... the Maronite monk St Sharbel from the Lebanon!

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