Posted October 31, 2011

Students consider Eastern State Penitentiary’s haunted attraction

Eastern State Penitentiary

This semester, Seth Bruggeman, assistant professor of history and American studies, is sending his students to prison — to the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) Historic Site, that is.

There his students will get a first-hand look at a common problem faced by museums and historic sites across the country: How to offer historically accurate representations of the past while at the same time engaging with their audience and staying financially afloat.

ESP is one of 10 historic sites that students in “Museums and American Culture” visit with Bruggeman, who is also the director of Temple’s Center for Public History.

During these field trips, the students observe different approaches for telling stories about the past and engaging with the public. The courses complement a larger Temple initiative to turn Philadelphia into a learning laboratory.

“There is nowhere in the U.S. that is better for studying public history than Philadelphia,” said Bruggeman. “It has the richest collection of museums and historic sites that I know of that are in close proximity to one another and to Temple.”

But, he says, where there is history there is also controversy. Exploring the controversies is another reason Bruggeman brings his students to ESP.

“History is not simply a set of data,” said Bruggeman. “Historians take data and convert it into knowledge by exercising their perspective. Controversy arises when the way a historian interprets the stuff of the past does not affirm what the public believes that the past means.

“Nevertheless, that is the historian’s job — to challenge what we think we know,” he said.

Built in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary operated continuously until it closed in 1971. It began as a flagship prison built on the belief that people were inherently good and could be rehabilitated through silence.

Despite its progressive roots, the experience of isolation at ESP was extremely difficult and may have driven some inmates insane. At the same time, misbehavior was routinely addressed with beatings, and within a few years of its opening, a prisoner was tortured to death.

All of which makes ESP perfect for hosting a haunted tour, however historically inaccurate it may be. Held within the confines of the abandoned prison, the Terror Behind the Walls tour draws more than 100,000 visitors from around the world and is consistently ranked among the top 10 haunted attractions in the country.

“Part of our mission at ESP is to explain and interpret its complex history and to place current issues of corrections and justice in an historical framework. Terror Behind the Walls, because it accounts for 65 percent of our budget, is critical to preserving that mission,” said Sean Kelly, ESP’s senior vice president and director of public programming and public relations.

“What I want my students to see is that ESP is perfectly primed to hold a conversation about issues of crime and punishment both past and present — issues such as the unprecedented explosion in mass incarceration since 1970. Or that imprisonment disproportionately hurts the African-American community. And that Philadelphia is the epicenter of the problem, with nearly one in 200 people in jail.

“And ESP is doing that. But it doesn’t pay the bills. The use of the historic site as a haunted house generates revenue that is made necessary by the funding climate that the site occupies,” said Bruggeman.

This is the complex terrain that Bruggeman, with the help of Philadelphia’s plethora of museums and historic sites, prepares his budding public historians to navigate.

 “A public historian must have the skill set of a historian with the added burden of developing a comfort and facility with outreach and engagement,” he said. “The public historian must develop sensitivity to the needs of a community of memory and facility with real world issues.”