Eastern State Penitentiary: Background information when reading Long Black Veil

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Long Black Veil

by Jennifer Finney Boylan

Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan X
Long Black Veil by Jennifer Finney Boylan
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2017, 304 pages
    Jan 2018, 320 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Sarah Tomp

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Eastern State Penitentiary

This article relates to Long Black Veil

Print Review

The catalyst for Long Black Veil takes place within the ruins of Eastern State Penitentiary, located in the heart of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Now remade into a museum and identified as a National Historic Landmark, the former prison stood unattended and in shambles from its closing in 1971 until 1994.

The Eastern State Penitentiary The author cites a visit to the Eastern State Penitentiary, "one of the most haunted locations in the world," as the inspiration for this novel.

Originally opened in 1829, the facility was conceived by a group of activists, including Benjamin Franklin, and was equipped with running water and central heat. Each cell was lit with a skylight, called an "Eye of God" window to allow the prisoners access to "light from Heaven." The grand architecture of the site impressed visitors with its "church-like" beauty. It was, by far the most expensive prison for its time.

Along with the modern design was a new incarceration philosophy with Quaker origins. The goal was to guide prisoners to penitence, or true regret, for their crimes. During the early years, prisoners were kept entirely in solitary confinement in hopes they would reflect and gain spiritual enlightenment. An elaborate system using carts on rails delivered food anonymously and each cell had its own exercise space so inmates never interacted with each other. If a prisoner needed to leave his cell, he wore a hood over his face to prevent any personal interaction. Eye holes were not allowed until 1913.

Once the concept of solitary confinement was abandoned, the penitentiary utilized punitive discipline techniques such as dunking offenders into baths of ice water and hanging them on a wall all night; and/or periods of induced starvation. The "mad chair" strapped prisoners to prevent any kind of movement.

Despite its strict behavior policies, one of the most famous inmates, Al Capone, was allowed to furnish his cell with items of luxury such a carpet, lamp and other furniture. While incarcerated, Capone complained of being haunted by James Clark, a victim of the St. Valentine's Day Massacre which occurred a few months before his sentence. This mass killing of rival gang members was attributed to Capone, although formal charges were never made. To this day, reports of ghostly sightings make this a popular venue for ghost tour enthusiasts.

Continuing its influence on prison philosophy, a 2017 exhibit at the museum, "Prison Today: Questions in the age of Mass Incarcerations" offers a controversial critique and analysis of modern practices.

Picture of Eastern State Penitentiary by Carol M. Highsmith

This "beyond the book article" relates to Long Black Veil. It originally ran in May 2017 and has been updated for the January 2018 paperback edition.

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