As soon as I glanced at the map and saw the words “escape tunnel” I knew I had to see it. Even though it was a little far away and we only had twenty minutes, I dragged my group from class across the prison to see an actual prison break attempt. Located in cellblock 7 is an exhibit dedicated to the 1945 Tunnel Escape.
In 1945, twelve inmates of Eastern State Penitentiary escaped through a tunnel they had dug through a cell wall, down twelve feet, across the yard, under the prison wall, and up into freedom. While the famous bank robber Willie Sutton took credit for orchestrating the escape, it was actually Clarence “Kliney” Klinedinst who was the mastermind. A skilled plasterer, Klinedinst was able to conceal the tunnel entrance in his cell from several inspections behind a fake wall he made. The twelve men dug the tunnel in shifts and remained undetected by scattering the dug-up dirt in the yard of the prison.
On the morning of April 3, 1945, the Eastern State inmates made their escape. After the escape, some inmates were caught right away, like Willie Sutton who popped out of the tunnel right into policemen within three minutes. All of the men were accounted for within a couple of months. One inmate returned himself to the prison because he was hungry. Eventually the tunnel was covered up by prison officials with ash from the prison incinerator. In 2005, Eastern State brought in archaeologists to excavate the tunnel and provide some answers to the ever-curious public. They were able to locate the underground tunnel and recover some artifacts from the fill-in.
The Tunnel Escape Exhibit has several different components. Panels on the wall outside describe the tunnel creation and later escape of several inmates. An audio tour also communicates the information on the label narrated by a museum staff member. Visitors can enter the cell and see where the tunnel was made and how big the hole is. The next room over contains a video with seats for watching that shows the archaeological exploration of the tunnel. Finally, a white line has been painted on the ground outside the cell block that shows where the tunnel runs under the ground and out of the prison. All of these features create a well-rounded experience and understanding of the 1945 Tunnel Escape out of Eastern State Penitentiary.
I felt that the display of the 1945 Tunnel Exhibition was both accessible and inaccessible in different ways. The hanging wall labels are centered at an accessible height and the entrance at the end of the cellblock has a ramp for visitors who cannot handle stairs. The video about the archaeological exploration of the tunnel is in a room with seats and can still be seen from standing in the hallway. Unfortunately, the tunnel itself is located in a cell room that requires a step up through a small opening. If a visitor cannot do steps or cannot fit through the opening there is no way they can see the actual tunnel opening. A mirror placed in the room would allow those standing outside the cell to be able to see the tunnel opening just as those who can enter the cell can. While the audio tour stop gives visitors the same information that they can read on the wall label and doesn’t add anything new, this does create an experience that is consistent for all visitors regardless of visual or hearing ability.
The display and audio tour section of this exhibit are told solely from the perspective of the museum; the voice of the audio tour is a museum director. Eastern State Penitentiary has worked to incorporate ties to the modern prison system throughout the building and this is another opportunity to do so. The interpretation of the escape tunnel would be enhanced by hearing from those in the current prison system – both inmates and correctional officers. The understanding of an escape experience would be enhanced for the visitor. Perhaps the audio tour could offer stories not told on the wall panel or an art installation around the idea of escape/freedom could be installed in a nearby cell. While the archaeology components of the exhibit are extremely interesting, Eastern State could expand their interpretation and further their mission to engage visitors in dialogue about criminal justice.
This exhibit is very appealing to museum visitors who identify as experience seekers. Even though I was there for class I felt myself slipping into that visitor profile! Experience seekers are those who seek out the museum as an important destination and have the mentality of “been there, done that”. The 1945 tunnel escape is a great opportunity for an education department to appeal to those visitors directly. Eastern State already does a seasonal haunted house known as Terror Behind the Walls, but the tunnel escape could be a year-round experience. This cell block has the opportunity to be an escape room type experience. Visitors would be “locked” in a cell and could only “escape” after discovering and putting together clues. Not only would it attract experience seekers wanting that Instagram photo, it would also be a source of revenue for the department that could contribute towards other programming.
The idea of a prison escape continues to entertain audiences today. Viewers will root for the underdog in a movie about a prison escape even when their hero may have been the bad guy. Eastern State’s prison break inspired a video game! Eastern State Penitentiary does an amazing job of creating conversation about modern criminal justice and 1945 Tunnel Escape exhibit is one more place that dialogue could be advanced.
Jimmy Stamp, “The Daring Escape From the Eastern State Penitentiary,” Smithsonian.com, 13 November 2013, accessed 31 October 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/the-daring-escape-from-the-eastern-state-penitentiary-180947688/.
“Eastern State Penitentiary Escape Tunnel,” Philadelphia Archaeological Forum, accessed 31 October 2018, https://www.phillyarchaeology.net/research/project-report-index/eastern-penitentiary-escape-tunnel/.