By Wick Fischer
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

A different ESP

Wick's World


There are no psychics in my story. No one will be here to tell your future. The best known version of ESP (Extra Sensory Perception) remains conspicuously absent. There is a lesser used acronym of ESP that was very well known on October 25, 1829. That is the day a former prison in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania opened its doors. The Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), the world’s first true penitentiary, became a model for more than 300 penitentiaries worldwide. Up to that point in history, prisons not only kept the bad guys away from the good guys, punishment was the name of the game. For ESP, even the term penitentiary emphasized penance or atonement for sins.

Before I take you on a literary tour of the prison known as ESP, let me tell you how my wife and I, our son Clay and his wife Lynn ended up spending a long Memorial Day weekend in arguably our nation’s most historic city. Two Decembers ago, the Christmas gifts we gave our children couldn’t be put in a box and wrapped in glitter. You might say that for at least one Christmas present, we were gifting our children outside the box. I can take no credit, for this was a product of my wife’s creativity. We gifted our three sons and their spouses an all-expense paid journey to the city of their choice.

About 500 days later, we landed at Philadelphia International Airport. We placed a call to Lyft for four passengers and their luggage.

A Toyota Camry pulled up to the curb and we were rudely greeted with, “I can’t take you guys and four suitcases. My trunk is full of water jugs!”

As he sped away we heard him yell, “Next time order a van!”

I thought to myself, why would a cabbie show up at the airport with a full trunk expecting his passengers to have no luggage? I heard Philly had the nation’s worst sport fans and this must have also included cabbies. The ugly sports fan part later proved itself at the Phillies baseball game. For nine innings, a 10-year-old fan sitting behind us yelled, “Toronto sucks!”

Fortunately these were the only incidents of bad behavior we encountered. All of the tour guides, cabbies, tourists and policemen were very friendly and went out of their way to treat us to one of our best vacations in years.

We entered Eastern State Penitentiary with the realization that we would be leaving a couple hours later. Not so for Al Capone, Willie Sutton, Big Joe Bruno and countless other, robbers and murderers, horse thieves and thugs and in its early days, even pickpockets and other petty criminals.

The Eastern State Penitentiary was actually the name of a revolutionary system of separate incarceration that emphasized reform over punishment. Basically, prisoners were held in solitary confinement in order to give them time to contemplate their misdeeds and thus prevent them from recurring criminal behavior once they were released back into society. This was also called the Pennsylvania System.

Simultaneously, the Auburn System, also referred to as the New York System, was being tried elsewhere. This form of incarceration, which included Sing Sing Prison, forced prisoners to work closely together in total silence. Failure to comply resulted in severe punishment.

The Eastern State Penitentiary finally closed its doors in 1971. The place was soon overrun with cats. Efforts to rid the place of our furry feline friends proved futile until someone came up with the brilliant idea of “capture and neuter.” It worked! Eventually, all the cats died off and in 1994 they were replaced with a new species: tourist.

Philadelphia is loaded with history, thus it was the perfect place to spend a Memorial Day weekend. You can see the crack in the Liberty Bell and Constitution Hall but the bars at the prison were the best of all.


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