Eastern State exhibit concentrates on victims

Posted: February 12, 2014

Since it opened as a historical site in 1994, Eastern State Penitentiary has largely displayed art that focuses on the inmates who lived there.

A current exhibit on butterflies features an unknown 1880s prisoner who spent his one hour out of isolation each day collecting specimens.

But Philadelphia artist Cindy Stockton Moore, 38, has set out to show another side of the penitentiary's history by painting dozens of portraits of people who were murdered by some of Eastern State's thousands of inmates over the decades. Her project, selected and commissioned by a 12-member jury of artists, curators, and penitentiary staff, will be on display for at least eight months beginning in May.

"We thought Cindy's idea of putting an actual human face on the violence that led to some of the sentences here was really thought-provoking," said Sean Kelley, the penitentiary's senior vice president and director of public programming. "So many of our applications - four out of five - empathize with prisoners."

The jury also selected an Australian artist who will create geometric patterns from prison dust, and a Seattle artist who will make a soundtrack from gospel choirs at prisons nationwide.

The prison in the city's Fairmount district was one of the largest and most expensive in the world when it opened in 1829.

Although known for its annual Halloween haunt and Bastille Day ceremonies, the historical site has been choosing art for its walls since 1995. Over the last 19 years, 78 artists have had the opportunity to display their work, Kelley said.

Each year, the art jury reviews about 85 proposals from artists worldwide and commissions projects for the year ahead. Artists receive a project budget with a maximum of $7,500 for each installation.

"It's a way of injecting a whole new energy, a whole new perspective," Kelley said.

For Moore, finding images of the victims has proven challenging. Only 13,205 of the 75,000 inmates estimated to have been incarcerated at the prison before closing in 1971 have been cataloged. Of the 13,205, 580 were jailed for murder or manslaughter, Kelley said.

Moore has been sorting through neatly kept prison intake records to find murderers, and then searching websites and newspaper microfilm for pictures of their victims.

She has found 42 and counting, including a 1-year-old boy kidnapped and murdered in the 1920s, a man killed by an unrequited love in 1928, and a 12-year-old boy stabbed to death with scissors in 1949 by another boy not much older than him. Ten police officers are among the victims as well.

Finding pictures of victims who were minorities proved especially challenging, Moore said. She was only able to find two, she said.

"What the project has revealed is how the perpetrators of violent crime are recorded in many more details than the victims," said historic site researcher Annie Anderson.

Moore's other challenge is making sure her work holds up in a dank, drafty building that is not temperature regulated like an art gallery. Its roof is open in some areas, allowing water and snow to enter. To that end, Moore painted three "test" images that she hung last December in a cell that is in a nonpublic section of the site - a prison ruin of sorts.

The images were of 12-year-old murder victim Ellis Simons. She obtained the picture of the smiling boy with blond hair and jug ears from a Jan. 12, 1949, newspaper clipping. The boy was lured to 16-year-old Seymour Levin's house with a promise of seeing his chemistry set, according to news accounts, Moore said. His body - covered from head to toe with stab wounds - was found behind the garage of Levin's house. Levin was only 17 when he became an inmate at the penitentiary.

Earlier this week, Moore returned to the prison to see if the paintings done with black ink on 9- by 12-inch sheets of a semitranslucent plastic film called Dura-Lar had buckled or smeared. She and Kelley walked through the halls of crumbling paint and rusted metal to the third floor of Cell Block 14, built in 1927, where the paintings were strung on fishing line.

"They look just fine," she said, gingerly stepping into the cell. "This is going to hold up."

Her work eventually will be displayed in a larger, triangular cell illuminated by skylights.

But first there was more research to be done. Moore spent part of a recent afternoon, donning white gloves and perusing intake records. Within minutes, she found another potential subject: Richard Joseph Weigand, a doctor incarcerated in 1943 for murder after a woman on whom he had performed an abortion died.

But can she find a picture of his victim? First, she must find her name.


215-854-4693 @ssnyderinq


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