Eastern State Penitentiary, one of Philadelphia’s most iconic, is incorporating some newly uncovered history about LGBTQ prisoners into its multimedia exhibition.
Annie Anderson, Eastern State’s manager of research and public programming, spearheaded this addition during her efforts to catalog and digitize documents from the prison’s history.
“Any time I come across a journal documenting someone who might have identified as LGBTQ, I save that record in a file I’ve been creating to capture the stories of people who were sentenced for their sexuality,” she said. “It’s a little bit tricky using historical records because a gay identity didn’t necessarily exist before the 1900s.”
Anderson had to look for records of cases that included sodomy in order to locate LGBTQ prisoners.
“Digging a little bit deeper into a person’s court records,” she explained, “we’ve been able to uncover records for people who had been in prison for their sexuality or participated in same-sex activity.”
It has been a personal side project for Anderson to collect this data, and she has found at least 484 people that were imprisoned at Eastern State for sodomy — which she defines as “the nebulous term that criminalizes certain sex acts and has been used to criminalize same-sex activity throughout history.”
Anderson said the stories of LGBTQ people incarcerated at Eastern State would now become a permanent addition to the audio-visual programming available to visitors of the historic landmark.
“We just created a new audio stop about LGBTQ history at the penitentiary to explore some of these stories,” she said, adding that they installed a small interpretive sign to go with the stop. “A couple years ago, we noticed there was very little interpretation about LGBTQ history at the penitentiary. So we wanted to add this new interpretation to flesh out these stories more and acknowledge that queer people have been criminalized and incarcerated throughout history.”
Anderson said the Eastern State staff feels it can testify to this story, as the institution has held many LGBTQ prisoners in its 142-year history.
One queer prisoner’s history particularly caught Anderson’s attention. This person’s name was Isaac Hall, and his story is now on the audio stop.
“He was charged $100 and sentenced to eight years of solitary confinement for what records indicate was a consensual sex act with a male partner,” she said. “But next to every court document and prison record for Isaac Hall was the alias Lady Washington. The warden at the time wrote that Hall was known, in the locality that he resided, as Lady Washington. The specifics of Hall’s identity might be lost to us forever since this person lived 140 years ago, but it’s interesting to navigate Hall’s records, because it seems that if Hall were alive today, he might have identified as trans. And that’s one of the earliest documents I’ve ever seen of a trans or genderqueer person being incarcerated at the penitentiary, and that is the early 1880s.”
Anderson said she hopes this addition to Eastern State’s tour programming will give visitors a clearer picture of how far laws and policies regarding sexuality have come in the last century.
“I’d like to get visitors thinking about how identity has been policed and punished throughout time,” she said. “Laws have really shifted. In most places, the Supreme Court struck down the Texas sodomy law [Lawrence v. Texas in 2003], and that made most state sodomy laws illegal.”
She said she wants visitors to think about the way law changes and how, at different points in history, it impacts groups of people.
“What was once criminalized is no longer criminalized and people that were criminalized are no longer criminalized,” she said. “I wanted to get into those changes and expand the narrative of Eastern State’s interpretation to include LGBTQ folks.” n
For more information on Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Ave., visit www.easternstate.org.