App 1: Word Frequencies

This first app analyzes the notes recorded by the “Moral Instructor”, a role similar to contemporary prison chaplains. Compare two corpora by choosing variables based on data from the Admission Books, such as gender, literacy, and/or sobriety. Word clouds will load to show frequency of word use. Use the “Comparative Frequencies” tab to see the words graphed. The closer the words appear to the central red line, the more likely they are to be used in both corpora. The further from the line, the more likely they are to appear in one or the other.

Keywords can be explored in context and by frequency over time. Exploring in context shows how words like ‘sin’ and ‘sins’ have different inflections in the observation. The graph of word frequencies over time shows that a word like ‘sin’ appears throughout the moral notes, but the word ‘sins’ is only used during a limited time span - suggesting that the choice of words could reflect the temporary outlook of one particular Moral Instructor.

App 2: Sentencing of Inmates

This app graphs and maps patterns in the sentencing of inmates. Altering the variables reveals that female inmates rarely received a sentence longer than two years, that older inmates received shorter sentences, and that inmates admitted with no prior convictions received longer sentences. The “Sentencing Location” section maps the courts where inmates were sentenced and displays the average sentences handed out. The size of the red dot corresponds to the average sentence length; the blue dot shows the number of cases from that area. Adjusting the “charge” variable to “larceny”, for example, shows which courts handed out longer-than-average sentences, and suggests these courts also handled relatively few larceny charges.

App 3: Inmates by Length of Sentence

This app presents a different perspective on inmate’s sentences by presenting demographic data about the inmates. The adjustable variable in this app is the length of sentence (in months). Using the “Moral Instructor’s Notes” tab will generate word clouds from text in the Moral Instructor’s observations and discharge notes. The “Crime and Place” tab maps the occurrence of crime and offers a graph of the most frequent crimes.

Credits

Steve Marti, 2017 APS Library Digital Humanities Fellow, created the Eastern Apps. Scott Ziegler, Head of Technology and Digital Scholarship, initiated and managed the project in conjunction with Bayard Miller, Digital Projects and Metadata Librarian. Special thanks to Robert M. Hauser for assistance with the visualizations.

The apps were built with Shiny from R Studio. The gallery was built using with HTML5Up.

Header image by Adam Jones, available on WikiMedia, under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

About the Data

The data used for the apps were created from admission books kept at the APS Library, and transcribed by volunteers at the APS Library, including Michelle Ziogas and Kristina Frey.

All data is freely available from the APS Github account: https://github.com/AmericanPhilosophicalSociety/Historic-Prison-Data.

The finding aid for the Eastern State Penitentiary material held by the APS is here: http://www.amphilsoc.org/collections/view?docId=ead/Mss.365.P381p-ead.xml. Digitized versions of the admission books can be viewed on the APS Digital Library.

The admission books represent a wealth of information of great interest to historians, sociologists, genealogists, and many others. The data generated from the books allows researchers to perform a wide variety of analysis, as evidenced in the apps presented in this gallery. The records represent real people who lived real lives, often under very difficult circumstances. In most cases, the only information we have about the inmates is created by prison officials and others in positions of authority. Approaching these lives with empathy and understanding creates a deeper understanding of history.

About Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State is currently operated as a historical site in Philadelphia. Information on the history of the prison is available on their website: https://www.easternstate.org/. See especially their section on the history of the prison: https://www.easternstate.org/research/history-eastern-state.