Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
“So I went into a cell that was just like the one Willie would have spent years in and it was horrifying for me. I have a touch of claustrophobia, so just to go inside, just to be led in by the curator — because it’s now a national historic site — was terrifying and my blood just stopped slugging through my veins. And I stood there and I could just imagine how you would unravel psychologically. It’s not a normal cell. It’s a dungeon. It was built in the early 1800s. It was world famous instantly because it was considered so inhumane.
“When Charles Dickens came to America, he said he only wanted to see two places: the U.S. Capitol and Eastern State Penitentiary. And he actually interviewed a lot of the prisoners there and upset his American hosts by writing about the suffering that they were enduring. So just the seconds that I spent in that cell was life changing because the first thing you think to yourself is, ‘I can’t imagine surviving this.’ And the second thing you think, if you’re researching a book about Willie Sutton, is how remarkable it is that more than survive it, he had the will to live that permitted him to devise an escape.”