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Penitentiary Restores Prisoner’s Biblical Murals

In 1955 a remorseful prisoner at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia started expressing his newfound Roman Catholic faith on the jailhouse walls. The inmate, Lester Smith, had been convicted of a string of armed robberies. At first, while in his prison cell, he painted portraits of saints. Then the Eastern State staff noticed his talent and invited him to line the Catholic chaplain’s office suite with biblical murals.


Under skylights in the chaplain’s vaulted rooms, Mr. Smith depicted souls in purgatory and saints aloft. In one scene he also seems to have portrayed himself, in a uniform with the number 01010 printed across the shoulder blades, covering his face and kneeling before Jesus. (That was not his real number, scholars at Eastern State have determined.)

The site became a museum in 1994, after two decades of devastating abandonment, and the staff has long been researching and protecting the Smith paintings. This year they became part of the public tour, and restoration is under way.

The staff has tracked down descendants of Mr. Smith, who died in 2003. The family reports that he did not speak about his incarceration or the murals, and never backslid into a life of crime. (He did keep a few souvenir photographs of his paintings, hidden under his bed.) Eastern State has installed new flooring and skylight panes in the chaplain’s office, and staff from Milner & Carr Conservation in Philadelphia is figuring out which sections of the murals can be saved and which will have to be recreated.


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