The other week, Lois, Danielle, Katie, and Karri’s family took a field trip to see the ruins of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia. A nearly 200-year-old prison that looks like an abandoned castle and held scores of the dangerous, morally bankrupt, and sometimes the completely innocent for about 150 years… does it get any spookier than that?
Take a few minutes to explore with us. We’ll begin with some basic history of the prison and then you can “walk” around the grounds with us as we comment on what we saw and learned. The spoooooooooooky stuff we saved until last, because we didn’t want to scare you away from all of the rest of the fantastic stuff in this post. But if you like to be scared first, feel free to scroll on down to the end.
After you’re done with our article, there is an excellent detailed description of the daily life and operations (including some surprisingly horrendous punishments for a “more humane” approach to imprisonment) at Eastern State read “Solitary Confinement: History & Hauntings of Eastern State Penitentiary”.
Note: Click on any of the smaller pictures to see them in full size.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Built in 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, PA was the world’s first, true penitentiary. After gaining their independence and launching a new nation, America’s founders were eager to lead the way in social development too. At the time, prisons were nothing more than places to hold large groups of criminals, and not necessarily even humane or safe places. Overcrowding and abuse of prisoners was common, as were unsanitary conditions and horrific physical punishments.
Inspired by Enlightenment thinking, a group of Philadelphians founded The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons in Benjamin Franklin’s home. The goal of the Society was to establish a ground-breaking prison system that would encourage true penitence and spiritual change in a criminal’s heart.
Designed by John Haviland, the Penitentiary turned the concept of incarceration at the time on its head and strove to rehabilitate instead of punish. Based on the Separate System principle of isolation, the Penitentiary used solitary confinement to encourage self-reflection. Not only were daily schedules and activities structured to encourage that self-reflection, the Penitentiary’s architecture was too.
Katie: It was interesting that the Pennsylvania System was used in most of Europe but the New York System was popular in the United States.
Note: The New York (or “Auburn”) System also strove to rehabilitate prisoners. It did so by having prisoners work in silent groups during the day. At night they would retire to solitary, and once again silent, confinement. This was to teach them discipline and respect for work, property, and other people. An example of a prison founded on the Auburn System principles is Sing Sing in New York.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s overall design was seven main cell blocks arranged around a center hub, like spokes on a wheel. This enabled the guards to watch each cell block from the center hub. For the exterior of the Penitentiary, Haviland deliberately chose the intimidating gothic style to both keep outsiders at a distance and imply the kind of fortitude we associate with massive, stone castles.
Lois: The layout may look like wheel spokes from an arial view, but walking around inside the Penitentiary felt much more like a maze! If an inmate, used to walking around with a hood over their head, managed to get into the main part of the building, they would never have been able to find their way out.
Note: The gargoyles are not original. They are circa 9/20/2012 when they were erected for the Penitentiary’s annual “Terror Behind the Walls”.
Danielle: Eastern State Penitentiary definitely seemed like a fortress from the outside. As imposing as it seems today, it must have been more so sitting on top of a hill in the midst of fields and forest a few miles outside of the hustle and bustle of the “civilized” city in the 1800’s.
The Cells at Eastern State Penitentiary
Individual cells were small, sparse, and closed off by a heavy wooden door that had a hole just large enough to pass food through. At the back of each cell was an entrance to an outdoor exercise yard that was also small, sparse, and closed off from the rest of the prison and prisoners (though there was no roof). Inmates spent all of their time in their cells, and were allowed a single hour out of every day in their exercise yards. For those rare times a prisoner needed to be anywhere other than his cell or exercise yards, they were transported with hoods over their heads to eliminate contact with others and keep security tight. After all, inmates couldn’t escape if they didn’t know the layout of the prison they were held in.
Note: The original cells had the much-smaller circle skylights seen in the second picture instead of the larger rectangle seen in the first picture. To give you an idea of the size of the exercise yard – those cute kids of mine are standing at the door to the cell and I am back against the outside wall. That was all the space they had to “exercise” in.
Katie: The solitude the prisoners felt must have been unbearable. I can’t imagine being walked into a prison with a hood on my head and not really knowing the layout of the building.
Karri: I see the roots in Enlightenment philosophy and the mimicry of monastic life, and I see where it would be easy to think of a place like Eastern State Penitentiary as being a much better approach than the traditional prisons of the time. But were they really? Or were they just a horror of a totally different sort? It seems akin to sensory deprivation and other kinds of psychological torture – to subject another person to such complete isolation against their will. And I wonder how well this approach really worked? How many inmates truly changed and were successfully rehabilitated? How many simply went mad? (Is it perhaps telling that no one really talks about whether or not this revolutionary approach worked?) Oh, and can you imagine the eye strain the prisoners must have experienced working in such low light? My eyeballs are hurting just thinking about it.
Lois: This humane system’s intent was to repair souls that had gone astray. But we will never know if more harm than good was accomplished.
A special note about this very topic… Some deeper research after our field trip reveals that prisoners often did go mad while imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary. During the 1800’s, the many cases of insanity that were documented by prison doctors at Eastern State were listed as being caused by one of two things: genes and excessive masturbation. Never once was the total isolation of the prison listed as a cause of any of the breakdowns.
During the 23 hours out of a day that inmates spent in their cells, they were expected to work diligently and studiously at a vocation. The founders of the Pennsylvania System believed that lack of training in a trade or education in general was a contributing factor in someone developing a criminal career. They also believed that providing criminals with education and training in a vocation or trade was a critical aspect to rehabilitating them.
Tucker: Someone really should have invented TV back then so the poor guys could sit back and watch the game after they were done working.
Katie: The cells even had feed doors and doors to their own exercise yards to minimize contact between other prisoners and guards.
The Door System at Eastern State Penitentiary
The door system for each cell was intriguing. There was a solid iron interior door (the grated one you see in the pictures) that swung out on hinges, and a heavy solid wood exterior door that slid on a track. Both of the doors were secured with a locking system, and both locking systems had special little “tricks” to them that weren’t easily figured out in the event that an unauthorized person did try to let someone out. The pictures below show the kids trying their hand at getting into a cell – not an easy task. Note: not all of the doors that are currently at the Penitentiary are original. The wooden doors that are original have a cross in their ironwork, as pictured above.
Karri: I think there is something so much more final, and foreboding, about a sliding door like the wooden doors on the outside of the cells. I think it’s those little things that might have added up to a terrible madness. Think about it, put yourself inside that cell. What seems more restricting to you – a door that slides back or one that swings open?
Bean: I could have TOTALLY picked that lock if I was a prisoner!
(Let’s not burst his little 5yr-old bubble and tell him if he was a prisoner he would have been on the other side of the doors.)
Gracie: I would have thought, “Oh crap I’m going to be stuck here for the rest of my sentence because I’mnever breaking out of here.” Then I probably would have asked, “Can I have Al Capone’s cell?”.
The front gate of Eastern State Penitentiary had a similar set-up. There were three sets of doors at the entrance to the Penitentiary, and only one set was opened at a time. This ensured that people and deliveries could be moved in and out of the Penitentiary without any chance of someone slipping in or out. Again, there were “tricks” to the locking system so that someone unfamiliar with how it worked couldn’t quickly unlock the door.
Mason: Opening up the front gate was really neat. I can’t believe it weighed 3,400lbs and I could move it. See, Mama, you were wrong – I don’t actually need spinach to grow big and strong!
With all that time in their cells, inmates often “decorated”. Perhaps not quite as lavishly as Al Capone’s cell, or other inmates of higher status, but many painted murals in their rooms or faux-finished their walls.
Karri: The story behind that eye above the door was intriguing. Positioned like that above the door, it’s unlikely that guards or prison officials ever saw it, or at least didn’t see it right away – which makes me wonder if the positioning was chosen deliberately to remain as “hidden” as possible. The kids and I also couldn’t decide if the tear of sorrow was for the prisoner, or the guards. Because we’re really not sure who’s fate was more sorrowful.
Eastern State Penitentiary is self-described as a “stabilized ruins” – an apt description of the property. Some improvements have been made. There is a modernized admissions office and gift store, and a few places in the Penitentiary that have been restored to original condition to show visitors what it would have been like. But largely, the Penitentiary remains as it has been since it was abandoned in the 1970’s.
Lois: “Stabilized ruins” isn’t just an appropriate title, it seems an appropriate manifestation as well.
Danielle: Not only are there guides throughout the Penitentiary to answer questions and host demonstrations and tours, the Penitentiary also offers an “audio tour”. When we arrived, we each received headsets to wear as we walked around. While at a specific spot (the exhibit on women in the prison, for example), you could play a recording of information about that topic. These recordings included a lot of first-hand accounts of life in the prison – something I found incredibly valuable.
Bean: Those prisoners were pretty lucky – they got to play Bocci!
Pep the Dog
Although Eastern State Penitentiary housed some pretty big names (Al Capone spent almost a year there), perhaps its most infamous “inmate” was Pep the Dog. Legend has it that Pep killed the Governor’s wife’s cat and was sentenced to life in the penitentiary. Pep even had a mug shot taken, and was wearing an inmate number in that mug shot. The Governor’s official story is that he donated the dog as a “prison mascot” of sorts to improve morale among the inmates. But skeptics of that theory point out that Pep’s inmate number was never assigned to a human inmate and is completely missing from prison records….almost as if it had been assigned to Pep.
Danielle: Pep might have been a bad dog, but he must have been a very popular prisoner – he had the most items devoted to him in the gift shop! Of course, the gift shop also had shank magnets available, so…… (And really? Shank magnets? Who buys those for their fridge?)
Katie: I thought the story behind Pep the dog was cute, but I think he was really just donated to the prison.
The Kids (resoundingly, as in all four of them): Somebody should have helped him escape, it’s not fair to lock a dog up behind bars and never let him out again.
The Inevitable Escape Attempts at Eastern State Penitentiary
Speaking of escape attempts, Eastern State Penitentiary did have its share of them. Over 100, in fact, though only two go down in history. The first because it was the only time a prisoner escaped and wasn’t recaptured when six men used a 30-foot ladder to climb over the Penitentiary walls in 1923. All were recaptured, except Leo Callahan. Callahan vanished and no one knows where he went or what happened to him after that. The second, perhaps most infamous simply for its audacity, is the tunnel escape in 1945. In that escape, 12 men crawled through a tunnel to escape under the Penitentiary wall. The tunnel went down 15 feet from an inmate’s cell, across 97 feet under the courtyard, and up 15 feet outside of the Penitentiary’s 30-foot walls (which also ran 10-foot deep below-ground). The first prisoners were recaptured within minutes of escaping, and all were recaptured within weeks. One prisoner even turned himself back in after just a few days on the outside – he was tired, hungry, and cold and needed somewhere warm to sleep and eat.
Karri: Leo Callahan fascinates me simply because he’s the sole successful escapee from the Penitentiary. Where did he go? How did he just disappear? What did he do that the five other men who escaped with him and were re-caught didn’t do? Did he plan better? Did he run further? Was it just luck? The tunnel escape was brilliant, but how did they do it? It took them years to dig that tunnel, where did they put the dirt? How did they hide what they were doing? How did they keep it secret from other inmates? And just how on earth did they know that the exterior walls of the Penitentiary went down 10-foot underground? That’s got to be the most brilliant of all, to have taken into consideration that those walls just might go deeper than normal. Me? I would have dug down a couple feet and then dug over to the wall and smacked straight into the stone.
Danielle: Despite the somber Gothic architecture and serious nature of what the purpose of the Penitentiary was, it was equipped with beautifully ornate details and very modern amenities. Every cell block had its own barber shop that would (in later years) become the “social spots” where inmates gathered. There was a “hospital” where inmates received medical care and a greenhouse where they grew fresh foods. The Penitentiary even had running water and a central heating system before the White House did.
As part of the modern preservation of Eastern State Penitentiary, there are a number of different “artist installations” around the Penitentiary that are all commentary on the Penitentiary – some good commentary, some purely historical commentary, some critical commentary.
Karri: In 2012, we look back at history and the things our culture has done in the past and often think, “How could they have done that to another human?” It is certainly easy to wander the Eastern State ruins and wonder that very thing, and then breathe a sigh of relief that we were born in a much more progressive time. Until you come across the art installation that depicts a Guantanamo Bay cell sitting inside an Eastern State Penitentiary cell. For as little as the Eastern State cells looked (and they were indeed tiny), the modern-day Guantanamo Bay cell was significantly smaller. And looked like a dog cage. A dog cage. Let me correct that….looked like a cage most of us wouldn’t even house our dogs in. Somehow, the stone cell of Eastern State with its chipping whitewash, total silence, small cot, toilet, and a sink seemed so much more homier and comfortable than a dog cage with no light, no ventilation, and two buckets instead of plumbing. How could we still be doing that to another human being?
Speaking of doing things to human beings… punishment was horrific at Eastern State Penitentiary – a penitentiary founded as a humane alternative to prisons at that time. In the beginning of the Penitentiary’s long existence, punishment didn’t happen – administrators and the Penitentiary’s founders and designers believed the solitary confinement in small cells was punishment enough. But as prisoners continued breaking the rules, punishment began to be used and progressively worsened stepping far outside the Quaker roots of the prison.
“The Mad Chair” was a punishment where an offending inmate would be strapped to a chair so snugly that they could not move at all and was left there (without food and water) for a period of time that depended on the severity of their offense ranging from hours to days.
“The Water Bath” punishment involved dunking or dousing an inmate in ice cold water, hoisting them up onto a wall with chains, and then leaving then leaving them there overnight (a “treatment” method used at that time in mental hospitals). When used during the winter months (the time of year the guards most often used this form of punishment), a layer of ice would form over the inmate’s skin by morning.
“The Iron Gag” was the most popular form of punishment at Eastern State – and the most feared by prisoners. The gag was an iron collar that went around a prisoner’s neck, with a metal piece that went in the prisoner’s mouth to suppress their tongue. The prisoner’s hands were then crossed and pulled tight behind their necks and attached to the collar as well. Any movement of their hands or arms would pull at their tongues and prisoner’s mouth was usually bloody and sore by the time their punishment was over.
“The Hole” was a set of incredibly small, completely windowless and utterly dark, rooms beneath the Penitentiary where inmates could be thrown for weeks at a time. While in The Hole prisoners were given one cup of water and one slice of bread a day, and did not leave the dank cells for anything. Not even bathroom breaks. They were left to sit in their own filth, fighting off rats and other vermin until their punishment was done.
The Spooooooooooooooooooky Stuff at Eastern State Penitentiary
Rumors of ghosts at Eastern State Penitentiary have been around since the early 1900’s. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the first solid ghost story at Eastern State Penitentiary involved Al Capone. Purportedly, Capone was haunted mercilessly by one of his St. Valentine’s Day Massacre victims and could be heard repeatedly screaming and begging in his cell for the ghost to go away and leave him alone.
But even before Capone getting his just desserts, prisoners and guards alike have reported supernatural goings-on at Eastern State Penitentiary – footsteps in empty halls, pacing in empty cells, wails coming from empty darkness, and dark shapes that resembled human forms drafting past. Since the site has been opened to the public in the middle of the 1970’s as a National Historic Landmark, tourists and staff confirm even more supernatural encounters.
In Cell Block #12, independent witnesses have reported hearing laughter in certain cells and shadowy apparitions. Similar shadowy apparitions have been sited in Cell Block #6 and “Death Row” Cell Block #15. The most frequent “ghost” siting occurs in the older cell blocks, where visitors report a dark, human-like figure who just stands there emitting angry energy.
Mason: It doesn’t seem like it’s actually haunted – I checked pretty thoroughly. Maybe even in a few spots I wasn’t technically supposed to.
Gracie: Eastern State Penitentiary was creepy, mysterious, intriguing, and ancient all at the same time.