The Eastern State Penitentiary is an abandoned prison institution in Philadelphia with a haunted history. Eastern State Penitentiary is a massive, 11-acre facility that once was home to some of America’s most famous criminals. Its unique system of rehabilitation also led to extraordinary problems.
The fortresslike prison opened in 1829, making history as soon as its first inmates arrived. It has a unique design: a radial ﬂ oor plan resembling a ﬂower with eight spokelike petals, all encased within a high rectangular wall. At the hub is the command station. The design enabled guards to look down all corridors with a minimum of movement, thus enabling them to keep a better eye on the inmates. The design was so innovative that other new prisons followed suit. An estimated 300 penal institutions copied themselves after Eastern State.
The prison had another unique—and controversial— feature. The Quaker religious philosophy was strong in Pennsylvania. Meetings of “friends” involved long periods of silence for contemplation and prayer, a practice modeled upon monastic solitude. This philosophy was adapted to criminal rehabilitation. It was thought that if prisoners were required to spend their time in total solitary confinement and silence, they would regret their crimes and become penitent—which gave rise to the word “penitentiary” to describe penal institutions. Thus reformed from within, inmates would on their own resolve to become better citizens of society. This correctional approach became known as the Pennsylvania System.
The Pennsylvania System had undergone earlier experimentation in Philadelphia. In 1787, Dr. Benjamin Rush founded the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the ﬁrst prison reform group in the world. Benjamin Franklin joined soon after it was formed. The group still operates today, under the name of the Pennsylvania Prison Society, to promote prison reform and social justice.
In 1790, the first prison to experiment with day and night solitary confinement began in Philadelphia. The Walnut Street Jail, built in 1776, opened a Penitentiary House with 16 cells intended for such use. The new approach seemed successful, and lobbying efforts began to persuade the Pennsylvania legislature to approve funding for a larger institution that would hold 250 inmates. After four years of intense lobbying, the legislature agreed.
Four architects vied for the privilege of designing the new prison. The winner was John Haviland, a British architect who had immigrated to Philadelphia. Construction began in 1822. When completed, Eastern State had centrally heated cells and modern plumbing that consisted of toilets and running water in every cell. The cost was $780,000, a staggering sum of money for a prison at the time. An architectural wonder, it attracted many visitors.
The ﬁrst inmate to arrive in 1829 was Charles William, a burglar, sentenced to two years of confinement with labor. Women prisoners were ﬁrst admitted in 1831.
Almost immediately, problems occurred. The new system intended to reform prison abuse and facilitate more productive rehabilitation became itself the cause of abuse. Prisoners were kept in total solitary conﬁnement and silence within soundproof walls. They were not allowed to speak or to fraternize with other prisoners. Meals were slid through slits in the cell doors so that contact with guards was minimal. Inmates had their own small exercise areas rather than a large communal area. When prisoners arrived, they were made to wear facemasks that prevented them from seeing where their cells were; this was believed to hamper escape efforts. From the moment they were admitted, prisoners did not see or speak to other inmates.
Various methods of severe punishment, adapted from practices at mental institutions, were employed for prisoners who disobeyed the rules. The punishments were not part of the original Quaker plan for the prison, but instead were improvised by cruel guards in response to the situations that arose.
The most common was the Iron Gag, a punishment for talking. A prisoner’s hands would be crossed and bound tightly behind his neck, and a gag was inserted in his mouth and tied to his hands. The slightest movement of his hands caused a painful tearing of the mouth. Left for hours, movement was inevitable, and most had bloody mouths by the time they were released from this agonizing position.
Inmates also were bound in straitjackets so tightly that they fainted from constricted blood ﬂow to the face, neck, and hands. Some were sent to the “Mad Chair.” They were bound to a chair with chains and leather straps pulled so tightly that they could not move at all. They were left for hours or even days in this state. The lack of circulation made limbs black and blue and temporarily impaired the prisoners’ ability to walk. In the Water Bath punishment, prisoners were doused with icy water and then hung up by chains on the walls of the cells. This punishment was especially brutal during the winter, when the water would freeze on the skin. “The Hole” was a pit in the ground beneath Block 14, where the worst offenders were punished. They were thrown into total darkness with only one cup of water and one slice of bread per day for nourishment.
Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842 and was appalled at what he observed. He later wrote, “The System is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary conﬁnement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong.”
The deprivation of human contact and communication and the barbaric punishments took a toll on many prisoners. Instead of reforming, many deteriorated. Some developed severe psychological trauma, and some even went insane. Embarrassed prison ofﬁcials invented excuses, such as poor genes and even masturbation, which at the time was believed to lead to insanity if done excessively.
Investigations into the abuses of the system were initiated in 1834. In 1903, the use of the face masks was discontinued. By 1913, it was obvious that the Pennsylvania System of solitary conﬁnement and silence was not effective, and its use was abandoned. In 1923, the female prisoners were moved to a facility at Muncie. In 1924, inmates were allowed to eat together in communal halls for the first time.
Eastern State housed numerous infamous criminals, include ALPHONSE “SCARFACE” CAPONE, who spent eight months there from 1929–30. Capone enjoyed the privileges of a king relative to the other inmates. His cell was furnished with his luxurious private possessions, including a radio, a stuffed easy chair, a beautiful desk, and paintings for the walls. He received numerous visitors and was allowed tobacco and whiskey.
Perhaps the most unusual inmate was a dog, Pep, the “Cat-Murdering Dog.” One story goes that Pep was sentenced by Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot to life at Eastern State for killing his wife’s cat. Another story holds that Pinchot donated Pep to the prison to boost inmate morale. At any rate, Pep received his own inmate number and was given a mug shot.
As with all prisons, Eastern State saw escape attempts throughout its history. The most famous occurred in 1945 when 12 men escaped, led by mastermind Charles Klinedinst, a plasterer who secretly constructed a tunnel beneath the prison. Willie Sutton, another escapee, planned the tunnel. Klinedinst was free for only two hours. He was returned to his cell with an additional 10 years added to his sentence.
In 1953, the name of the institution was changed to the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia. It was designated a historic site by the City of Philadelphia in 1958. It became a federal National Historic Landmark in 1965.
By 1970, the facility was in disrepair. It closed, and most inmates were transferred out. A riot occurred, prompting the transfer of more prisoners. By 1971, it was nearly abandoned. Consideration was given to demolishing the structure for commercial use, but those plans were dropped in 1988, when preservation efforts began and limited tours were allowed. In 1994, Eastern State turned into a tourist attraction. A museum was opened the following year. Ghost tours are given at night, and groups of paranormal investigators are allowed to rent exclusive access.
Given the severe isolation of the prisoners, it is likely that many of them experienced ghostly phenomena or hallucinations resembling haunting activity. Capone was probably the first notorious prisoner to talk of ghosts while at the prison. His haunting was not one of the place itself, but rather the angry ghost of one of his victims, who followed him to his cell. Capone told guards that the ghost of James Clark, one of the men shot dead in the ST. VALENTINE’S DAY MASSACRE, was harassing and threatening him. By the time Capone arrived at Eastern State, the silence rule had long been abandoned. Others could hear Capone begging “Jimmy” to leave him alone. Jimmy continued to follow Capone for the rest of his life.
Eastern State Penitentiary comes alive with phenomena, especially at night when the facility is quiet. It is possible to hear phantom voices talking, wailing, and crying—perhaps the ghostly sounds of the pent-up frustrations of earlier silent prisoners. There are also phantom sounds of footsteps shufﬂing and the clanging of cell doors. Particularly active areas are Block 12 and Death Row. A tall, dark ﬁgure of a man is often seen in the older cellblocks, radiating intense anger and malevolence. His identity is unknown.
Numerous photographic anomalies have been taken, including unusual ORBS, Apparitions, and Shadow People seen moving about the long corridors. Equipment malfunctions, for example, cameras and recorders cease operating and cameras sometimes take pictures by themselves. Electronic Voice Phenomena include voices and other sounds.
- Eastern State Penitentiary Web site. Available online. URL: https://www.easternstate.org/history/index.html. Downloaded October 7, 2006.
- New Jersey Ghost Hunters Society Web site. Available online. URL: https://www.njghs.net. Downloaded October 7, 2006.
- Taylor, Troy. “Solitary Conﬁnement: History and Hauntings of Eastern State Penitentiary and Behind the Scenes of the TLC Filming.” Available online. URL: https://www.prairie ghosts.com/eastern.html. Downloaded October 7, 2006.
The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007