Isolation and Agony at Eastern State Penitentiary

Walk the same halls as notorious criminals in America’s first true penitentiary. Do the ghosts of long-suffering inmates remain?

  • Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia was built in 1829.
  • The penitentiary emphisized solitary confinement, isolation, reflection, and quiet labor.
  • Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 and stood abandoned for the next 23 years.
  • Today, the prison hosts daily tours and special events, including an annual haunted house called “Terror Behind the Walls.”

Some might consider it ironic that the world’s first true penitentiary was built not only in the Land of the Free, but in the City of Brotherly Love. The Gothic Revival exterior of Eastern State Penitentiary, a prison designed to reform criminals, inspired fear for over a century. Situated in the heart of modern Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it stood as a reminder of what fate awaited those who ran afoul of the law. It is no surprise that more than a few ghosts are believed to lurk behind its thick stone walls.

Eastern State Penitentiary is located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue, between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street, in the Fairmount neighborhood. Fairmount used to be a farming community outside the City of Philadelphia, but was incorporated into the city in the 19th Century. Eastern State Penitentiary was designed by Architect John Haviland and built in 1829. A man named Charles Williams was its first prisoner. The prison became so famous that it was one of two places Charles Dickens wanted to see when he visited Philadelphia in 1842.

Eastern State Penitentiary engraving
Eastern State Penitentiary engraving

The system enforced at the prison became known as the “Pennsylvania Model.” In contrast to New York State’s “Auburn System”, which emphasized punishment, the Pennsylvania Model advocated solitary confinement, isolation, reflection, and quiet labor. This Quaker-inspired system was meant to instill penitence in the prisoners, hence the name “penitentiary.” Charles Dickens criticized this method of incarceration, writing, “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye.”

In 1913, prison officials abandoned the policy of prisoner isolation and built several additions, including weaving shops, a bakery, kitchens, and guard towers with spotlights. Over the years, Eastern State Penitentiary housed several notorious inmates, including Al Capone. Capone was allowed to comfortably furnish his cell during his stay in 1929. In 1945, a bank robber named Willie Sutton and eleven other inmates managed to escape by digging a tunnel under the wall. Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 and stood abandoned for the next 23 years.

Its decaying corridors, overgrown prison yard, and history of agony lent itself to ghost stories. Tree roots crawl down some of the cell walls, creating a nightmarish image. The former penitentiary has become notorious for paranormal activity, and TV shows like Most Haunted Live!, Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures, and MTV’s Fear have filmed there. According to NPR, “Cellblock 12 is known for echoing voices and cackling; Cellblock 6 for shadowy figures darting along the walls; Cellblock 4 for visions of ghostly faces. Many people have reported seeing a silhouette of a guard in one of the towers.” Other visitors report hearing phantom footsteps, wails, and whispers.

Today, the prison hosts daily tours and special events, including an annual haunted house called “Terror Behind the Walls.” Art installations can be found scattered throughout the grounds and in some of the cells, and the museum holds a wealth of information about the US prison system. No visit to Philadelphia is complete without touring Eastern State Penitentiary. Who knows what you may find. Come for the history, stay for the ghosts.

Author: Michael Kleen

Michael Kleen is an author, raconteur, and occasional traveler. He has a M.A. in History and M.S. in Education. He enjoys studying military history, folklore, and philosophy.

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