Visit Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia!
Cellblock 17 in Eastern State; Bill and the boys down below. The penitentiary was designed with tall, arched windows, skylights, and barrel-vaulted hallways to give a cathedral feeling. They had hoped the forced monastery theme would bring thoughtfulness and remorse.
“… and when they put you in that cell… and those bars slam home…
that’s when you know it’s for real. A whole life blown away in the blink of an eye. Nothing left but all the time in the world to think about it.”
– Red in The Shawshank Redemption
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Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania opened in 1829, the world’s first true “penitentiary”. One that mob gangster Al Capone, “Scarface”, was imprisoned at for his 1st ever prison sentence. In its time, it was the most famous prison in the world. For nearly 150 years, it held around 80,000 men and women. Some were murderers & hitmen, famous bank robbers and mobsters, but there were lesser crimes and 1st timers here, too. A girl as young as 11 did time here for arson. She died here at 13 of Tuberculosis. Many claim the decaying, ancient prison is one of the most haunted places in the world. Today, nearly 200 years old, Eastern State stands as a National Historic Landmark whose walls have seen riots, escapes, and evil up close. Maybe some falsely accused and hopefully some redemption. Big name, Hollywood movies have shot here and over a dozen tv shows, many of them investigating the paranormal. Books have been written about it, a video game inspired, and music videos filmed, here. It has quite a tale to tell.
Though the outside was designed to look like a Gothic, medieval castle, Eastern State is possibly the 1st modern building in the United States, an architectural marvel for its time. They developed running water and central heat when even the White House still relied on coal-burning stoves for heat and hand-pumped their water. At $780,000 to build, Eastern State quickly became one of the most expensive buildings in a young United States. Prisons around the world modeled theirs after it. Thousands of tourists traveled by just to see it. Famed author Charles Dickens voyaged from England for a tour.
A formidable fortress. It’s nearly impossible to get a good picture of the whole thing because it’s enormous, covering an entire city block!
The Eastern State Experiment
Eastern State was an experiment designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in prisoners using solitude with light labor. They thought it would help prisoners to reflect and feel remorse. Before Eastern State, most prisons were just large holding pens where men, women & children were thrown together. Small time thieves were in with murderers, everyone left to fend for themselves behind locked doors.
The prison has 7 cellblocks radiating from a central hub, like spokes of a wheel. Guards could watch the entire building from that central spot until a 2nd story was added later. Its half mile of 30 foot tall, stone walls and turrets were meant to instill fear and intimidate outsiders, in hopes of deterring crime. Inside, they enforced silence and prohibited all contact between prisoners. No contact was allowed from the outside and there was very little with even the guards. Guards wore wool socks on their feet to muffle their footsteps. Silence was enforced under threat of a darkened cell and only bread and water to eat. A straight jacket and gag would be used, if necessary. Masks were worn outside their cell to prevent communication and inmates learning the layout. They ate, worked & spent 23 hours a day, alone & silent in their cell. They had an hour outside in their attached, private exercise yard. Each cell had heat, running water, a toilet, and a skylight for airflow. Relatively comfortable for the times when private, wealthy homes and even US President Andrew Jackson‘s White House had none of those.
The building was added onto a number of times, so many of the cell-blocks have a different look.
Escapes & Riots:
In 1832, three years in, they had their 1st escape. He was captured, but escaped, again, the same way 5 years later. Nearly 100 years later, 6 armed inmates held up a group of unarmed guards before scaling the east wall. One made it as far as Honolulu and all but 1 were recaptured. Thirteen years later, in ’45, 12 men escaped through a tunnel to the street. The main tunnel builder had only 2 years left of his sentence, but added 10 more for that 2 hours of stolen freedom. During the 142 years of operation, more than 100 inmates escaped. Most were caught within minutes. Only one was never recaptured.
Ten years after abandoning private cells and silence, they experienced the 1st of several prison riots. In 1933, inmates set fires in their cells and destroyed workshops, rioting over “insufficient recreational facilities, overcrowding, and idleness”. They rioted, again, the following year over low wages. They short-circuited the electrical outlets and started fires and other disturbances. In 1961, inmates overpowered a guard and began the largest riot in the prison’s history. Within hours, police, guards, and state troopers reclaimed the prison.
End of an Era:
Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1970. Vandals smashed skylights and windows, and an urban forest grew up through the halls and cells. Only a family of stray cats roamed the halls, until they began to give limited tours in the late ’80s. The World Monument Fund designated it 1 of the 100 most important endangered landmarks in the world.
The victims- These are the ones that stay with me, the ones I can’t forget. This exhibit by artist Cindy Stockton Moore broke my heart. This is a small portion of those coldly murdered by prisoners of Eastern State Penitentiary. Many more were killed, but photos don’t remain. Devastating. May they rest in peace.
Some Tour Highlights:
Tours include a headset audio tour guide, “The Voices of Eastern State“, that is excellent and kept our entire family fascinated the whole time. It gives history, context & some 1st-hand accounts by actual inmates and guards from Eastern State’s operating years. They also have guide-led discussion tours and interactive experiences, Hands-On History, available. There are also award-winning museum exhibits discussing crime, justice and the modern prison system.
- Cellblock 1- one of the original cellblocks from 1829, untouched by later additions.
- Visit Cellblock 15, ESP’s “Death Row” for the most violent offenders with a death sentence. They were transferred out for all executions.
- In 1924, the Pennsylvania Governor sentenced Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cat. The wife later exonerated Pep and said he was not guilty of the crime. They had donated their own beautiful black Lab to the prison to increase inmate morale. He roamed free and accompanied guards on their rounds. Pep’s mugshot and small exhibit is toward the end of your tour.
- Al Capone’s Cell– In 1929 & ’30, the Chicago mobster spent 8 months, here, his very 1st prison sentence. He was sentenced for carrying a concealed, unlicensed gun into a movie theater. He had a polished desk and bookshelf on a large, ornate rug. Colorful oil paintings adorning the walls and a fancy cabinet radio used to play the waltz.
- Ball-field & exercise yards where the inmates played baseball and football. You can see how tall the walls tower over you. You can see some of Philly’s skyline a few miles away.
- Artist Exhibitions– There are 13 throughout the prison, the most moving to me was the one near Death Row with photos of 50 of the murder victims on Eastern State prisoners. From a 1 year old baby who was killed in a kidnapping gone wrong to a 12 year old boy slain with scissors & brutally assaulted by a 16 year old. Those details are not in the audio tour. They’re in a victim’s binder at the exhibit. Details are very minimal, only a couple of sentences and their photo. Have kids avoid the book.
- 1945 Escape Tunnel Cell #68– There is a small hole that prisoners covered with plaster, hung a laundry chute cover on, and later 12 of them escaped through. A painted line traces the path of the tunnel. All were recaptured. One rang the prison doorbell 8 days later and asked to return because he was starving on the city streets. Archaeologists found the hole in 2005.
- The Hole “Klondike”- 4 cells where solitary confinement was later carried out as punishment. This was after they had already abandoned silence and separation of inmates. In here, they had no plumbing, no mattress or blanket. They stayed a week to a month with a meal a day, or bread and water.
- Memorial Plaque dedicated to the prisoners (identified only by inmate number) who fought in WWI.
- The architecture, even in a state of ruin is often in its own way beautiful. It’s also gritty, sometimes creepy, and holds so much lingering history that it hangs in the air. As you listen to your audio tour and walk the cellblocks, your mind will easily take you back in time and leave you in awe at the history of this place. You’ll feel the stories of those who lived a dark chapter of their lives here.
- Other places include the, once state-of-the-art, prison hospital, kitchen, greenhouse, 1st Jewish prison synagogue & barbershop
Al Capone’s Cell- In 2019, they renovated the cell and finished & painted the walls to better recreate what it looked like when Capone was imprisoned here. Decorated with fine furnishings, similar to what he had, it looks more like a tasteful sitting room, than a prison cell. He was on the “Park Avenue Block” for rich and/or famous inmates.
Eastern State in Movies, TV & Music
Eastern State easily tells a haunting tale because she lived it, and she looks it. In 1995, it was a mental institution in the movie 12 Monkeys, with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt. In 1998, ESP portrayed a Malaysian prison in the movie Return to Paradise with Joaquin Phoenix & Vince Vaughn. ESP was also a film location for 2008 Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen with Shia LeBeouf, Megan Fox & Josh Duhamel.
I’m not really a believer in the traditional paranormal outside of God and Christian doctrine, but paranormal believers & ‘ghost hunters’ consider Eastern State to be one of the most haunted places in the world. 19th century officers and inmates reported alleged eerie experiences, terrifying voices and strange visions. It’s, now, a hot spot for paranormal TV show investigations. A number of the show hosts are convinced it’s haunted and called it ‘terrifying’ and ‘one of the most haunted places in the world’. Over a dozen tv shows, a video game, music tracks & videos, and scores of books have focused their fascination on ESP. I’ll include many of them at the end of this article.
A typical 8×12 cell. A toilet is behind me with the private exercise yard door at the end. Early on, they had a Bible to read, but most were illiterate.
What the Wheats think:
This nearly 200 year old, once abandoned structure is hauntingly beautiful and a very interesting sight to see. I didn’t appreciate how beautiful ruins could be, especially ones marred with violence and sadness, death and even madness. But the beauty of the architecture, though 2 centuries old, still remains. The history she holds, through riots and disease, darkness and abandonment, yet she stands. An aged & weathered gem sitting in the middle of a modern city fascinates. Always a privilege to visit historic places that have seen so much. Philadelphia has more to offer than Revolutionary War. It is worth your time, for sure and a gem in Philly!
- For our other crime-related posts, see the FBI exhibits in my Newseum article.
Good the Know:
- The site was built over 200 years ago and does not have a parking lot. There are neighboring ones for about $3- $10, and street parking in the area. Eastern State occupies a full city block. Some of the surrounding parallel parking is free, unlimited and easy. It is located in a historic neighborhood (Fairmount) with Victorian homes, good restaurants and is safe and pretty to walk.
- It’s also easily accessible from the Philadelphia Trolley, Big Bus, The Phlash bus, Bike Tours, and several SEPTA bus routes.
- Hours– Tickets are untimed, open rain or shine. It is open daily from 10- 5 p, except major holidays. The last entry is at 4p.
- Time– The visit will take about 2-3 hours.
- The main audio tour route includes 10 stops and lasts about 35 minutes, but you’ll pause and stop plenty. There are short, extra stops on topics like escapes, riots, sports, and more, if you’re interested.
- The building does not have climate control. Summers are hot and winters are cold. Dress for the weather and wear tennis shoes for better footing.
- There is no food on site, but many good restaurants in the neighborhood. We stopped for authentic Philly cheese steaks at a local diner. There are picnic tables on the prison baseball field if you want to bring a sack lunch.
- Eastern State Penitentiary advises against bringing kids under 7 due to safety & content. They have an ESP kids Challenge booklet with a scavenger hunt throughout. Audio stops that contain adult content are marked.
- Watch children carefully, the building can pose safety hazards
- Part of Eastern is under construction to build a new Visitor Center and gift shop.
- The 75 minute guided tour (included with admission) is subject to availability. You can get tickets online. It begins at 2:00. Arrive early to find starting location.
- Their annual fundraising “haunted house” event, Terror Behind the Walls, has become one of the largest, most popular “haunted attractions” in the US. It takes place every fall.
- Tickets are cheaper online. $2 higher at the door.
- Discounted admission for Museums for All, ACCESS Card, and SEPTA Key Reduced Fare cardholders. Also $2 off for active military (with id) & guests with a disability.
- The Philadelphia CityPASS can be a great combo pass savings if you’re visiting other sites.
2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia
TV that ESP has been featured on:
- Mysteries at the Museum (Capone’s Haunted Cell)
- History Channel’s The Big House
- Cold Case episode titled “The House”
- the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures
- Ghost Hunters
- BuzzFeed Unsolved
- Travel Channel’s Paranormal Challenge
- When Ghosts Attack
- MTV’s Fear
- the Travel Channel’s Most Haunted Live!
- Jack Osborne’s Travel channel Portals show
- and World’s Scariest Places.
- The Ghost Finders
- Ghost Hunters Academy
- PlayStation video game, The Suffering, includes a video documentary on the site & was inspired by ESP.
Just a few of the Books include:
- Eastern State: A History
- Images of America- Eastern State Penitentiary
- Philadelphia Haunts: Eastern State Penitentiary
- Hope Abandoned
- Scariest Places on Earth: Eastern State Penitentiary
- Abandoned Spaces: Eastern State Penitentiary
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