Standing under the skylights at the Eastern State Penitentiary, it seemed even the sunshine filtered in and immediately withered away into darkness. Lightness could get in, but it would never get out. Around me, dozens of people shuffled slowly through the corridors, lost in an almost zombie-like trance as they took in the crumbling walls and dilapidated cells, mouths agape as they pictured the lives the prisoners endured. To me, that was the most surreal part of my visit to the United States’ first model prison. I stood surrounded by fellow visitors in crowded corridors. Between 1829 and 1913, anyone imprisoned at the Eastern State Penitentiary suffered in solitude.
We visited Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to catch up with a couple of friends who were living in the city. On their recommendation, we decided to make the Eastern State Penitentiary our first stop of our day trip, and it didn’t disappoint. Our visit uncovered the prison’s dark history, haunting hallways, and legacy as a place where criminals quietly went insane.
Eastern State Penitentiary: Life Lived Silently Alone
Fittingly, Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors less than a week before Halloween in 1829. Designed by John Haviland, the prison was unlike any other institution in the United States. The floor plan is a hub-and-spoke model, with seven single-story cell blocks extending from a circular central point. This design specifically aimed to provide guards with a clear line of sight virtually anywhere in the prison. For as much visibility as the staff enjoyed, though, the prisoners’ convictions entitled them to a very different experience.One of the reasons Eastern State Penitentiary was hailed as a modern prison in its early days was its implementation of the “Pennsylvania System,” or separate system, of incarceration. Prisoners were held in complete isolation starting from their first moments in the prison, when guards placed a dark hood over their heads as they escorted them to their cell block. The hoods kept prisoners from knowing where in the building they were, and it kept other prisoners from knowing who else might be there. They were not allowed to speak to anyone, including the guards. The incarcerated took their meals alone in their cells, as there was no main dining area. The only time prisoners left their cells was to spend a single hour each day in their individual exercise yards, which were located directly outside each cell. Guards carefully scheduled exercise time to ensure prisoners were never outside at the same time as their neighbors, which could lead to communication.
While prisoners didn’t often hear the sound of another human voice, they also didn’t hear noises that could suggest another living person might be within earshot. Guards wore coverings over their shoes to minimize the sound their footsteps made on the floors. Day after day, night after night, the only sounds the prisoners heard were silence and the echo of their own distant voices in their minds. The experience was dismal, depressing, and enough to drive plenty of the imprisoned to the brink of insanity.
Religious Influence at Eastern State Penitentiary
Isolation was the most important part of the Eastern State Penitentiary experience, as prisoners were expected to spend their time reflecting on their transgressions and praying for forgiveness or redemption. Religion was ever-present in the penitentiary’s design, and reminders that prisoners should repent were everywhere. Most cells had small doors that required people entering them to bend at the waist, as if bowing to a higher power. If prisoners wanted to read only the bible was permissible, and their interior view was of the hallway’s neo-Gothic décor, a tribute to churches. Each cell had a single window or skylight considered to be the “Window of God.”
Eastern State Penitentiary: Modern TouchesAlthough it likely wasn’t a comfort to the incarcerated, prison cells were considered to be advanced for their time. Each cell had a flush toilet and a faucet, both of which were uncommon in the 1800s; in fact, even the United States’ White House had yet to install indoor plumbing. The cells were not air conditioned during the summer, but guards would run hot water through a system of pipes in the winter to provide just a bit of respite from the bitterly cold temperatures.
Eastern State Penitentiary’s design was so interesting that tourists began to flock to Philadelphia for a glimpse of the prison, and in the 1830s and 1840s it was possible to tour the prison. One visitor was Charles Dickens, who was appalled by the conditions and pondered whether treating humans so poorly was truly an effective way to rehabilitate them. Dickens’ voice was one of many that questioned whether the prison system had gone too far.
Punishments and Ghosts That Walk the Halls of Eastern State Penitentiary
If solitary confinement wasn’t enough of a punishment, guards doled out more direct abuses if a prisoner acted out. Singing, whistling, or talking to oneself might get you a few brief moments of human contact, but it would be anything but humane.
Prisoners were commonly subjected to the Water Bath, where they would be dunked into a tub of ice water and chained to a wall for the night. The cruelest of guards reserved this punishment for the cold winter months, when the water would freeze to the prisoner’s skin.Some prisoners endured the Mad Chair, a punishment by which they were strapped tightly into a chair for hours or days before being released back to their cells. After an extended time without proper circulation, many prisoners would be unable to walk for days as they recovered—and some lost arms and legs to amputation when their circulation didn’t return.
Still worse was a twisted punishment called The Hole in which inmates were condemned to a tiny underground chamber under Cell Block 14 with little food and no toilet or light. Under the worst circumstances prisoners were left there for weeks at a time. Many inmates turned to suicide in an effort to finally escape the torture—or the threat of torture.
Not everyone lived through their incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary, which means hauntings, spiritual encounters, and sightings tell a part of the prison’s story. The most well-known story is that of a locksmith who was hired to renovate part of Cell Block 14. While removing a lock from a cell he found himself completely overcome by an unseen force that overpowered him. He claimed negative energy poured out from the cell while the distorted faces of agonizing prisoners lined the walls. Other encounters have been reported but are less vivid; people most commonly report hearing giggling or whispering coming from the cells.
The End of Solitary Confinement: Eastern State Penitentiary in the 20th Century
It wasn’t cruelty or madness that brought down Eastern State Penitentiary; it was overcrowding. With more and more criminals assigned to Eastern State Penitentiary, the prison found itself past capacity, at which point they moved away from the Pennsylvania System of incarceration and allowed prisoners to interact with one another. Several famous inmates served time there, most notably Al “Scarface” Capone. While he remained at Eastern State Penitentiary for just eight months, his time was hardly uncomfortable; his cell was decorated with a big wooden desk and expensive carpets to afford him a few creature comforts.Another famous prisoner wasn’t actually human. One animal was imprisoned at Eastern State Penitentiary when Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot sentenced a dog believed to have murdered his wife’s cat to a life behind bars. The dog was welcomed by the guards and issued an inmate identification number; he also sat for a mug shot.
Eastern State Penitentiary remained in service until 1971, when all prisoners were transferred out and the City of Philadelphia purchased the building with the intention of renovating it. As they considered what the building might become (they considered everything from an apartment building to a mall!) colonies of stray cats took up residence. It wasn’t until 1988 that the city decided to preserve rather than transform the prison, and in 1994 it opened to the public for historic tourism.
Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary today
Because Eastern State Penitentiary sat abandoned for almost two decades much of the building fell into disrepair. Rather than rebuild or restore it, the museum simply incorporated the crumbling cells, the disintegrating paint, and the dust from the stone walls into the experience. It makes a visit there feel more authentic.
Tours are self-guided, so an audio guide narrated by none other than actor Steve Buscemi instructs you on where to turn and what to look at as you navigate the hallways. I’m notoriously critical of audio guides because, as a training professional, I find many of them to be poorly sequenced and difficult to follow, but Eastern State Penitentiary does a terrific job making the information interesting and clear. The narration is frequently interrupted by stories and memories shared by former wardens, guards, and even prisoners. The tour takes you past many of the cells, where you can see how tiny and secluded they are and sense how horrible it would be to spend any length of time confined to one. Although the audio guide has just about 30 minutes worth of content, your visit will likely span at least two hours. There is supplemental audio content available, and you will want to factor in both walking time between exhibits as well as additional time to look around on your own.
If you are planning a visit to Eastern State Penitentiary, consider scheduling your trip to coincide with one of their special events. The best known event is, appropriately, held during Halloween; Terror Behind the Walls opens the prison to the public after dark during October, and the building converts into a haunted house.If a scary nighttime visit doesn’t sound like your idea of a good time, consider delaying until Bastille Day (July 14), when the prison hosts an annual celebration that features a comedy troupe performing the entire French Revolution over the course of 60 minutes. The celebration concludes with Marie Antoinette shouting, “Let them eat Tastykake!” as thousands of Philadelphia’s famous bakery’s butterscotch krimpets rain down on the people below. Butterscotch krimpets have been one of my favorite treats for years, so it would be hard not to recommend a visit on that day!
More Information: EasternState.org
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Take an Eastern State Penitentiary tour
Eastern State Penitentiary’s complicated history is sad, frustrating, and interesting all at once. Walking through the corridors and looking into the bare cells that contained some of the country’s most hardened criminals will make you wonder how anyone could do something so wrong they deserved the conditions they endured. Eastern State Penitentiary provides a well-constructed education on the emergence, demise, and reintroduction of the prison as a museum, and if you visit Philadelphia it’s one stop you won’t regret.
Ready to visit Pennsylvania? Here are a few more places to consider as you plan your itinerary.
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. This post includes our candid review of our experience at Eastern State Penitentiary. We selected this location based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.