Thriller Thursday: America's Most Haunted Prison

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Eastern State Penitentiary circa 1920.

In the late eighteenth century, a group of powerful and determined Philadelphians met in Benjamin Franklin's home. Calling themselves "The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons," the group set out to improve the miserable conditions of prisons in the United States and Europe. Dr. Benjamin Rush had the idea to build a true penitentiary, a building designed to create regret and penitence.

Eastern State's front gate.

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829. Guided by the Quaker-inspired idea of isolation from other prisoners, the system was strict. Prisoners had a toilet, table, bunk, and Bible in their cells where they were locked in all but one hour a day. When they did leave, a black hood was shoved over their head to prevent distraction and interaction as well as knowledge of the massive building.

Many notorious criminals spent time behind Eastern State's walls, including Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. Capone's time at ESP came shortly after the St. Valentine's Day Massacre, and he claimed the ghost of victim Jimmy Clark visited him on his cell.

Naturally, Capone's cell differed from the other prisoner's.
"The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk. On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receive of handsome design and fine finish." -- Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929.
Capone's restored cell at ESP today.

Despite the supposed goal of better treatment and prison conditions, harsh punishments were often doled out at ESP.

The Water Bath: An inmate was dunked in ice-cold water and then hung from a wall for the night. This punishment was most popular during the winter months, and the water would freeze into a layer of ice on the inmate's skin before morning.

The Mad Chair: Given its name because a prisoner was likely to go mad before the punishment ended. Inmates were strapped to the chair so tightly with leather strips they couldn't make even the smallest movements. They were left for days, without food, until the circulation in their body nearly stopped.

Some argue this is simply a barber's chair; others insist it's Eastern's Mad Chair.

Iron Gag: Designed for inmates who refused to obey the no communications policy. An iron collar was clamped onto the tongue of the inmate and then chained to his wrists, which were strapped high behind the back. Movement caused the tongue to tear and severe bleeding. Many died from loss of blood.

Drawing of Eastern's Iron Gag

The Hole: Resting beneath Cell Block 14, the hole was a dark pit where inmates would remain for weeks with no light and very little air. Inmates tossed in received water and a slice of bread, which they'd have to fight the roaches for.

Eastern State closed its doors in 1971 after people began to question the effectiveness of solitary confinement, but many believe some sort of life still exists behind its now crumbling walls. As early as the 1940s, prisoners and guards alike reported visions and creepy experiences throughout the building. Between the violent criminals Eastern housed and the harsh punishments doled out, it's no wonder the place is alive with paranormal energy.

One of the most commonly seen ghosts is an inmate who killed twenty-seven men during an attempted escape. Besides the random specters, strange sounds are heard on a regular basis.

Cell Block 4

A major paranormal episode happened to a locksmith doing restoration work in Cell Block 4. He was struggling to remove a 140-year-old lock from the cell door when a powerful force overcame him, rooting the locksmith to the spot. According to the man, he was drawn to the negative energy that burst through the cell. Anguished faces appeared on the wall and distorted forms rushed through the cell block.

Now a major tourist attraction, paranormal experiences at ESP are frequent occurrences. Voices, weeping, and tormented screams are heard while numerous shadows are seen darting in and out cells.

"When my mother, my sister, and I visited in 2004, we caught not one, but two EVPS (electronic voice phenomenon—a disembodied voice that isn't audible to the naked ear, but can be heard via digital recording) in the exact same spot. We were up by ourselves on the stairs that lead to the catwalk, snapping a few photos when a voice came through sternly instructing us, "you don't have to take a damn picture." Just moments later, the same voice manifested again, this time forlornly stating, "I'm lonely..." - Blue Moon Ghost Hunters

Cell Block 12, reported to have the most paranormal activity.

Active areas include Cellblock 12, where voices and raucous laughter can be heard, Cellblock 6, where shadowy figures are seen against the walls, and Cellblock 4. Footsteps have been heard in the corridors, and wailing is often emitted from the secluded cells.

Cell Block 6

Eastern State is a favorite spot for paranormal investigators. Ghost Hunters garnered some pretty creepy evidence a few years ago. If you want to see the guys exploring the prison, watch the whole video, but the good stuff starts at about 5:45.




Eastern State takes full advantage of its frightening reputation by hosting Terror Behind The Walls - the ultimate Halloween haunted house.

Eastern State is definitely on my list of possible haunted places to visit. What do you think? Is the evidence compelling? Would you be brave enough to embark on Terror Behind the Walls? Have you had any awesome paranormal experiences?

Thanks to Catie Rhodes for the idea of featuring Eastern State!

Other ESP Links:







25 comments:

Tressa Green said...

That is an awesome, morbidly beautiful building. I think it would be neat to visit.

However, I don't believe in ghosts. I think once you die, you go back into the creative source. All souls return, no exceptions. I believe very strongly in that.

So, I believe that when people are seeing and hearing stuff, they are primed to see and hear (especially on these ghost shows) so they do. Our brains are powerful things... our imaginations are limitless. I have no doubts that people experience things; I've seen, felt, and heard weird things, but I believe everything can be explained with science and logic.

I know a lot of folks like the paranormal and are into it. It is fascinating. And it makes great plot points in stories. I think it's interesting from the standpoint that humans have a desire or need for there to be ghosts; as if their existence proves there's life beyond death.

Auden Johnson said...

What an interesting post. I'm a huge horror fan so I've always been into haunted places. But, I might have watched too many horror movies- don't think I'd be brave enough to visit Eastern State. The idea of touring a haunted place, though, is really intriguing.

Stacy said...

Tressa, it is an amazing building. It would be very neat to tour there, and I would have to question any experience there because it's one of those places you'd expect something to happen, and your mind can very easily play tricks on you.

However, because of personal experience (and very strong evidence along with it - it's a previous blog topic), I absolutely believe in the afterlife and in ghosts. But to each his own.

And you're right, paranormal stuff is fascinating, even if much of it is likely imagination. Thanks!

Stacy said...

Thanks, Auden! I would love to visit Eastern State just for the history. It's one of those places that has to be teeming with energy, and I'm not talking about the supernatural. So much happened there it would be impossible for it not to have some sort of imprint. Anyway, thanks for commenting!

donna galanti said...

LOVE this creepy place - right in my backyard. Creepy during the day, am dying to do the Haunted halloween there. It truly is just crumbling over time, immense, haunted, gray. You would love it, Stacy.

One creepy aspect is that a musical artist set up a utensil musical, so to speak. The prisoners were in solitary cells and would rap their spoons, cups, anything they had on the pipes and beds. Down one hallway, an artist has set up a "song" from using the same things and it rolls through each room as the items strike. Very creepy like the prisoners are there again, haunting the prison.

Tressa Green said...

Stacy, when I was a kid, I could've been called a sensitive. I saw things, felt things. I was constantly jumpy and paranoid because of it. So I understand personal experience for sure. As a teenager, I was sick of constantly being scared so I decided I wouldn't believe in that stuff any more. Non-believe would eventually turn those channels off; that was the hope. What it's actually done is enabled me to not be so jumpy and "scared of the dark". As an adult, that's sort of embarrassing; but I'll admit to being jumpy on occasion even now. lol

In spite of all that, I still believe that God or Creation or aliens or whatever caused us to be here would never leave anyone's soul or spirit behind. I don't believe in a cruel or disregarding Creator, so that's the basis of my disbelief in ghosts. I figure what I and others might be seeing or feeling or hearing are merely echoes of previous times. Or perhaps a really radical idea might be that we might sense the shifting of the curtain between dimensions... perhaps that curtain leads to the afterlife itself.

Normally, though, it's the wind. It's an animal. It's the shifting of the foundation. A shadow from a bird through the window. A gnat that flew super close to the eye. Particles in the air. Nice and logical... for my sanity's sake. :)

Sorry, I'm so long-winded today! o.o

Ruth Hartman Berge said...

Great article. I've seen the Ghost Hunters episode on this and found it creepy to say the least. I'd like a tour - daylight only, please. I've had too many odd things happen to believe that all souls rush away from this existence and if so many people are feeling and seeing things here, it's my opinion that while some of it is definitely the power of suggestion, the sheer number of events dictates that they can't ALL be put down to coincidence.

catierhodes.com said...

I like to think I'd go on that Terror Behind the Walls tour. However, I'm afraid I'd never get warm in that dank old building. If I ever found myself in a position to, I'd absolutely take whatever tour they have. You know I thoroughly believe in the paranormal.

The ice bath: My grandfather worked in a mental asylum following WWII. This was an army run facility, so all the patients were soldiers. Papaw told me that when a patient couldn't calm down, they gave him an ice-water bath. Eep! He also told me he was present at the first electro-shock therapy given in the USA.

Thanks for such an interesting and well-researched post.

Myne Whitman said...

I'm coming over from the blogger ball.

I think I would be too scared to go on a tour of that facility. I watched the video and the apparitions look too real!

Stacy said...

Donna, I'm totally jealous. I would love to visit, and the Halloween thing would be very awesome. The song sounds VERY cool! That would really add to the ambiance. Thanks

Tressa
I do get where you're coming from. My experience is a bit different and didn't have anything to do with creepy sounds, sights, etc. It's very personal. Thanks for sharing!

Stacy said...

Catie
Thanks for the idea. LOL, yes it would be cold but incredibly awesome. We'd have fun, lol.

I can't imagine the ice bath. Sounds like it would be pure torture. And wow on the electro-shock. What a long history that has.
Thanks:)

Myne
Welcome. Yes, Ghost Hunters are usually pretty good, and they were stumped by that apparition. It's never been disproven (that I know of). Thanks!

Kelly Hashway said...

Totally creepy! I've heard about this place before. I usually wind up watching shows where they go to places like this, and of course it's nighttime when they're on. Gives me nightmares, but I can't help myself.

homecomingbook said...

The ice bath sounds like a recipe for hypothermia--I'm surprised prisoners lived through it. And I do have a ghost--or a guardian angel--or an aspect of Marna's subconscious in Homecoming. Win just walked in and plunked himself down in my story, thank you--he certainly wasn't planned!

Stacy said...

Kelly
I watch those shows too. I love any kind of paranormal show. Right now a favorite is Scyfy's Paranormal Witness. I think a new one airs tonight. Very creepy. Thanks!

Sue
Yes, it does. I'm sure many of them didn't. Very cool Win just took over. Love when characters do that. Thanks for commenting:)

Pam said...

I love posts like this, and as someone else said I'd love to visit! It isn't that far for me, either, so I just might!

Jen said...

I saw the episode of ghost hunters...freaked me out. I'd love to visit here! :)

Laura Pauling said...

Yes, creepy. I can't believe prisoners were treated that way! How horrible! No surprise it's haunted.

Liz said...

Wow! I cannot imagine being dunked in ice water, hung on the wall, and left there for the night. That does seem cruel and unusual! This is so fascinating that I tweeted about it :)

Stacy said...

Pam
You totally should, and if you do, please share your experience. Would love to hear it. Thanks!

Jen
That was definitely a creepy episode. The only ones more unsettling were the St Augustine Lighthouse and Waverly Hills. Thanks for stopping by!

Stacy said...

Laura
I know, especially when the founding society's goal was better treatment. Talk about hypocrisy. Thanks!

Liz
Me either. That is pure torture and very cruel. Thanks for the tweet and comment:)

Julie Glover said...

Those punishments were awful. They weren't punishing so much as torture. Being more into the history of the place, I would love to take a tour. Al Capone's cell looked half prison/half parlor. I didn't know about Eastern State. Thanks for the post, Stacy!

Natalie said...

Totally creepy and wonderful. I love articles like this. Amazing information and love the ghost video. I'd totally be game to check out their haunted house. Tks for sharing!

Stacy said...

Julie
Yes, they were. Very hypocritical. I'm a big history buff too, so the tour would be awesome. You're welcome, and thanks for stopping by.

Thanks, Natalie. So glad you enjoyed it. I think their haunted house would be awesome and terrifying:)

Dean K Miller said...

I would love to visit, but daylight hours might be the only time.

Interesting moments for me at Fort Amsterdam on St. Marteen last winter...amongst others

Stacy said...

Dean, if you go, you gotta do it right! Night time all the way. You'll have to share your experience at Fort Amsterdam some time. I've heard creepy stuff about Fort MacMillian, too.

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