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.
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!
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