Eastern State Penitentiary


Eastern State Penitentiary

Eastern State Penitentiary, sometimes referred to as ESP, was the largest and most expensive public structure ever built when it opened it’s doors on October 25th 1829. Located in Philadelphia Pennsylvania, Eastern State Penitentiary revolutionized the penitentiary system with it’s innovative wagon wheel design which housed notorious criminals like Al Capone and bank robber Willie Sutton. The prison closed it’s doors in 1971 and is now a US National Historical Landmark and museum that is open to the public for tours year round.

Brief History

Eastern State Penitentiary was designed by John Haviland and its radical floor plan and system of solitary confinement became the model for over 300 prisons world wild. Considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary, ESP revolutionary system of incarceration, known as the Pennsylvania System, or Separate System, encouraged separate confinement of inmates during the duration of their sentence. Originally, cells were designed to be accessed only through a small individual exercise area attached to the back of the prison, with only a small pass through just large enough for meals opening to the cell blocks. However, this original design proved impracticable and metal doors were added to allow direct access to the cell blocks. In order to keep with the Separate System these metal doors were covered by heavy wooden doors to filter out sound and prisoners leaving through these doors were required to have their heads covered with a heavy bag. Prisoners were confined to their cells for 23 hours a day and were allowed out into their individual exercise yards in shifts, making sure that no adjoining inmates were ever outside at the same time.

The cells at Eastern State Penitentiary were state of the art for their time and included running water and a toilet that was flushed remotely two times a week by the cell block guards. A large pipe along one wall functioned as a heater during colder months, hot water would be run through the pipping, keeping the cells reasonably heated. A small rectangular opening in the cell wall allowed food and other material to be passed to the inmates, and peep holes allowed the guards to observe the prisoners without being seen. The toilet system was designed using individual pipes leading to one central sewer in the hopes of preventing messages from being sent to adjacent cells via the piping system. Each cell was lit by a single light source which was either a skylight or window located high above the cell floor.

Communication between prisoners was strictly forbidden, first time offenders were deprived of dinner while repeat offenders were taken to so called punishment cells and given very little in the way of bread and water to survive until they were returned to their cells. As time past more extreme punishments were implemented in an attempted to curb attempts to communicate. These extreme measures included The Iron Gag, The Water Bath, The Straitjacket, The Mad Chair and The Hole, all of which were particularly unpleasant means of punishment.

The Iron Gag was a devise which was clamped onto the inmates tongue while his arms were crossed and chained behind his neck. Any attempt to move would result in the gag tearing at the tongue and causing extreme pain, if not death. The Water Bath was particular feared in the winter months, when an inmate would be dunked in a bath of cold water, chained to the wall and left to freeze overnight. The Straitjacket was a typical straitjacket, however it was fastened so tight that inmates would often pass out from the lack of blood flow. The Mad Chair, named as such due to the frequency in which the inmate would go mad before it was over, was an idea taken from mental hospitals at the time. An inmate would be strapped into the chair so tightly that he could hardly move a muscle and would be left there for days at a time. The Hole may have been the most feared of all, as it was nothing but a pit dug deep into the floor where hardly any light or air flow could penetrate. Uncontrollable inmates were tossed into The Hole for long periods of time, weeks in some cases, and would have to fight off rats for the little food and water that they were given.

Due to these harsh punishments, and the fact that everyone there was, you know, a criminal,  several escape were attempted and thwarted throughout the years Eastern State was in operation. The most famous of these escape attempts took place on April 3rd 1945 and is said to involve several men, including notorious bank robber Willie Sutton. The men had spent some time digging a tunnel out of the prison, using stolen wood from the shop to reinforce the walls, and on the 3rd they pulled the trigger on their escape plan. As the story goes, the men made their escape at slightly different times to avoid being caught, however the last two were apprehended climbing out of the tunnel and the others were taken back into custody just a short time later a few blocks away.

The most famous inmate every to be housed at Eastern State Penitentiary was mobster Al Capone, who was sent to ESP after being convicted on charges of carrying concealed weapons.  Al Capone’s stay at Eastern State was quite a bit more comfortable than most inmates as he was given access to the warden’s office to make long distance calls and was allowed frequent visits from his lawyer and other business associate. An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, from August 20th 1929, described his living conditions as follows… “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 receiver of handsome design and fine finish…”

Eastern State was designated a National Historical Landmark in 1966 and was closed in 1971. Upon it’s closure the majority of the guards and prisoners were transferred to Graterford Prison which is about 31 miles northwest of ESP. The City of Philadelphia purchased the property shortly there after with plans to redevelop the grounds, proposals ranged from a mall to a luxury apartment complex. Ultimately redevelopment plans were scrapped and in 1994 Eastern State Penitentiary opened it’s doors to the public as a museum and historical tour.

Paranormal History

Many researchers believe that some of the vile, cruel and twisted individuals that called Eastern State Penitentiary home during it’s years of operation never left, and still roam the halls in the form negative energy and malevolent spirits. Many people died behind the walls of ESP, some from natural causes like old age and illness, but others met a more violent end at the hands of other inmates, prison personal or on death row, Even before the facility closed it’s doors inmates and guards alike reported strange occurrences like disembodied whispers and mysterious laughter in uninhabited hallways or cell blocks. Now that the building is empty those strange occurrences remain, with many visitors and volunteers reported strange happenings in the old building, including aforementioned whispers and laughing, but also weeping, foot steps, shadow people and feelings of dread or extreme negativity in places.

Cell Blocks: As you might expect the cells blocks, were the inmates were kept, seem to be the most active areas of the old jail, in particular Cell Block 12 seems to have the most paranormal activity. It is here, in Cell Block 12, where people often report hearing disembodied laughter and a shadowy figure is sometimes seem darting about. Shadowy figured are not confined to Cell Block 12 though, in fact, reports of dark entities moving about have been reported in most of the Cell Blocks, some of which sit perfectly still before darting off into the darkness as someone gets close. During encounters with these dark figures in the cell blocks many people report a feeling of anger or a sense of malevolence.

The Guard Tower: Reports of a shadowy figure which stands high in the guard tower are common at Eastern State Penitentiary. Some believe that this spirit belongs to to a guard what was murdered by an inmate while on watch, and that he still watchers over the old prison, doing his best to keep the more sinister spirits in line.

Joseph Taylor: Some claim that the ghost of Joseph Taylor still haunts the ESP compound. Joseph Taylor is said to have bludgeoned Michael Doran, an overseer,, to death in 1984 using a metal pipe, and after the savage beating he simply returned to his cell and went to sleep. Some researchers connect the death of Michael Doran to the shadowy figure often spotted in the guard tower.

The Locksmith: There are two versions of this story, in the first it is reported that during renovations to Cell Block 4 a locksmith by the name of Gary Johnson was attempting to remove a 140 year old lock when a heavy feeling draped over him and he thought he was being watched. Looking around he could not see anyone and returned to work, only to have the feeling return shortly there after and upon looking down the cell block again he witnessed a shadowy figure dart across the hallway. in the second telling of this story, locksmith Gary Johnson was working on that same lock and when he was finally able to open it a massive force so powerful he was unable to move washed over him. A negative energy burst forth, anguished faces materialized on the cell wall as hundreds of distorted forms swirled around the cell block centered around one dominating and exceedingly dark form which beckoned the locksmith towards it. Some believe that when Mr. Johnson opened the lock it opened a gateway to the sites horrific past and allowed the spirits caught behind it to escape and roam free.

Physical Address

2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia PA 19130

Official Website


Written by Sean – PACC Admin

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