Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia isn’t nearly as frightening as one would imagine. This former maximum-security prison, built in 1829, was the most expensive prison in America at the time of its opening; it operated on a system that required hard labor and the silence of prisoners.
According to the Penitentiary website, the first hints of paranormal activity were reported in the 1940’s. Quite a few television programs attempting to find definitive ghosts have visited. Of course, the nature of ghosts mean that there is no real proof— you believe or you don’t. Not being Fox Mulder, I tend to be skeptical myself. These days it feels a little sterilized— very tourist-y and a bit generic. That being said, it was very interesting and opens a conversation about the criminal justice system between visitors.
The idea behind this prison was radically different from contemporary criminal justice efforts. Eastern State was “this was the world’s first true ‘penitentiary,’ a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of convicts”. Prior to this, prisons were holding cells where the accused awaited trials, but confinement itself was rarely the punishment. All accused were held together, often in a single open space, regardless of crime. Men, women, and children were mixed; murderers held company with those whose crime could be as simple as unpaid debts. As there were so many people held together in filthy, cramped spaces, many died of disease while waiting for their actual punishment. When it came time to mete out these punishments beatings, branding and time in the stocks were the most common.
By the early 18th century, corporal punishments were losing favor with the public. Reformers like English philosopher Jeremy Bentham were calling for news ways of punishing, and more importantly, rehabilitating offenders. In England, the 1799 Penitentiary Act led to prisons with one inmate per cell, silence in the prison, and continuous labor with prisoners were held.
In America, Quaker communities in Pennsylvania and New Jersey were advocating for a switch from capital and corporal punishment to imprisonment for serious crimes. Post-Revolution Era America saw a growing population and a need for overhaul, with humanitarians, including Benjamin Franklin and, my personal favorite, Dr. Benjamin Rush, calling for healthier prison spaces and more dignity for those incarcerated. They called for radical change not just in American prisons, but globally. To cover the costs of these changes, prisoners were put to work, often making shoes or other articles of clothing.
Offenders were kept in solitary confinement. The principle behind this was to force the offender to consider the crime committed, repent of it, and treat solitary confinement as penitence, a time of cleansing. Most prisoners were given a bible and were required to live in silence. These theories were operating in full force in Eastern State Penitentiary and came to be known as the Pennsylvania system. Many prisons around the world would go on to implement this system.
Yet, while the idea behind Eastern State was meant for good, the results were less than stellar. Charles Dickens, whom we all know and probably aren’t too keen on, was not impressed with the prison. He considered solitary confinement to be torturous and degrading, eroding the human spirit. He did concede that those implementing the Pennsylvania system probably thought they were doing good deeds, but were just really poorly informed, having never experienced long term solitary confinement themselves. Nathaniel Hawthorne argued against solitary confinement as well, not surprising to those who read his most famous work, The Scarlett Letter. This erosion of the human spirit is why people think the prison is haunted in the first place, though I maintain that if I was tortured and locked away somewhere as horrible as a solitary confinement prison I would haunt someplace nicer— probably someplace in the Caribbean.
Eventually, Eastern State abandoned the Pennsylvania system in 1913, although other prisons continued to use the system through WW2.
After the use of solitary confinement ended, Eastern State Penitentiary stayed open to house some rather famous criminals.
Al Capone was briefly held in the penitentiary— with his own furnishings, a radio and all the special treatment money could buy. Bank robber Willie Sutton and friends built a tunnel under the prison, but failed to escape.
To go to Eastern State Penitentiary today is a bit creepy for sure. Perhaps that is less the lingering of spirits and more the cashing-in overtones. It’s worth the money though, and I’m sure most of it goes the keeping the penitentiary upright, so to speak.
Places like Eastern State offer us a chance to examine our past and consider our future. Looking at the crumbling cells and rusting gates that held people, we can imagine how bleak and tormenting this place was to its inmates. These are the very reasons that I do not believe there can be spirits left, because with the freedom of death who would choose to stay?
The day I visited the penitentiary it was raining and overcast, making for a rather sobering mood. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get the audio guide, which is narrated by Steve Buscemi, but I’m willing to bet it would be a treat. The staff were lovely, and, for groups, guided tours are available.
If you are interested in visiting information is below:
Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Phone: (215) 236-3300
Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for students and kids (7-12)
The historic site is open every day 10 am to 5 pm (last entry 4 pm) but closed for major holidays.
You can visit Eastern State Penitentiary’s website for more information: http://www.easternstate.org/