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Lily Landes

17 Spooky Photos of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

Lily Landes
Lily Landes

Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is super spooky, even before it transforms itself from a crumbling historical landmark to a downright creepy haunted house. We took a tour earlier this fall; here are a few photos we snapped of the prison, and some things we learned.

1. IT WAS SUPPORTED BY SOME OF PHILADELPHIA’S MOST FAMOUS CITIZENS.

Cellblock one. Photo by Lily Landes.

In the 18th century, Philadelphia's prisons were an overcrowded mess: Adults and children, men and women, were kept in what amounted to large holding pens and left to their own devices. Abuse by both fellow inmates and guards was rampant. So, in 1787, members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met at Benjamin Franklin’s house to discuss an alternative. In his remarks that night, Benjamin Rush, a prominent doctor in the city, called for “a house of repentance,” which would eventually become Eastern State:

Let a large house be erected in a convenient part of the state. Let it be divided into a number of apartments, reserving one large room for public worship. Let cells be provided for the solitary confinement of such persons as are of a refractory temper. Let the house be supplied with the materials, and instruments for carrying on such manufactures as can be conducted with the least instruction, or previous knowledge. Let a garden adjoin this house, in which the culprits may occasionally work, and walk. This spot will have a beneficial effect not only upon health, but morals, for it will lead them to a familiarity with those pure and natural objects which are calculated to renew the connection of fallen man with his creator.

2. THERE’S A REASON IT’S CALLED A PENITENTIARY AND NOT A PRISON.

What an early prisoner's cell would have looked like. Photo by Lily Landes.

Rush was adamant about this. “Let the name of this house convey an idea of its benevolent and salutary design, but let it by no means be called a prison, or by any other name that is associated with what is infamous in the opinion of mankind,” he said in 1787. Instead, this new facility would be called a penitentiary, because it was designed to create penitence in the criminals imprisoned within its walls. Built around solitary confinement that would allow a criminal to meditate on his crimes—no corporeal punishment here—it was later dubbed the Pennsylvania System.

3. IT TOOK A LONG TIME TO CONVINCE THE COMMONWEALTH OF PENNSYLVANIA TO BUILD EASTERN STATE.

Since it was closed in the 1970s, the historical landmark has become a crumbling ruin. Photo by Lily Landes.

First, reforms were made to the Walnut Street Jail, and a small “Penitentiary House” with 16 solitary cells was built there. Those changes were soon rendered inadequate thanks to Philadelphia’s rapidly growing population. Thirty years after the meeting in which Rush proposed it, ground was broken for Eastern State Penitentiary in a cherry orchard outside the city. Philadelphia would eventually grow around Eastern State.

4. IT WAS DESIGNED BY JOHN HAVILAND...

The building's battlements and exterior windows look imposing, but they're fake. Photo by Lily Landes.

The British architect's design was chosen from among four potential plans; he received $100. Haviland’s design called for seven single-level cell blocks that radiated out from the central surveillance rotunda—one guard could see down all of the cellblocks just by turning. The facility would have a capacity of 250 prisoners. The building’s imposing facade was meant to intimidate—though its battlements were fake, as were the facade's windows, which don't penetrate the interior—while its interiors took cues from churches.

5. ...AND HAD MORE AMENITIES THAN THE WHITE HOUSE.

In Eastern State's early years, the cells' cast iron toilets were flushed with water once a day. Photo by Lily Landes.

Each cell had central heating, a flush toilet, running water, a skylight, and a private exercise yard; President Andrew Jackson had to make do with heat from coal-burning stoves. In a given day, a prisoner would have the light of God to do his work (like shoemaking or weaving), a Bible, and a lot of time to think about what he had done, which Eastern State’s creators hoped would lead to penitence and reformation.

6. IT WASN’T FINISHED WHEN IT OPENED.

Cell block Seven. Photo by Lily Landes.

Eastern State welcomed its first prisoner in 1829, seven years before the prison was finished. Charles Williams, prisoner number one, was imprisoned for burglary. He was described as having “light black skin, five feet seven inches tall. Foot: Eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on thigh. Broad mouth. Black eyes.” Williams, a farmer, could read; according to his intake documents, “Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one, a gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement with labor.”

7. THEY WERE SERIOUS ABOUT THE SOLITARY THING.

A tiny diorama depicts a guard escorting an early prisoner into his cell. Photo by Lily Landes.

The reformers believed that no good could come from inmates mingling in the prison, or continuing those friendships in the real world, so legislation was passed decreeing that “the principle of solitary confinement of the prisoners [must] be preserved and maintained.” To keep the inmates from communicating during trips outside their cells, they were forced to wear masks (which ensured that inmates could never see any of the prison except for their own cells, so they wouldn’t be able to escape.) The private exercise yards attached to each cell ensured the inmates wouldn’t be able to interact with each other in their one hour of outdoor time a day, and also minimized interactions with the guards.

8. IT WAS PRICEY...

It cost $780,000—a whopping $16,295,771.89 in 2013 dollars. It's believed that it was second only to the U.S. Capitol in expense.

9. ... AND NOT BIG ENOUGH.

By 1831—five years before the original building, as designed, was even finished—it became clear that Eastern State would have to hold more criminals. Starting with Cell Block 4, all of the new buildings had two floors. Cell blocks were added between the original buildings in 1870 and 1890; mirrors were strategically placed so that guards could see down the new cell blocks from the rotunda. There were no individual exercise yards; inmates exercised together, wearing masks with eyeholes, in silence. By the 1920s, two or three men were living in each cell, and prison was a much more social affair. The original design called for 256 cells; by the time the final cell block was built, there were 980 cells. 

10. AT FIRST, THE SENTENCES WERE SHORT.

The electric door opening buttons in Cell Block 15. Photo by Lily Landes.

In Eastern State's early years, a typical sentence was two years; sentences rarely exceeded eight years. No one served life there, and prisoners sentenced to die were imprisoned elsewhere. But by the 20th century, the idea of solitary confinement creating penitence had long been abandoned, and the most violent prisoners, as well as those sentenced to be executed, were housed in Cellblock 15, which opened in 1959. It was the last cellblock to be built—and the only one with electric doors. No executions ever took place at Eastern State.

11. SOME LAUDED IT…

The door to the medical wing. Photo by Lily Landes.

In 1831, French aristocrat and historian Alexis de Tocqueville and prison reformer Gustave de Beaumont visited the prison, writing back to the French government that "Thrown into solitude... [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.... Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness.." Eastern State's design would inspire some 320 other prisons around the world, some of which were in use until after the Second World War.

12. ... BUT NOT EVERYONE WAS A FAN.

Cell Block Seven. Photo by Lily Landes.

In 1842, Charles Dickens visited Eastern State—and did not like what he saw. "In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing," he wrote in his journal. "I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,... and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay." He called the system "rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong..."

The Pennsylvania System of around-the-clock solitary confinement was eventually abandoned in 1913, but a far less pleasant solitary confinement—not intended for penitence, but for punishment—would be incorporated again as the prison grew in the form of windowless subterranean cells called "Klondike."

13. AL CAPONE SERVED TIME THERE ... AND SO DID A DOG.

Capone's cell. Photo by Lily Landes.

Believe it or not, Al Capone had never been to prison before he landed in Eastern State in 1929. He was arrested when he stopped in Philadelphia while traveling from Atlantic City back to Chicago for carrying a concealed, unlicensed gun. He was sentenced to a year in prison, and served 8 months of that sentence in Eastern State, where he lived in (relative) luxury—no other inmates got radios and beautiful furniture—on Cell Block 8. Capone had his tonsils out in the penitentiary's medical wing in 1929.

Another notable inmate was Pep the Cat-Murdering Dog. According to folklore, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot used his executive powers to sentence the black lab to life without parole to be served at Eastern State in 1924. The reason? Pep had killed Pinchot’s wife’s cat. Pinchot, however, said that the dog was sent there to be the prisoners’ mascot. Whatever the reason, Pep was treated as an official prisoner—Inmate C-2559 even has a mugshot.

14. SOME PRISONERS ESCAPED A LA THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION.

The entrance to the escape tunnel. Photo by Lily Landes.

Inmate Clarence Klinedinst—a plaster worker at the prison, serving time for burglary, larceny, and forgery, as well as a parole violation—spent a year designing and digging a tunnel out of Cell Number 68 with the help of his cellmate, William Russell. They dug 15 feet down, 97 feet under the courtyard, and 15 feet up to Fairmount Avenue and 22nd Street—and freedom—supporting the tunnel with wood bracing and equipping it with electric lights. The tunnel was complete by April 1945, and, before breakfast on the morning of April 3, Klinedinst, Russell, and 10 other men escaped through the tunnel. All of the escaped men were eventually captured; Klinedinst, who had just two years left to serve, was captured just three hours after the escape, and six years were added to his sentence.

15. IT HOUSED A LOT OF PRISONERS.

Photo by Lily Landes.

Between when it opened in the 1800s and when it closed in 1971, roughly 75,000 men and women served time at Eastern State. 

16. IT ALMOST GOT KNOCKED DOWN.

Photo by Lily Landes.

Eastern State was named a national historic landmark in 1965, but in 1980, the City of Philadelphia purchased the property from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for $400,000 with the intention of developing it, possibly as a criminal justice center. But in 1988, a task force successfully petitioned the city to stop pursuing development, and in 1994, the Pennsylvania Prison Society opened the prison for tours. Now, more than 200,000 people visit Eastern State every year.

17. IT’S FAMOUS.

Photo by Lily Landes.

Tina Turner filmed her music video “One of the Living” at Eastern State. Portions of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys and Michael Bay’s Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen were also shot there.

Additional Sources: General Overview; Timeline; By the Numbers.

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6 Times There Were Ties at the Oscars
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)
getty images (March and Beery)/ istock (oscar)

Only six ties have ever occurred during the Academy Awards' near-90-year history. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) members vote for nominees in their corresponding categories; here are the six times they have come to a split decision.

1. BEST ACTOR // 1932

Back in 1932, at the fifth annual Oscars ceremony, the voting rules were different than they are today. If a nominee received an achievement that came within three votes of the winner, then that achievement (or person) would also receive an award. Actor Fredric March had one more vote than competitor Wallace Beery, but because the votes were so close, the Academy honored both of them. (They beat the category’s only other nominee, Alfred Lunt.) March won for his performance in horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (female writer Frances Marion won Best Screenplay for the film), and Beery won for The Champ, which was remade in 1979 with Ricky Schroder and Jon Voight. Both Beery and March were previous nominees: Beery was nominated for The Big House and March for The Royal Family of Broadway. March won another Oscar in 1947 for The Best Years of Our Lives, also a Best Picture winner. Fun fact: March was the first actor to win an Oscar for a horror film.

2. BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT SUBJECT // 1950

By 1950, the above rule had been changed, but there was still a tie at that year's Oscars. A Chance to Live, an 18-minute movie directed by James L. Shute, tied with animated film So Much for So Little. Shute’s film was a part of Time Inc.’s "The March of Time" newsreel series and chronicles Monsignor John Patrick Carroll-Abbing putting together a Boys’ Home in Italy. Directed by Bugs Bunny’s Chuck Jones, So Much for So Little was a 10-minute animated film about America’s troubling healthcare situation. The films were up against two other movies: a French film named 1848—about the French Revolution of 1848—and a Canadian film entitled The Rising Tide.

3. BEST ACTRESS // 1969

Probably the best-known Oscars tie, this was the second and last time an acting award was split. When presenter Ingrid Bergman opened up the envelope, she discovered a tie between newcomer Barbra Streisand and two-time Oscar winner Katharine Hepburn—both received 3030 votes. Streisand, who was 26 years old, tied with the 61-year-old The Lion in Winter star, who had already been nominated 10 times in her lengthy career, and won the Best Actress Oscar the previous year for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Hepburn was not in attendance, so all eyes fell on Funny Girl winner Streisand, who wore a revealing, sequined bell-bottomed-pantsuit and gave an inspired speech. “Hello, gorgeous,” she famously said to the statuette, echoing her first line in Funny Girl.

A few years earlier, Babs had received a Tony nomination for her portrayal of Fanny Brice in the Broadway musical Funny Girl, but didn’t win. At this point in her career, she was a Grammy-winning singer, but Funny Girl was her movie debut (and what a debut it was). In 1974, Streisand was nominated again for The Way We Were, and won again in 1977 for her and Paul Williams’s song “Evergreen,” from A Star is Born. Four-time Oscar winner Hepburn won her final Oscar in 1982 for On Golden Pond.

4. BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE // 1987

The March 30, 1987 telecast made history with yet another documentary tie, this time for Documentary Feature. Oprah presented the awards to Brigitte Berman’s film about clarinetist Artie Shaw, Artie Shaw: Time is All You’ve Got, and to Down and Out in America, a film about widespread American poverty in the ‘80s. Former Oscar winner Lee Grant (who won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1976 for Shampoo) directed Down and Out and won the award for producers Joseph Feury and Milton Justice. “This is for the people who are still down and out in America,” Grant said in her acceptance speech.

5. BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) // 1995

More than 20 years ago—the same year Tom Hanks won for Forrest Gump—the Short Film (Live Action) category saw a tie between two disparate films: the 23-minute British comedy Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and the LGBTQ youth film Trevor. Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi wrote and directed the former, which stars Richard E. Grant (Girls, Withnail & I) as Kafka. The BBC Scotland film envisions Kafka stumbling through writing The Metamorphosis.

Trevor is a dramatic film about a gay 13-year-old boy who attempts suicide. Written by James Lecesne and directed by Peggy Rajski, the film inspired the creation of The Trevor Project to help gay youths in crisis. “We made our film for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider,” Rajski said in her acceptance speech, which came after Capaldi's. “It celebrates all those who make it through difficult times and mourns those who didn’t.” It was yet another short film ahead of its time.

6. BEST SOUND EDITING // 2013

The latest Oscar tie happened only three years ago, when Zero Dark Thirty and Skyfall beat Argo, Django Unchained, and Life of Pi in sound editing. Mark Wahlberg and his animated co-star Ted presented the award to Zero Dark Thirty’s Paul N.J. Ottosson and Skyfall’s Per Hallberg and Karen Baker Landers. “No B.S., we have a tie,” Wahlberg said to the crowd, assuring them he wasn’t kidding. Ottosson was announced first and gave his speech before Hallberg and Baker Landers found out that they were the other victors.

It wasn’t any of the winners' first trip to the rodeo: Ottosson won two in 2010 for his previous collaboration with Kathryn Bigelow, The Hurt Locker (Best Achievement in Sound Editing and Sound Mixing); Hallberg previously won an Oscar for Best Sound Effects Editing for Braveheart in 1996, and in 2008 both Hallberg and Baker Landers won Best Achievement in Sound Editing for The Bourne Ultimatum.

Ottosson told The Hollywood Reporter he possibly predicted his win: “Just before our category came up another fellow nominee sat next to me and I said, ‘What if there’s a tie, what would they do?’ and then we got a tie,” Ottosson said. Hallberg also commented to the Reporter on his win. “Any time that you get involved in some kind of history making, that would be good.”

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11 Haunting Facts About Beloved

Toni Morrison—who was born on February 18, 1931—made a name for herself with The Bluest Eye, Sula and Song of Solomon, but it wasn’t until 1987’s Beloved, about a runaway slave haunted by the death of her infant daughter, that her legacy was secured. The book won the Pulitzer Prize and was a key factor in the decision to award Morrison the Nobel Prize in 1993. All the awards aside, Beloved is a testament to the horrors of slavery, with its narrative of suffering and repressed memory and its dedication to the more than 60 million who died in bondage. Here are some notable facts about Morrison’s process and the novel’s legacy.

1. IT’S BASED ON A TRUE STORY.

While compiling research for 1974's The Black Book, Morrison came across the story of Margaret Garner, a runaway slave from Kentucky who escaped with her husband and four children to Ohio in 1856. A posse caught up with Garner, who killed her youngest daughter and attempted to do the same to her other children rather than let them return to bondage. Once apprehended, her trial transfixed the nation. "She was very calm; she said, 'I’d do it again,'" Morrison told The Paris Review. "That was more than enough to fire my imagination."

2. MORRISON CAME UP WITH THE CHARACTER BELOVED AFTER SHE STARTED WRITING.

The book was originally going to be about the haunting of Sethe by her infant daughter, who she killed (just as Garner did) rather than allow her to return to slavery. A third of the way through writing, though, Morrison realized she needed a flesh-and-blood character who could judge Sethe’s decision. She needed the daughter to come back to life in another form (some interpret it as a grief-driven case of mistaken identity). As she told the National Endowment for the Arts’ NEA Magazine: "I thought the only person who was legitimate, who could decide whether [the killing] was a good thing or not, was the dead girl."

3. SHE WROTE THE ENDING EARLY IN THE WRITING PROCESS.

Morrison has said she likes to know the ending of her books early on, and to write them down once she does. With Beloved, she wrote the ending about a quarter of the way in. "You are forced into having a certain kind of language that will keep the reader asking questions," she told author Carolyn Denard in Toni Morrison: Conversations.

4. MORRISON BECAME FASCINATED WITH SMALL HISTORICAL DETAILS.

To help readers understand the particulars of slavery, Morrison carefully researched historical documents and artifacts. One particular item she became fascinated with: the "bit" that masters would put in slaves' mouths as punishment. She couldn’t find much in the way of pictures or descriptions, but she found enough to imagine the shame slaves would feel. In Beloved, Paul D. tells Sethe that a rooster smiled at him while he wore the bit, indicating that he felt lower than a barnyard animal.

5. SHE ONLY RECENTLY READ THE BOOK HERSELF.

In an appearance on The Colbert Report last year, Morrison said she finally got around to reading Beloved after almost 30 years. Her verdict: "It’s really good!"

6. THE BOOK INSPIRED READERS TO BUILD BENCHES.

When accepting an award from the Unitarian Universalist Association in 1988, Morrison observed that there is no suitable memorial to slavery, "no small bench by the road." Inspired by this line, the Toni Morrison Society started the Bench by the Road Project to remedy the issue. Since 2006, the project has placed 15 benches in locations significant to the history of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, which served as the point of entry for 40% of slaves brought to America.

7. WHEN BELOVED DIDN’T WIN THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARD IN 1987, FELLOW WRITERS PROTESTED.

After the snub, 48 African-American writers, including Maya Angelou, John Edgar Wideman and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., signed a letter that appeared in the New York Times Book Review. "For all of America, for all of American letters," the letter addressing Morrison read, "you have advanced the moral and artistic standards by which we must measure the daring and the love of our national imagination and our collective intelligence as a people."

8. IT’S ONE OF THE MOST FREQUENTLY CHALLENGED BOOKS.

Between 2000 and 2009, Beloved ranked 26th on the American Library Association’s list of most banned/challenged books. A recent challenge in Fairfax County, Virginia, cited the novel as too intense for teenage readers, while another challenge in Michigan said the book was, incredibly, overly simplistic and pornographic. Thankfully, both challenges were denied.

9. MORRISON ALSO WROTE AN OPERA BASED ON GARNER’S LIFE.

Ten years ago, Morrison collaborated with Grammy-winning composer Richard Danielpour on Margaret Garner, an opera about the real-life inspiration behind Beloved. It opened in Detroit in 2005, and played in Charlotte, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York before closing in 2008.

10. MORRISON DID NOT WANT IT MADE INTO A MOVIE.

Although she publicly claims otherwise, according to a New York magazine story, Morrison told friends she didn’t want Beloved made into a movie. And she didn’t want Oprah Winfrey (who bought the film rights in 1988) to be in it. Nevertheless, the film came out in 1998 and was a total flop.

11. THERE'S AN ILLUSTRATED VERSION.

The Folio Society, a London-based company that creates fancy special editions of classic books, released the first-ever illustrated Beloved in 2015. Artist Joe Morse had to be personally approved by Morrison for the project. Check out a few of his hauntingly beautiful illustrations here.

This article originally appeared in 2015.

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