17 Spooky Photos of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

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Lily Landes

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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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