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Lily Landes

17 Spooky Photos of Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary

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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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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.


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."


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.


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.


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. 


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.


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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.