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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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Central Press/Getty Images
Ernest Hemingway’s Guide to Life, In 20 Quotes
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Central Press/Getty Images

Though he made his living as a writer, Ernest Hemingway was just as famous for his lust for adventure. Whether he was running with the bulls in Pamplona, fishing for marlin in Bimini, throwing back rum cocktails in Havana, or hanging out with his six-toed cats in Key West, the Nobel and Pulitzer Prize-winning author never did anything halfway. And he used his adventures as fodder for the unparalleled collection of novels, short stories, and nonfiction books he left behind, The Sun Also Rises, A Farewell to Arms, Death in the Afternoon, For Whom the Bell Tolls, and The Old Man and the Sea among them.

On what would be his 118th birthday—he was born in Oak Park, Illinois on July 21, 1899—here are 20 memorable quotes that offer a keen perspective into Hemingway’s way of life.


"I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen."


"The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them."


"I never had to choose a subject—my subject rather chose me."


"Never go on trips with anyone you do not love."

Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. [1], Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know."


"There's no one thing that is true. They're all true."


"The only thing that could spoil a day was people. People were always the limiters of happiness, except for the very few that were as good as spring itself."


"There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed."


"Never mistake motion for action."


"I wake up in the morning and my mind starts making sentences, and I have to get rid of them fast—talk them or write them down."

Photograph by Mary Hemingway, in the Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston., Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I'm awake, you know?"


"The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places."


"All things truly wicked start from innocence."


"If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."


"Courage is grace under pressure."


"A man's got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book."

By Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston. - JFK Library, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons


"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."


"About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after and what is immoral is what you feel bad after."


"For a true writer, each book should be a new beginning where he tries again for something that is beyond attainment. He should always try for something that has never been done or that others have tried and failed. Then sometimes, with great luck, he will succeed."


"There is no lonelier man in death, except the suicide, than that man who has lived many years with a good wife and then outlived her. If two people love each other there can be no happy end to it."

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35 Things You Might Not Know About Mister Rogers
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In this episode of our YouTube series, John Green brings you a whole pile of things you should know about everybody's favorite neighbor. Here's a transcript, courtesy of Nerdfighteria:

Hi, I'm John Green, welcome to my neighborhood. This is mental_floss, and today we're going to talk about Mr. Rogers, with whom I have a lot in common. By the way, thanks to copyright laws, that's the only picture of Mr. Rogers we can afford, so you'll be seeing a lot of it today. But yes, Fred Rogers and I have many similarities:

1. We both considered becoming ministers (he actually did).

2. Both happily married to women named Sara(h).

And we both make stuff for young people... although I don't think that his work has been banned from several dozen high schools in Tennessee.

[intro music]

3. Mr. Rogers was an Ivy League dropout. He completed his freshman year at Dartmouth, and then transferred to Rollins College so he could get a degree in music.

4. And he was an excellent piano player; not only did he graduate from Rollins "Magna cum laude," but he wrote all of the songs on the show, as well as more than 200 other songs, and several kids' operas including one called "All in the Laundry."

5. Mr. Rogers decided to get into television, because when he saw it for the first time he, "hated it so." When he turned on a set, all he saw was angry people throwing pies in each others' faces, and he vowed to use the medium to make the world a better place.

6. Over the years, he talked to kids about their feelings, covering topics as varied as why kids shouldn't be afraid of haircuts, or the bathroom drain (because you won't fit), to bigger issues like divorce and war.

7. In the opening sequence of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, the stoplight is always on yellow. That's a reminder to kids and parents to slow down a little.

8. Also, Mr. Rogers wasn't afraid of dead air time, unlike me: Once he invited a marine biologist and explorer onto his program to put a microphone into his fish tank, because he wanted to show the kids at home that fish make sounds when they eat. However, while taping the segment, the fish weren't hungry so the marine biologist started trying to egg the fish on, saying "C'mon," "It's Chowtime," "Dinnerbell." But Mr. Rogers just waited quietly. The crew thought he'd want to re-tape it, but Mr. Rogers just kept it... to show kids the importance of being patient.

9. Fred Rogers was a perfectionist, and so he disliked ad-libbing. He felt that he owed it to children to make sure that every word on his show was thought out. But here at mental_floss, we love ad libbing because it's much less work.

10. In a Yale psychology study, when Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood went "head to head," kids who watched Mr. Rogers not only remembered more of the story lines, but their, "Tolerance of delay," a fancy term for their ability to wait for promised treats or adult attention, was considerably higher.

11. Mr. Rogers was also beloved by Koko the Gorilla, you know Koko the Stanford educated Gorilla who can speak about 1000 words in American Sign Language; she watched The Neighborhood, and when Mr. Rogers made a trip to meet her, she not only embraced him but she did what she'd always see him do on screen: She proceeded to take his shoes off.

12. Those shoes were store bought, by the way, but every one of the cardigans Mr. Rogers wore on his show was knit by his mother.

13. Today one of them resides in the Smithsonian - a red one. Mr. Rogers chose to donate that sweater, because the cameras at his studio didn't pick up the color very well.

14. Mr. Rogers could start to feel anxious and overwhelmed, and when he did, he liked to play the chords to the show's theme song on the piano on set in order to calm himself.

15. The other way you could tell he was exasperated? If he said the word, "mercy." Mostly, he said it when he got to his desk in the morning, and the mountains of fan mail were a little bit too tall. But, "mercy" was about the strongest word in his vocabulary.

16. And yes, Mr. Rogers responded to every single piece of fan mail. He had the same routine every morning: wake up at 5:00AM. Pray for a few hours for all of his friends and family, study, write, make calls, reach out to every single fan who took the time to write him, go for a morning swim, get on a scale, then start the day. My morning routine is a bit less ambitious than that; Mr. Rogers, I thought you were supposed to make me feel good about myself! You just made me feel terrible!

17. But speaking of that daily weigh-in, Mr. Rogers watched his weight very closely. And he'd like to weigh exactly 143 lbs (65 kg). By the way, he didn't drink, smoke, or eat the flesh of any animal. NATCH.

18. Why did Mr. Rogers like the number 1-4-3 so much? Because it takes 1 letter to say "I", 4 letters to say "love," and 3 letters to say, "you" (Jean --Luc Picard).

19. Now it starts to get a little weird. So, journalists had a tough time covering Mr. Rogers because he'd often, like befriend them, ask them tons of questions, take pictures of them, compile an album for them at the end of their time together, and then call them afterwards to check in on them and hear about their families. He genuinely loved hearing the life stories of other people.

20. And it wasn't just reporters. Like once, on a fancy trip up to a PBS executive's house, he heard the limo driver was gonna have to wait outside for two hours, so Mr. Rogers insisted that the driver come in and join them. And then, on the way back, Rogers sat up front, and when he learned that they were passing the driver's house on the way, he asked if they could stop in to meet the family. And according to the driver, it was one of the best nights of his life. The house lit up when Rogers arrived, and he played jazz piano and bantered with them late into the night.

21. Okay, so thieves, Smithsonian curators, reporters, limo drivers, kids, all these people loved Mr. Rogers, but someone has to hate him, right? Well, LSU professor Don Chance certainly doesn't love his legacy: He believes that Mr. Rogers created a, "culture of excessive doting" which resulted in generations of lazy, entitled college students... and that makes sense, because generally the deterioration of culture can be traced back to a single public television program.

22. Other curious theories about Mr. Rogers that are all over the Internet: That he served in the army and was a sniper in Vietnam;

23. That he served in the army and was a sniper in Korea;

24. That he only wore sweaters to cover up the tattoos on his arms. These are all untrue. He was never in the army; he never shot anyone; he had no tattoos.

25. One other rumor we'd like to quash? That he used to chase kids off his porch on Halloween. That's crazy! In fact, his house was known for being one of those generous homes that give out full-size candy bars... because of course it was!

26. In fact, for all the myths that people want to create about him, Mr. Rogers seems to have been almost exactly the same person "off screen," as he was, "onscreen." As an ordained Presbyterian minister and a man of tremendous faith, Mr. Rogers preached tolerance first. He never engaged in the culture wars; all he would ever say is, "God loves you just the way you are."

27. He was also kind of a superhero, like when the government wanted to cut public television funds in 1969, the then relatively unknown Mr. Rogers went to Washington and almost like straight out of a Capra film, his testimony on how TV had the potential to give kids hope and create more productive citizens was so passionate and convincing, that even the most gruff politicians were charmed... and instead of cutting the budget, funding for public TV jumped from $9M to $22M.

28. Years later, Mr. Rogers also swayed the Supreme Court to allow VCR's to record TV shows from home. It was a cantankerous debate at the time, but his argument was that recording a program like his allowed working parents to sit down with their children and watch shows as a family. Plus, it allowed him to watch Captain Stubing on The Love Boat anytime he wanted, without having to stay up till 8:30PM.

29. He was also heavily parodied, but most of the people who made fun of him, loved him. Like Johnny Carson hoped his send up of The Neighborhood would make Mr. Rogers more famous.

30. And the first time Eddie Murphy met Mr. Rogers, he couldn't stop himself from giving the guy a big hug.

All right, we're running out of time, so let's speed this up.

31. Mr. Rogers was color-blind. I mean that figuratively, like his parents took in African-American foster children, and he loved people of all backgrounds equally, but also literally.

32. Michael Keaton got his start on the show: He was a puppeteer and worked the trolley.

33. Mr. Rogers once made a guest appearance on Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman as a pastor's mentor.

34. And many of the characters on his show took their names from his family. Like, McFeely was his grandfather's name, Queen Sara is named for his wife.

35. And lastly, we return to the Salon so I can tell you probably my favorite story about Mr. Rogers: that he could make a whole New York City subway car full of strangers sing. He was rushing to a meeting and there were no cabs available so Mr. Rogers jumped on the subway. The car was full of people, Rogers assumed that he wouldn't be noticed, but he quickly was, of course, and then people burst into song, chanting, "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood."

Thanks for watching mental_floss, which is made with the help of all of these lovely people and remember that you make every day special just by being you.

See Also...

20 Gentle Quotes from Mister Rogers
Mister Rogers on the Set of The Incredible Hulk
11 Scenes from the Mister Rogers Christmas Special


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