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Lily Landes
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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Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
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15 Must-See Holiday Horror Movies
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment
Echo Bridge Home Entertainment

Families often use the holidays as an excuse to indulge in repeat viewings of Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Elf. But for a certain section of the population, the yuletide is all about horror. Although it didn’t truly emerge until the mid-1970s, “holiday horror” is a thriving subgenre that often combines comedy to tell stories of demented Saint Nicks and lethal gingerbread men. If you’ve never seen Santa slash someone, here are 15 movies to get you started.

1. THANKSKILLING (2009)

Most holiday horror movies concern Christmas, so ThanksKilling is a bit of an anomaly. Another reason it’s an anomaly? It opens in 1621, with an axe-wielding turkey murdering a topless pilgrim woman. The movie continues on to the present-day, where a group of college friends are terrorized by that same demon bird during Thanksgiving break. It’s pretty schlocky, but if Turkey Day-themed terror is your bag, make sure to check out the sequel: ThanksKilling 3. (No one really knows what happened to ThanksKilling 2.)

2. BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974)

Fittingly, the same man who brought us A Christmas Story also brought us its twisted cousin. Before Bob Clark co-wrote and directed the 1983 saga of Ralphie Parker, he helmed Black Christmas. It concerns a group of sorority sisters who are systematically picked off by a man who keeps making threatening phone calls to their house. Oh, and it all happens during the holidays. Black Christmas is often considered the godfather of holiday horror, but it was also pretty early on the slasher scene, too. It opened the same year as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and beat Halloween by a full four years.

3. SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT (1984)

This movie isn’t about Santa Claus himself going berserk and slaughtering a bunch of people. But it is about a troubled teen who does just that in a Santa suit. Billy Chapman starts Silent Night, Deadly Night as a happy little kid, only to witness a man dressed as St. Nick murder his parents in cold blood. Years later, after he has grown up and gotten a job at a toy store, he conducts a killing spree in his own red-and-white suit. The PTA and plenty of critics condemned the film for demonizing a kiddie icon, but it turned into a bona fide franchise with four sequels and a 2012 remake.

4. RARE EXPORTS: A CHRISTMAS TALE (2010)

This Finnish flick dismantles Santa lore in truly bizarre fashion, and it’s not easy to explain in a quick plot summary. But Rare Exports involves a small community living at the base of Korvatunturi mountain, a major excavation project, a bunch of dead reindeer, and a creepy old naked dude who may or may not be Santa Claus. Thanks to its snowy backdrop, the movie scored some comparisons to The Thing, but the hero here isn’t some Kurt Russell clone with equally feathered hair. It’s a bunch of earnest kids and their skeptical dads, who all want to survive the holidays in one piece.

5. TO ALL A GOODNIGHT (1980)

To All a Goodnight follows a by-now familiar recipe: Add a bunch of young women to one psycho dressed as Santa Claus and you get a healthy dose of murder and this 1980 slasher flick. Only this one takes place at a finishing school. So it’s fancier.

6. KRAMPUS (2015)

Although many Americans are blissfully unaware of him, Krampus has terrorized German-speaking kids for centuries. According to folklore, he’s a yuletide demon who punishes naughty children. (He’s also part-goat.) That’s some solid horror movie material, so naturally Krampus earned his own feature film. In the movie, he’s summoned because a large suburban family loses its Christmas cheer. That family has an Austrian grandma who had encounters with Krampus as a kid, so he returns to punish her descendants. He also animates one truly awful Jack-in-the-Box.

7. THE GINGERDEAD MAN (2005)

“Eat me, you punk b*tch!” That’s one of the many corny catchphrases spouted by the Gingerdead Man, an evil cookie possessed by the spirit of a convicted killer (played by Gary Busey). The lesson here, obviously, is to never bake.

8. JACK FROST (1997)

No, this isn’t the Michael Keaton snowman movie. It’s actually a holiday horror movie that beat that family film by a year. In this version, Jack Frost is a serial killer on death row who escapes prison and then, through a freak accident, becomes a snowman. He embarks on a murder spree that’s often played for laughs—for instance, the cops threaten him with hairdryers. But the comedy is pretty questionable in the infamous, and quite controversial, Shannon Elizabeth shower scene.

9. ELVES (1989)

Based on the tagline—“They’re not working for Santa anymore”—you’d assume this is your standard evil elves movie. But Elves weaves Nazis, bathtub electrocutions, and a solitary, super grotesque elf into its utterly absurd plot. Watch at your own risk.

10. SINT (2010)

The Dutch have their own take on Santa, and his name is Sinterklaas. Sinterklaas travels to the Netherlands via steamship each year with his racist sidekick Zwarte Piet. But otherwise, he’s pretty similar to Santa. And if Santa can be evil, so can Sinterklaas. According to the backstory in Sint (or Saint), the townspeople burned their malevolent bishop alive on December 5, 1492. But Sinterklaas returns from the grave on that date whenever there’s a full moon to continue dropping bodies. In keeping with his olden origins, he rides around on a white horse wielding a golden staff … that he can use to murder you.

11. SANTA’S SLAY (2005)

Ever wonder where Santa came from? This horror-comedy claims he comes from the worst possible person: Satan. The devil’s kid lost a bet many years ago and had to pretend to be a jolly gift-giver. But now the terms of the bet are up and he’s out to act like a true demon. That includes killing Fran Drescher and James Caan, obviously.

12. ALL THROUGH THE HOUSE (2015)

Another Santa slasher is on the loose in All Through the House, but the big mystery here is who it is. This villain dons a mask during his/her streak through suburbia—and, as the genre dictates, offs a bunch of promiscuous young couples along the way. The riddle is all tied up in the disappearance of a little girl, who vanished several years earlier.

13. CHRISTMAS EVIL (1980)

Several years before Silent Night, Deadly Night garnered protests for its anti-Kringle stance, Christmas Evil put a radicalized Santa at the center of its story. The movie’s protagonist, Harry Stadling, first starts to get weird thoughts in his head as a kid when he sees “Santa” (really his dad in the costume) groping his mom. Then, he becomes unhealthily obsessed with the holiday season, deludes himself into thinking he’s Santa, and goes on a rampage. The movie is mostly notable for its superfan John Waters, who lent commentary to the DVD and gave Christmas Evil some serious cult cred.

14. SANTA CLAWS (1996)

If you thought this was the holiday version of Pet Sematary, guess again. The culprit here isn’t a demon cat in a Santa hat, but a creepy next-door neighbor. Santa Claws stars B-movie icon Debbie Rochon as Raven Quinn, an actress going through a divorce right in the middle of the holidays. She needs some help caring for her two girls, so she seeks out Wayne, her neighbor who has an obsessive crush on her. He eventually snaps and dresses up as Santa Claus in a ski mask. Mayhem ensues.

15. NEW YEAR’S EVIL (1980)

Because the holidays aren’t over until everyone’s sung “Auld Lang Syne,” we can’t count out New Year’s Eve horror. In New Year’s Evil, lady rocker Blaze is hosting a live NYE show. Everything is going well, until a man calls in promising to kill at midnight. The cops write it off as a prank call, but soon, Blaze’s friends start dropping like flies. Just to tie it all together, the mysterious murderer refers to himself as … “EVIL.”

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The American Museum of Natural History
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10 Surprising Ways Senses Shape Perception
The American Museum of Natural History
The American Museum of Natural History

Every bit of information we know about the world we gathered with one of our five senses. But even with perfect pitch or 20/20 vision, our perceptions don’t always reflect an accurate picture of our surroundings. Our brain is constantly filling in gaps and taking shortcuts, which can result in some pretty wild illusions.

That’s the subject of “Our Senses: An Immersive Experience,” a new exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Mental Floss recently took a tour of the sensory funhouse to learn more about how the brain and the senses interact.

1. LIGHTING REVEALS HIDDEN IMAGES.

Woman and child looking at pictures on a wall

Under normal lighting, the walls of the first room of “Our Senses” look like abstract art. But when the lights change color, hidden illustrations are revealed. The three lights—blue, red, and green—used in the room activate the three cone cells in our eyes, and each color highlights a different set of animal illustrations, giving the viewers the impression of switching between three separate rooms while standing still.

2. CERTAIN SOUNDS TAKE PRIORITY ...

We can “hear” many different sounds at once, but we can only listen to a couple at a time. The AMNH exhibit demonstrates this with an audio collage of competing recordings. Our ears automatically pick out noises we’re conditioned to react to, like an ambulance siren or a baby’s cry. Other sounds, like individual voices and musical instruments, require more effort to detect.

3. ... AS DO CERTAIN IMAGES.

When looking at a painting, most people’s eyes are drawn to the same spots. The first things we look for in an image are human faces. So after staring at an artwork for five seconds, you may be able to say how many people are in it and what they look like, but would likely come up short when asked to list the inanimate object in the scene.

4. PAST IMAGES AFFECT PRESENT PERCEPTION.

Our senses often are more suggestible than we would like. Check out the video above. After seeing the first sequence of animal drawings, do you see a rat or a man’s face in the last image? The answer is likely a rat. Now watch the next round—after being shown pictures of faces, you might see a man’s face instead even though the final image hasn’t changed.

5. COLOR INFLUENCES TASTE ...

Every cooking show you’ve watched is right—presentation really is important. One look at something can dictate your expectations for how it should taste. Researchers have found that we perceive red food and drinks to taste sweeter and green food and drinks to taste less sweet regardless of chemical composition. Even the color of the cup we drink from can influence our perception of taste.

6. ... AND SO DOES SOUND

Sight isn’t the only sense that plays a part in how we taste. According to one study, listening to crunching noises while snacking on chips makes them taste fresher. Remember that trick before tossing out a bag of stale junk food.

7. BEING HYPER-FOCUSED HAS DRAWBACKS.

Have you ever been so focused on something that the world around you seemed to disappear? If you can’t recall the feeling, watch the video above. The instructions say to keep track of every time a ball is passed. If you’re totally absorbed, you may not notice anything peculiar, but watch it a second time without paying attention to anything in particular and you’ll see a person in a gorilla suit walk into the middle of the screen. The phenomenon that allows us to tune out big details like this is called selective attention. If you devote all your mental energy to one task, your brain puts up blinders that block out irrelevant information without you realizing it.

8. THINGS GET WEIRD WHEN SENSES CONTRADICT EACH OTHER.

Girl standing in optical illusion room.

The most mind-bending room in the "Our Senses" exhibit is practically empty. The illusion comes from the black grid pattern painted onto the white wall in such a way that straight planes appear to curve. The shapes tell our eyes we’re walking on uneven ground while our inner ear tells us the floor is stable. It’s like getting seasick in reverse: This conflicting sensory information can make us feel dizzy and even nauseous.

9. WE SEE SHADOWS THAT AREN’T THERE.

If our brains didn’t know how to adjust for lighting, we’d see every shadow as part of the object it falls on. But we can recognize that the half of a street that’s covered in shade isn’t actually darker in color than the half that sits in the sun. It’s a pretty useful adaptation—except when it’s hijacked for optical illusions. Look at the image above: The squares marked A and B are actually the same shade of gray. Because the pillar appears to cast a shadow over square B, our brain assumes it’s really lighter in color than what we’re shown.

10. WE SEE FACES EVERYWHERE.

The human brain is really good at recognizing human faces—so good it can make us see things that aren’t there. This is apparent in the Einstein hollow head illusion. When looking at the mold of Albert Einstein’s face straight on, the features appear to pop out rather than sink in. Our brain knows we’re looking at something similar to a human face, and it knows what human faces are shaped like, so it automatically corrects the image that it’s given.

All images courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History unless otherwise noted.

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