On October 25, 1829, the gates of Eastern State Penitentiary — ESP — creaked open to admit the first of many criminals who would be confined behind its walls and within its solemn cells. Designed by John Haviland, one of the most storied architects of 19th century Philadelphia, it was the first true penitentiary in the young United States of America, embracing the “Pennsylvania System” conceived of by Benjamin Franklin. The primary principle behind the system was that imprisonment should be a time of reflection and penitence, with prisoners confined to solitary cells with very little to do beyond stare at the blank white walls and think about their sins.
The doors were heavy to dampen sound, and small — either to force prisoners to bow as they entered and exited or in order to prevent easy rioting. Each inmate was permitted a toilet, table, bunk and Bible in their cell. Prisoners were allowed into an exercise yard for one hour a day, their only relief from the solitude of their cell, and only after they’d been hooded to prevent them from bonding with their fellow inmates or doing anything other than thinking about forgiveness from God. Whatever good intentions might have guided the development of such a penal system were eventually judged to be inconsequential next to the profound cruelty of such confinement. Plus, it was difficult to come up with enough space when everyone got their own silent cell. The prison was renovated and modernized, with a unique star-shape that would allow guards in a central location to keep an eye on multiple wings filling up with an ever-increasing number of prisoners.
If the cruelty of mass solitary confinement was abandoned, the overseers of ESP managed to replace it with even harsher punishment for the growing population of convicts. During winter months especially, unruly prisoners would be dunked in a bath of ice water then hung on a wall, medieval dungeon style, exposed to the frosty elements. Talkative inmates — communication between prisoners was for a long period forbidden — would be strapped into the Iron Gag, a ghoulish device that would shred the tongue of anyone who dared speak (or breathe too heavily). Charles Dickens, who visited the prison in the 1840s, railed against these appalling conditions. Eventually, reforms were made, but they were nominal at best. Life as an inmate at Eastern State remained torturous. Unless you happened to be Al Capone, who relaxed in a state of relative comfort during his time at the prison, in a cell decorated with comfortable chairs, books, and a real bed.
In time, ESP would become one of the country’s most notorious prisons, counting among its ranks of inmates such legendary outlaws as mobster Al Capone, bank robber Willie Sutton, and Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog,” a canine sentenced to life in prison by Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot in 1924. As was the case with Alcatraz in San Francisco, upkeep of the aging prison became increasingly difficult, and the old structure lagged far behind more modern prisons. In 1971, Eastern State was officially decommissioned as a working prison and allowed to lapse, over the years, into a state of decay.
In 1994, the prison once again opened its gates, although this time it was to admit tourists to its overgrown and rubble-strewn confines. The ruins were stabilized for safety but not repaired or restored, allowing visitors to stroll, more or less on their own, through the crumbling remains of the prison, accompanied if one choses by an audio guide narrated by Steve Buscemi. With so much suffering and so many evil men (and likely innocent men) imprisoned at ESP, it goes without saying that a number of inmates and guards still roam its gloomy caverns — even though they’ve been dead for decades.
Cackles and screams emanate from the shadows of the prison’s hallways and cells. Disembodied footsteps echo through its looming halls. Ghostly apparitions are known to appear in some of the cells, and a locksmith charged with maintaining the rusting locks of the prison was once attacked by an unseen malevolent force. And if you visit Eastern State and do not chance upon a spectral inmate languishing even in death within the haunted walls of the penitentiary, you can always attend the annual Halloween haunted house staged within the old prison.