Though the reform plan of the Pennsylvania System called for no corporal punishment, this was not the case. Guards and councilors were known to have designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions. One of these called the “water bath”, subjected inmates to being doused with water outside during winter months and then hung on a wall until ice formed on their skin. Another torture called the “mad chair”, in which prisoners were bound tightly for days until their circulation was cut off. The “iron gag” involved tying an inmate’s hands behind the back, with a chain trapped to an iron collar in the mouth, which caused the tongue to tear and bleed.
Under Block #14 was dug an underground cell that was called the “Hole.” Here, inmates would stay locked, sometimes for weeks, with no light, no human contact, with only bread and water to eat.
Due to overcrowding, the Eastern State Penitentiary eliminated the Pennsylvania System of isolation and penitence in 1913. Afterward, prisoners then shared cells, worked together, and even played in organized sports.
By the 1920s, the prison was housing some 2,000 prisoners and more cells were built including some below ground. The windowless cells then had nothing to do with penitence and everything to do with punishment. By this time, every cell was called home to 2-3 prisoners. In 1923, all female prisoners were removed and sent to the new prison at Muncy.
In July 1923, Leo Callahan and five accomplices armed with pistols successfully used a ladder they had built to scale the east wall after holding up a group of unarmed guards. All of Callahan’s accomplices were eventually apprehended, including one that made it as far as Honolulu, Hawaii. However, Callahan was never recaptured.
By this time, the prison was also housing violent criminals, as well as those sentenced to be executed. In 1933, a riot occurred in the prison over insufficient recreational facilities, overcrowding, and idleness. During this event, inmates set fires in their cells and destroyed workshops. The very next year, another riot occurred, this time over low wages. The prisoners short-circuited electrical outlets, started fires and caused other disturbances.
In April 1945, 12 men escaped through a 97-foot long tunnel that had been built by Clarence Klinedinst, who worked as a prison plasterer. The men were quickly recaptured and returned to the prison.
In 1959, a new cellblock was opened to house violent criminals. The last cell block to be built, it was the only one with electric doors. Though the prison housed those who were on “death row”, no executions ever took place at the prison.
In 1961, an inmate named John Klausenberg tricked a guard into opening the cell of another inmate and he and the other prisoner overpowered the guard to begin the largest riot in the prison’s history. It took several hours for a large force of police, guards, and state troopers to reclaim the prison.
The riot fueled discussions to close the Eastern State Penitentiary, which had since been renamed the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia. In addition to overcrowding, the prison was badly deteriorating.
In January 1970 the prison closed and the inmates were sent to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. After a riot at a prison in Holmesburg, the prison again housed some of those inmates. In 1971 it was officially closed forever.
Over the course of its 142 years, the penitentiary held some 75,000 inmates, including Prohibition-era gangster, Al Capone, and notorious bank robber, Willie Sutton. During this time, more than 100 inmates escaped, but all were recaptured with the exception of Leo Callahan.
While the prison was operating, two guards and several inmates were murdered within the walls. Other prisoners committed suicide, and hundreds of others died from disease and old age.
Named a National Historic Landmark in 1965, the prison sat abandoned after it was closed during which time it was heavily vandalized and trees began to grow in the buildings.
The City of Philadelphia purchased the property with the intention of redeveloping it. Proposals included demolishing the building to use the site as a criminal justice center, a mall, or a luxury apartment complex. 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 historic tours.
Today, the Eastern State Penitentiary, kept in a state of “preserved ruin” continues to operate as a museum and historic site. It is open year-round for tours and special events are held throughout the year.
In addition to its long history, the penitentiary is said to be the most haunted prison in the United States and for years, has been investigated by paranormal groups and has been featured in several television shows. These investigators, as well as staff and visitors, have reported dozens of paranormal activities and numerous sightings of ghostly entities.
One of the first stories told of ghostly activity was by famed Chicago gangster, Al Capone, who was housed in the prison for eight months in 1929-1930. Though he had the nicest cell in the prison, which included a desk, a lamp, paintings, and a radio, he said he was haunted by the ghost of James Clark, who was one of the victims of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Allegedly, Capone screamed every night in fright screaming at “Jimmy” to go away and leave him alone.
In the 1940s, both prisoners and guards began to have a number of unusual experiences and unexplained sightings. Many of these events involved spooky shadows and unexplained noises.
Today, many people have reported that Cellblock 12 is an area of high paranormal activity, where cackling and whispers are heard and the apparition of a prisoner is seen. In Cellblock 6, shadowy figures are often seen sliding along the walls and the sounds of whispers, screams, and laughter have been heard.
In Cellblock 4, many have seen ghostly anguished faces and hearing loud whispers. On one occasion, a locksmith working in this area who was removing an old lock from a cell door had a vivid experience. He described having felt as if he was overcome by a massive force, and was unable to move or speak, while distorted forms swirled around the cellblock, one of which appearing to beckon to him.
Many people have reported seeing the silhouette of a guard in one of the watchtowers.
On the third floor of one cell block, numerous visitors say they’ve heard the sound of cell doors suddenly opening and then slamming shut.
The catwalk is an area where many paranormal events have occurred. Here, a shadow figure was caught on a video, people have felt extreme temperature fluctuations, and one visitor captured a male voice saying “I’m lonely” on an EVP.
Throughout the prison, visitors and staff report disembodied screams, cries of pain, sadistic laughter, and whispers. Others have reported the sounds cell door handles jiggling, furniture being dragged across floors, large objects rolling on the roof, and ghostly footsteps.
Many have seen sudden orbs or streaks of light appearing, felt unseen people tapping them on the shoulder, get overwhelming sensations of being watched, and in general have feelings of dread.
Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130