Thursday, March 19, 2015

Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary: 'America's Most Haunted Building'

Some years ago I was given an interesting and informative tour of the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia by Francis X. Dolan, who was then the site manager of the historic site and the author of Eastern State Penitentiary. 

I was interested in visiting the creepy old prison, as it was the site where notorious criminals like bank robber Willy Sutton and gangster Al Capone were held.

Willie Sutton reportedly was asked why he robbed banks and he replied, "That's where the money is."

Capone, who was caught with an illegal gun by Philadelphia detectives, served a year in the pen. The story goes that Capone arranged his own arrest and imprisonment to avoid the intense heat brought on by his ordering the infamous "Saint Valentine's Day Massacre" murders in Chicago.

Capone, due to his wealth and criminal influence, lived a good deal better than the other inmates, as one can see from a photo of his old cell at the Eastern State pen:

Eastern State Penitentiary is also noted for holding all prisoners in total solitary confinement.

According to the Eastern State Penitentiary web site:

In the ambitious age of reform following the American Revolution, the new nation aspired to change profoundly its public institutions, and to set an example for the world in social development. Every type of institution that we are familiar with today--educational, medical and governmental--was revolutionized in these years by the rational and humanistic principles of the Enlightenment.

Of all of the radical innovations born in this era, American democracy was, of course, the most influential. The second major intellectual export was prison design and reform.

Most eighteenth century prisons were simply large holding pens. Groups of adults and children, men and women, and petty thieves and murderers, sorted out their own affairs behind locked doors. Physical punishment and mutilation were common, and abuse of the prisoners by the guards and overseers was assumed.

In 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin. The members of The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons. Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society's goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design. He proposed a radical idea: to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal's heart. The concept grew from Enlightenment thinking, but no government had successfully carried out such a program.

It took the Society more than thirty years to convince the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to build the kind of prison it suggested: a revolutionary new building on farmland outside Philadelphia.

Eastern State Penitentiary broke sharply with the prisons of its day, abandoning corporal punishment and ill treatment.

This massive new structure, opened in 1829, became one of the most expensive American buildings of its day and soon the most famous prison in the world. The Penitentiary would not simply punish, but move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change. The method was a Quaker-inspired system of isolation from other prisoners, with labor. The early system was strict.

To prevent distraction, knowledge of the building, and even mild interaction with guards, inmates were hooded whenever they were outside their cells. But the proponents of the system believed strongly that the criminals, exposed, in silence, to thoughts of their behavior and the ugliness of their crimes, would become genuinely penitent. Thus the new word, penitentiary.   

You can read the rest of the pen's history via the below link:

Today the Eastern State Pen is also famous for their annual Halloween event. The old prison is a good place to come for a good scare, as the pen has a reputation for being haunted.

The British newspaper the Daily Mail reports on the supposedly haunted prison and offers some good photos. You can read the piece and see the photos via the below link:

Dolan's book also has some fine historic photos in it. You can purchase the book via the below link: 

Note: The above photos are from the Eastern State Penitentiary web site. You can click on them to enlarge.


  1. Obviously pre-dates liberal prison reform -- ah, the good old days!

  2. R.T.,

    Or, one might say that this was an early example of liberal social engineering. The idea of total isolation seems to have not worked out too well.

    But today's supermax prisons hold the worst-of-the-worst prisoners in near-total isolation, with 23-hour lockdowns...