Prisons and asylums have long been a part of haunted lore – the violence and abuse that have happened and continues to happen make for an exceptionally tragic history but ample ground for ghost stories. One of the most famous of these places is Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania.
Eastern State Penitentiary is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and originally opened in 1829. The idea for a local penitentiary came in part from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (of which, Benjamin Franklin was a founding and key member) and the name was an integral part of the prison. Eastern State was named a penitentiary rather than a prison because a major aspect of the system originally centered on the idea of creating penitence in the inmates.
The original design of the prison opted for inmates’ complete isolation from one another. Each would have an individual cell with a bed, toilet, and heating system, plus an outdoor but individual exercise cell – amenities that not even the White House had at the time. The design also allowed for almost no talking to occur between each cell and when inmates were moved, a dark cloth bag would be placed over their head.
This complete isolation design was called the “Pennsylvania system” and was drastically different from how prisons were run before. The idea of the system was to create a space in which inmates could reflect on their crimes but the complete isolation was incredibly difficult for some inmates, resulting in many suicides on the premise.
There were other aspects of the penitentiary’s design that were religious in nature, harking back to the integral part of penitence. In addition to the amenities already mentioned, each cell in the original building also had a skylight or a window that were considered to be the eye or window of God. This system had the backing of the church, who saw the isolation as a way for inmates to reflect on their crimes and find ways to change their sinful and disruptive behavior.
The isolation aspect of the penitentiary didn’t last though. Because of overcrowding issues, the practice of complete isolation and individual cells was ended in 1913. But isolation was still used with numerous other practices as further punishment. Additional punishments include: dousing inmates in water while outside during the winter, linking one’s tongue to their wrists in such a way that meant any movement would rip the tongue, and locking inmates in a completely isolated and underground cell, in which they had little food and no light or human contact for weeks on end.
There were several infamous inmates over the penitentiary’s history – including one dog named Pep who was allegedly sentenced after killing the governor’s wife’s cat in 1924. Another was Al Capone, who reportedly stayed in a single and luxurious cell that had been decorated with fine furniture, oriental rugs and even a cabinet radio. During his eight month stay though, Capone complained of being haunted by someone named Jimmy. Some believe this ghost was that of Jimmy Clark, a man who had died in the St. Valentine’s Massacre in Chicago.
Another infamous inmate was William Francis Sutton, also known as “Slick” Willie. He spent 11 years in Eastern State and at one point, was involved in a prison break that involved digging out of a cell. The inmates who were the masterminds of this escape were Clarence Klinedinst and his cellmate, William Russell and they dug fifteen feet down, close to a hundred feet under the prison, and then fifteen feet back up to a street outside the walls. It took about a year to complete and there was even wood bracing to support the tunnel and electric lights to light it. Twelve men eventually ended up using the tunnel in early April 1945 to escape. All those who escaped this way were eventually captured in some form again. Sutton was only out minutes before being captured, Klinedinst was out for three hours, and Russell was eventually shot and killed.
- The neogothic design of the outside building was used as a scare tactic – the designer and architect of the building wanted to scare people into not committing crimes to avoid being sent there.
- The building wasn’t finished when it was first opened and even then, it didn’t take long for the penitentiary to not be big enough.
- There are a few different art exhibits that have been a part of or about the penitentiary, including one that was about the colony of cats that inhabited the building after it closed in 1971.
- There were no executions preformed there but there were many deaths that happened. Some were suicides, as already mentioned, and others died from old age or sickness. However, there were a few murders on the site – some were inmates but two guards were said to have died as well. Because of all this death, the penitentiary is said to be haunted.
Can you visit it?
Yes! It’s a museum and historic site now that’s open year round. There are guided tours during the winter and self guided recorded tours during the warmer months. Plus, there are scavenger hunts for kids and many special events. Unfortunately though, the site is labeled as a preserved ruin, meaning that there’s been no renovation or restoration done on the property and so, you can’t explore the entire place. The years between when it closed originally back in 1971 and taken over by a charitable trust in 1991 have done their damage on several parts of the property.
And that is the story of Eastern State Penitentiary.
- Eastern State Haunted History – Travel Channel
- Eastern State Penitentiary – Wikipedia
- – Erin McCarthy, Mental Floss
- Eastern State Penitentiary: A Prison With a Past – Chai Woodham, Smithsonian Magazine
- Archeological Study of the “Willie Sutton” Escape Tunnel – Eastern State website
- Is Eastern State Penitentiary Really Haunted? – Laurel Dalrymple, NPR
- Blood, Roses, and Valentines: The Haunted History of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre – Prairie Ghosts
- Info about Al Capone’s stay at the Penitentiary – Annie Anderson, Eastern State Penitentiary
- Notable Inmates – Eastern State website
- Episode 42: In The Bag – Lore Podcast