Although there are a variety of historic prisons that are thought to be haunted such as the Ohio State Reformatory (also known as the Mansfield Reformatory) or Alcatraz, there is something about Eastern State Penitentiary that has captured the imaginations of paranormal enthusiasts for many years.
Perhaps, it’s the legend of the prison itself or the fact that the infamous Al Capone was held there for over a year beginning in 1929. Maybe it’s the legends of prisoners who have yet to move on to the next world, still walking its halls.
Regardless, the historic building has been featured in countless ghost shows, Youtube channels, podcasts, and other media.
Eastern State Penitentiary- A Place of Reform
Eastern State, located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, opened its doors in October of 1829. At the time of its opening, it was considered to be a revolutionary change in incarceration methods and architecture. The building itself was far above the standards of the time. In fact, it had running water and central heating before even the White House. The prison used what was dubbed the “Pennsylvania” system for handling their charges. The prison believed in confinement “in solitude with labor”. Proponents of the Pennsylvania system believed that crime was a result of one’s environment, a “moral disease”. Through solitude, the criminal could become penitent. (Thus the term penitentiary is born)
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty; and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments….We waste so much time and money in punishing crimes, and take so little pains to prevent them. We profess to be republicans, and yet we neglect the only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government, that is, the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity, by means of the Bible; for this divine book, above all others favors that equality among mankind, that respect for just laws.”Benjamin Rush, prominent doctor and leading member of Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons
Through this system, prisoners were each confined to their own cell. The warden would visit once per day and overseers three times a day. Inmates entered the cells through a door that exited to a personal exercise yard. The only opening to the cell block was a small port for food to be passed through. Time outside of the cell, in the exercise yard, was closely coordinated so that no prisoners would be outside at the same time.
This furthered the solitude experienced by inmates. During time outside their cell, prisoners even wore special masks to keep them from communicating. Cellblock 15, which was constructed after the initial opening of the prison, became home to the worst of the worst. Guards watched from behind a gate and never interacted with these individuals.
It was thought, at the time, that this level of solitude was both appropriate and necessary for inmates to reflect on their lives and achieve true rehabilitation. However, many investigations were made into the prison’s confinements, punishment systems, and more throughout it’s run. Charles Dickens, who visited the prison in 1842 commented later that he believed the system used to be “cruel and wrong”.
Religion was very much a part of both the design and methods used at Eastern State. Prisoners were alone to do penance for their crimes and to connect with God for forgiveness. The cells themselves had only one single skylight that was meant to symbolize the “Eye of God” always watching them.
This system, which was considered revolutionary at the time, was thought to give the warden and overseers an “individual treatment” solution for prisoners.
Punishment at the Eastern State Penitentiary
Not only were inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary forced to endure hours upon hours of solitude, but generally horrific punishments were doled out to those who were less than repentant. Some punishments were common for the day and others were unique to the facility. All were enough to leave at least emotional scars on those who endured them.
The Water Bath
While also common at mental institutions at the time, the water bath was reportedly widely used at Eastern State. This form of punishment was frequently used on those who were believed to be withholding information. It was used to bring about confessions, and other pertinent facts to a case.
Guards reportedly greatly enjoyed this form of punishment during winter months to enhance the effect of being doused in freezing water. In some instances, the prisoner was forced to endure a shower of ice water. In others, the prisoners were bound and forced into a barrel of freezing water. In both instances, the psychological and physiological effects were understandably traumatic.
The Mad Chair
Perhaps one of the most archaic forms of punishment from the prison, the Mad Chair was a technique that involved binding the individual to a chair. The hands and feet were bound so tightly that the criminal was unable to move even the slightest. Limbs would become swollen and painful as blood flow was cut off from the tight ropes. Even after being released, many prisoners found it difficult to walk due to the pain still lingering from the torturous punishment.
There are reports that some individuals were in fact driven mad through the punishment and were later taken to mental institutions. Other individuals lost limbs from extensive damage done by lack of blood for periods even days long.
The Iron Gag
This torture device was used for those who would talk back or those found to be attempting to communicate with other inmates. An iron plate was placed over the inmate’s tongue while their hands were forcibly bound behind their back. Chains attached to an iron bar in the mouth were hooked to the wrists.
In one instance in 1834, Warden Samuel Wood was investigated in the death of inmate Mathias Maccumsey after Maccumsey had been placed in the iron gag. Although Wood was found not guilty and the death was ruled as a stroke, many still believed that his death was caused by the use of the iron gag.
Located under cell block 14 was quite possibly the worst of the punishments found at Eastern State. This was naturally reserved for the worst, most unruly inmates at the facility. Individuals who found themselves in “the hole” were surrounded by darkness, rats, and very little air. Most often, they were given no food or water and were left in the underground cell for up to weeks at a time. Naturally, many inmates came out of the experience forever changed.
Noteworthy Events at the Penitentiary
Perhaps my favorite of the histories from the prison, it is noted that in 1924 “Pep” the cat-murdering dog was sentenced to life in Eastern State by Governor Gifford Pinchot. The dog was given his own inmate number (C-5229) and had even got a mug shot. Some discrepancy exists, however, on whether Pep was actually sentenced or donated to the prison by the Governor.
By the 1920’s the extreme solitude of the prison had faded to make way for more interaction among prisoners and with guards. A silent film from the prison’s centennial shows prisoners working together rather than being locked away in separate cells most of the day.
In 1929, famed bank robber Al Capone was incarcerated in Eastern State where he spends 18 months. It was his first incarceration, after being arrested for carrying a concealed deadly weapon. His cell was considered a luxury compared to the others with fine rugs, luxurious furniture, and even a cabinet radio.
A fire was set in 1933 as prisoners began rioting over overcrowding, insufficient recreational facilities, and generally low morale. Fires were set again in 1934 in a riot over low wages.
Victor “Babe” Andreoli was sentenced to Eastern State in 1937 for the murder of a Pennsylvania State Trooper. He escaped in 1941 only to be shot dead in a diner several weeks later.
The “veteran witch doctor” Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber was incarcerated in 1942 as one of the leaders of an arsenic murder ring that had been charged with over 30 deaths. The ring would choose women looking to kill their husbands to collect their insurance money. Bolber would join the Jewish Synagogue while incarcerated at Eastern State.
12 inmates, including William “Slick Willie” Sutton the infamous bank robber, escaped the prison in April of 1945. Over the course of a year, the men created a large hole in a cell wall and ultimately a 97-foot tunnel was created by prison plaster worker, Clarence Klinedinst. Leo Callahan, a man incarcerated over assault & battery and one of five inmates to build a ladder to escape over the walls of the penitentiary, was the only one to never be recaptured.
The prison closed in 1971 and was left abandoned for several years. In fact, so long that it became home to several cats and even trees until renovations began to reopen as a National Historic Site and museum in 1988 to limited tours. Later in 1994 the building fully opened to tours. Permanent museum exhibits were added in 1996.
Ghosts of the Eastern State Penitentiary
Although a haunted attraction is operated at the location each October, many who work at the historic site and museum consider themselves more of a skeptic than a believer. Several ghost shows, investigators, and other individuals, however, have searched for the spirits of Eastern State. In addition, stories from inmates and guards alike dating as far back from the 1940’s hint to otherworldly activity in the historic building.
One of the most widely reported instances is a shadow figure believed to haunt the halls of cell block 6. In cell block 12, individuals claim to hear voices and other strange noises. A ghostly guardsman, believed to be the spirit of a guard murdered by one of the inmates, is frequently spotted above the guard tower.
One of the most widely referenced reports comes from the 1990’s. An employee by the name of Gary Johnson was working on the locks in cell block 4 when he states that the forms of various tormented faces began to appear on the cell wall. Johnson claims that a powerful negative force seemed to fill the room holding him in place throughout the experience.
Tell Us Your Story
Has your team done an investigation at Eastern State, or have you had an experience while visiting? We would love to hear your story or see your evidence if you took any photos or made any videos of the experience.