When the Eastern State Penitentiary, or Cherry Hill as it was known at the time, was erected in 1829 in Francisville it was the largest and most expensive public structure in the country. (Yes, the United States)
From 1829 to 1971, the Eastern State Penitentiary operated as one of the most famous and most expensive prisons in history.
At its completion, the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the United States, and quickly became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide.
Eastern State emerged from the concerns of prison reformers in Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, when prisons held accused criminals only until their trials. If convicted, prisoners faced public and corporal punishment.
In 1787, a group of well-known and powerful Philadelphians known as The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons convened in the home of Benjamin Franklin.
The members expressed growing concern with the conditions in American and European prisons. Conditions at the Walnut Street Jail located directly behind Independence Hall were appalling.
Opened in 1775, the Walnut Street Jail housed accused men and women, adults and children, thieves and murderers were jailed together in disease-ridden, dirty pens where rape and robbery were common occurrences.
Jailors made little effort to protect the prisoners from each other. Instead, they sold the prisoners alcohol, up to nearly twenty gallons of it a day.
Food, heat, and clothing came at a price and It wasn’t unusual for prisoners to die from the cold or starvation.
Dr. Benjamin Rush spoke on the Society’s goal, to see the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania set the international standard in prison design.
He was convinced that crime was a “moral disease,” and suggested a “house of repentance” where prisoners could meditate on their crimes, experience spiritual remorse and undergo rehabilitation.
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:
But, in 1821 the Pennsylvania Legislature appropriated $250,000 for Eastern State.
And thus began a revolutionary new building on farmland outside Philadelphia at 2027 Fairmount Avenue.
Its architectural significance first arose when British architect John Haviland was chosen to design the building. Haviland found most of his inspiration for his plan for the penitentiary from prisons and asylums built beginning in the 1780s in England and Ireland.
He gave the prison a neo-Gothic look to instill fear into those who thought of committing a crime.
The design for the penitentiary which Haviland devised became known as the hub-and-spoke plan (or wagon wheel) which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating single-story cell blocks, each containing two ranges of large single cells—8 x 12 feet x 10 feet high- with hot water heating, a water tap, toilet, and individual exercise yards the same width as the cell.
Keep in mind this was still the time when the White House, with its new occupant Andrew Jackson, had no running water and was heated with coal-burning stoves.
Haviland remarked that he chose the design to promote “watching, convenience, economy, and ventilation”.
There were rectangular openings in the cell wall through which food and work materials could be passed to the prisoner, as well as peepholes for guards to observe prisoners without being seen.
To minimize the opportunities for communication between inmates Haviland designed a basic flush toilet for each cell with individual pipes leading to a central sewer which he hoped would prevent the sending of messages between adjacent cells.
Despite his efforts, prisoners were still able to communicate with each other and the flushing system had to be redesigned several times.
Once construction of the prison was completed in 1836, it could house 450 prisoners in isolation.
The penitentiary opened in 1829, seven years before completion.
Charles Williams, a farmer sentenced to two years for theft, would be inmate number one. On October 23, 1829, Williams was escorted into the new prison with an eyeless hood placed over his head.
This was allegedly done to secure his identity and eventual integration into society upon release, as no one would recognize his face from the prison.
But it also served another purpose: to ensure that there would be no chance at escape, as Williams would never see the prison beyond his private cell.
By that winter, the prison housed seven convicts in solitary confinement, sentenced for various periods of time between one and 11 years.
Eastern State is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary. Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system” or separate system, encouraged separate confinement as a form of rehabilitation.
The church viewed imprisonment, usually in isolation, as an instrument that would modify sinful or disruptive behavior.
The time spent in prison would help inmates reflect on their crimes committed, giving them the mission for redemption.
The halls were designed to have the feel of a church with 30-foot, barrel vaulted hallways, tall arched windows, and skylights throughout.
In the vaulted, skylit cell, the prisoner had only the light from heaven, the word of God (the Bible) and honest work (To help offset the cost of incarceration, the state required prisoners to do work in their cells, including shoemaking, weaving, and chair caning (weaving wicker chairs) to lead to penitence.
The warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day.
Inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; The doors to each cell are quite small, Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack on an officer.
Many believe they were sized this way to force prisoners to “bow” when entering their cells. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison.
Theses doors were bolted shut behind them and only a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks from inside the jail.
The doors that you now see leading into the cells from inside weren’t added until the 1850s.
The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, representing the “Eye of God”, suggesting to the prisoners that God was always watching them.
This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise.
Cell accommodations were advanced for their time, including a faucet with running water over a flush toilet, as well as curved pipes along part of one wall which served as central heating during the winter months where hot water would be run through the pipes to keep the cells reasonably heated.
Toilets were remotely flushed twice a week by the guards of the cellblock.
But, despite all it’s material comforts this “paradise” drove the inmates mad.
Known as the “separate system,” part of what made Eastern State unique is that prisoners weren’t allowed to interact with other prisoners at all, in any way.
The Penitentiary was intended not simply to punish, but to move the criminal toward spiritual reflection and change.
The only visitors allowed were members of the prison society or a local minister employed by the penitentiary known as the “moral instructor.”
Prisoners spent 23 hours a day in their cells
If prisoners wanted to read only the bible was permissible
The incarcerated took their meals alone in their cells, as there was no main dining area.
Every two weeks, they were taken from their cells to bathe.
The only other time prisoners left their cells was to spend a single hour (in 2 half hour blocks 1 morning and 1 evening) each day in their individual exercise yards, which were located directly outside each cell. Each yard was enclosed by high walls so prisoners could not communicate. Exercise time for each prisoner was synchronized so no two prisoners next to each other would be out at the same time.
Inmates weren’t allowed to talk to each other or to the guards. On the rare occasions they were taken out of their cells, hoods were put over their heads to prevent them seeing the layout or them recognizing or being recognized by other inmates.
Guards even wore felt shoe covers so as to keep the prison as quiet as possible. Utter silence, utter solitude. It was meant to inspire penance; instead, it inspired insanity.
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.
In reality, the guards and councilors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions, Prisoners caught speaking were swiftly punished. Some were left in a dark cell and fed bread and water, while others were confined to a strait jacket and gagged.
Other punishments included dousing prisoners in freezing water outside during winter months, Or the iron gag which included chaining their tongues to their wrists in a fashion such that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear, strapping prisoners into chairs with tight leather restraints for days on end, and putting the worst behaved prisoners into a pit called “The Hole”, an underground cellblock dug under cellblock 14 where they would have no light, no human contact, and little food for as long as two weeks.
In 1833, just four years after Eastern State opened, a public scandal erupted when prisoner Mathias Maccumsey died after prison officials subjected him to the “iron gag” to prevent him from talking. The penitentiary physician declared the cause of death to be “apoplexy.” (unconsciousness or incapacity resulting from a cerebral hemorrhage or stroke.)
Despite problems with prisoner management, Eastern State’s supporters touted the Pennsylvania System as the solution to crime and punishment.
The prison was one of the largest public-works projects of the early republic. As tourists flocked to Philadelphia in the 1830s and 1840s to see this architectural wonder, a debate grew about the effectiveness and compassion of solitary confinement. Was it cruel to hold these men and women without outside visitors, without books or letters from home, without contact with the outside world?,
Supporters of Eastern praised its humane approach to prisoner treatment while critics claimed that isolation led to insanity and even death.
Alexis de Tocqueville visited Eastern State Penitentiary in 1831 with Gustave de Beaumont. They wrote in their report to the French government: “Thrown into solitude… [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for anything better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him…. Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness..?”
Another visitor, Charles Dickens, did not agree.
He recounts his 1842 visit to Eastern State Penitentiary Chapter Seven in his travel journal, American Notes for General Circulation. The chapter is titled “Philadelphia and its Solitary Prison:”
“In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing….I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,… and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.”
By the 1850s problems with prisoner management, overcrowding, and mental health led Eastern’s officials to slowly relax the rules of isolation.
Overcrowding prompted construction of even more cells and, beginning in the 1860s, officials frequently housed more than one prisoner per cell.
In 1913, solitary confinement was rescinded; less for philosophical reasons and more for the need for space. A mess hall was built in 1924 and for the first time, prisoners ate together.
By 1926, after numerous additional cell blocks were built, Eastern State’s population had grown from 250 to 1700.
In a struggle to catch up with congregate-style prisons of the day, Eastern converted many of the useless individual exercise yards into workshops.
Space between cellblocks became used for sports and recreation, including a baseball field and football field. Italian prisoners added bocce ball to the prison’s many activities.
The Penitentiary administration produced a silent movie in 1929 to celebrate the building’s 100 anniversary.
The film focuses not on the historic nature of the building, aside from occasional references to its age, but on the modern improvements and recent changes made to the building. It depicts the new; factory style weaving shops; the commercial-grade bakery and kitchens, staffed by dozens of inmates twenty-four hours a day; and the new guard towers with searchlights and sirens.
Inmates are seen by the hundreds, filling the yards between spokes of the cell blocks. They line up in the new dining halls.
But these inmates move, throughout, in the shell of the old Pennsylvania System.
The cells, now used for two or three men, have barrel-vaulted ceilings, skylights, and a curious, walled-up door in the back.
The workshops and dining halls are ten feet wide and hundreds of feet long; they are former exercise yards, roofed over, their partition walls removed.
Still more cell blocks were constructed. Reinforced concrete replaced stone. The new cells were small, square, and lit by ordinary windows, but the halls had the catwalks and skylights typical of the early Eastern cell blocks. The cell blocks were invisible from the Rotunda.
Partialy underground, windowless cells, with neither light nor plumbing, brought a return to solitary confinement at Eastern.
This time the isolation was not for redemption, but punishment. The cells were nicknamed “Klondike.”
The last major addition was made to Eastern State Penitentiary’s complex of buildings in 1956: Cell Block Fifteen, or Death Row.
The fully-electronic confinement system inside separated the inmates from the guards at virtually all times.
By the 1960’s, the aged prison was in need of costly repairs.
In 1961, after the largest riot in the Eastern’s history, Pennsylvania began serious discussions about closing the penitentiary.
It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
In 1970, after multiple riots, a breakdown of the “separate system,” and thousands more prisoners than the penitentiary had ever been constructed to handle.
The Commonwealth made the decision to close the facility and in 1971, 142 years after it admitted Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. The remaining prisoners were sent to other local facilities.
Over the course of its 142 years, the penitentiary held some 75,000 inmates.
Including Its most well-known Al Capone, In 1929, five years before Alcatraz opened and where Capone would be transferred to, he spent eight months of a one-year sentence in Eastern State for carrying a concealed weapon in a movie theater. The room was decorated to Capone’s demands according to a newspaper description written in The Philadelphia Public Ledger on August 20, 1929. The article suggested that Capone was allowed luxuries others were not, though the warden denied the report. Luxuries included an armchair, Oriental rug, decorative lamps, a radio (he loved to listen to waltzes), and an armoire, in addition to other creature comforts.
Another famous prisoner was bank robber “Slick” Willie Sutton, who spent 11 years at Eastern State. In 1945, he was one of 12 prisoners who escaped the prison via an underground tunnel that stretched for nearly 100 feet; he and his fellow escapees were recaptured within hours.
And then there’s Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog,” the only known canine sentenced for life at Eastern State (or anywhere). Prison records reflect that Pep took a mug shot and was given an inmate number (C-2559).
He was incarcerated in 1924 for having allegedly murdered Governor Gifford Pinchot’s wife’s cat, although Ms. Pinchot told a reporter later that the murder had never occurred and the governor had simply donated Pep to the penitentiary to increase inmate morale. In any case, he became the “beloved mascot of staff and inmates [and] lived like a king at Eastern State” until his death in 1930, when he was buried on prison grounds.
The City of Philadelphia purchased the site in 1980, intending to reuse or develop it. In 1988, with the prison site threatened with inappropriate reuse proposals, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment.
During the abandoned era (from closing until the late 80s) a “forest” grew in the cell blocks and outside within the walls. The prison also became home to many stray cats.
Mayor Frank Rizzo had, in 1974, suggested demolishing the penitentiary and creating a criminal justice center in its place. The city didn’t do that. Ten years later, a local landscape architecture firm approached redevelopment officials with a bid to turn the cell blocks into 238 luxury apartments. The city didn’t do that, either.
It was in 1987 that redevelopment officials began to seriously consider several proposals: one for a shopping center, another for a series of retail stores and parking, another for a combination of high-priced apartments, restaurants. Another developer proposed a nightclub.
In 1988, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt redevelopment.
In 1991, they began the process of stabilization and preservation and held their first Halloween fundraiser.
That first Halloween event raised money for a daytime tour program.
In 1994, the penitentiary opened for tours on a daily basis.
Kept in “preserved ruin,” the National Historic Landmark is open for artist installations, history exhibits and “Hands-On History” tours including the “Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.
Eastern State Penitentiary interprets the legacy of American criminal justice reform, from the time of the nation’s founding to the present day, all within the long-abandoned cell blocks of the historic prison. The site is open for tours seven days a week, year-round.
Each fall, the prison provides the opportunity to experience that phenomenon firsthand with its annual Terror Behind the Walls, a massive haunted house featuring Hollywood-quality sets, custom-designed props, animatronics, digital sound effects and a cast of more than 200 performers in a theatrical production that consists of six haunted attractions. Consistently ranked among the top haunted attractions in the United States, “Terror Behind the Walls” is the largest and runs on select evenings in the fall.
During its 142 years of service as an active prison, 1,200 inmates died, more than 50 inmates committed suicide, and over a dozen were murdered by other inmates.
Over the decades, since the 1940s, long before Eastern State was abandoned, officers and inmates reported eerie and mysterious experiences at the historic site and hundreds of paranormal investigations have been conducted there. During the filming of Paranormal Challenge, host Zak Bagans called Eastern State Penitentiary “one of the most haunted places in the world.”
In fact, notorious gangster Al Capone, is said to have been “transformed into a weeping and terrified mess who would send out blood curdling screams at night, shouting for ‘Jimmy’ to ‘leave me alone.’” It is now believed Capone thought the spirits of one of the men who was victim of his Valentine’s massacre followed him for the rest of his life.
Cellblock 12 is known for echoing voices and cackling; Cellblock 6 for shadowy figures darting along the walls; Cellblock 4 for visions of ghostly faces. Many people have reported seeing a silhouette of a guard in one of the towers. Footsteps. Wails. Whispers. The same stories, over and over again.
One of the most legendary tales comes from Gary Johnson, a locksmith who helps maintain the crumbling old locks at the prison. In the early 1990s, he had just opened an old lock in Cellblock 4 when he says a force gripped him so tightly that he was unable to move. He described a negative, horrible energy that exploded out of the cell. He said tormented faces appeared on the cell walls and that one form in particular beckoned to him.
“I had this feeling that I was being watched, real intensely,” he said.
“I turned and I’m looking down the block and I know there’s nobody there. A couple of seconds later and I get the same feeling, I’m really being watched. I turn around and I look down the block and I don’t see anything and as I start to turn down the block, this black shadow just leapt across the block.”
A guide with a group from the NY Post refused to step into certain places, most notably the Operating Room. Others reported roaming the third floor of Cell Block 12 and seeing all the iron doors closed, only to return seconds later to see them all open.
But tour guide Ben Bookman says, “It’s a lot harder to find a believer than it is to find a skeptic here. We at Eastern State do not claim that the prison is haunted. We run a haunted attraction.”
Bookman says the staff does not like to exploit the prison’s darker image. “Most people making TV shows come in looking for ghosts. That’s not the story we tell. Inmates were real people. These were people’s lives. Seventy-thousand people spent time here. We’re not going to glorify it, and we’re not going to make fun of it.”