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  • Writer's pictureCandace Nola

Haunted Locations: Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia

This post originally appeared on the House of Stitched Blog in 2021. I was writing a series of articles called Haunted Locations for the magazine. I thought it would be an interesting piece to re-post here and I will be posting several others from the series over the summer. Enjoy!

The Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most haunted locations in Pennsylvania and is located right in downtown Philadelphia. Opened in 1829, it had been designed to resemble a huge Gothic castle, the very building itself was designed to strike fear into the hearts of all that saw it, let alone entered it. It was often called “Hell on Earth” and aptly named for the punishments that were so often handed out here. The design mimics a wagon wheel with 8 corridors opening off a central command center in the middle of the “wheel”. The guards and any visitors would be able to see into each cell block just by looking down each corridor. This design model would later be copied by more than 300 prisons around the globe.

Eastern State was considered the world’s first true penitentiary and its system encouraged separate confinement as a form of rehabilitation. It focused on true solitary confinement for its inmates. Each prisoner was kept in single cells, each with its own exercise yard. Prisoners were allowed outside at staggered times, so prisoners that had cells side by side were never outside at the same time. Prisoners also had hoods put on them at any time they were taken from their cells to prevent other inmates from recognizing them. Zero human interaction was the key, or as limited as possible. The guards had to conduct rounds 3 times a day to see the inmates, but they had zero interaction with them, almost no conversation at all.

Prisoners did not eat together, exercise together or work together. They were meant to be alone 23 hours a day to reflect on their crimes, with 1 hour a day being allowed outside. The methods of punishment used in the early years were among some of the harshest methods used, the lack of human interaction often cited as the most psychologically damaging. Other punishments include the “Mad Chair” where a prisoner would be strapped tightly in a chair and left sitting there for days, no food, no water, no breaks, no moving. Often, they would be driven mad from this treatment.

Another method was the “Iron Gag” which would cause severe pain and bleeding whenever they tried to speak. The worst of the inmates could expect “The Hole,” where prisoners were kept in a dark pit for weeks on end. It is no surprise that many of the men kept here went insane, and many more died. Visitors to the site often hear screaming, moaning, laughing, footsteps and scratching, amongst many other noises in the ruins of the building.

Many infamous criminals passed through these walls, but the most famous would have been Al Capone, who spent seven months of a year-long sentence here. Even though he had been sentenced to Hell on Earth, Capone was very well taken care of with fine rugs on the floor, pictures on the wall and even a radio, were just a few of the fine furnishings that were reportedly found in his cell.

Many paranormal investigations have taken place over the years since the prison has closed, among those have been visits from Ghost Hunters, Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted Live! The prison has also served as set locations for several movies and music videos, including “Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen” and Tina Turner’s music video, “One of the Living.”

The prison conducts tours year-round and information about these tours can be found below. The website also has tons of information if you would like to learn more about the history of the prison, or the tours. The audio tour is online for you to listen to or there is a pdf that you can read. There is also a research tab which contains a document containing more than 500 pages that you can download for historical research.

As always, if you plan to go on a tour or investigation, please follow the rules, be respectful and be safe.

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