A visit to Philadelphia often includes lots of history stops and it can be fun to get off the beaten path a bit. One unexpected treat in Philly is the historic site at the old Eastern State Penitentiary. The exhibits are really well done, and carefully curated historical information is both interesting and informative. As there is an ongoing restoration of the giant ruin, there is a delightfully creepy vibe from the flaking paint, rusted furniture and ruined cells in the areas that are still untouched. My teen and tween both loved it, and learned a lot more than they’d bargained for about American history.
Eastern State Penitentiary: Not Your Typical Philadelphia Historic Site
Eastern State has an audio tour available for self-guided explorations, or you can take a look at the schedule of docent-led tours of various areas and subjects around the site. We opted for the audio tour, which was very well done (narrated by the great Steve Buscemi), and gives a good overview of the whys and wherefores of how Eastern State was developed, and how it eventually became outmoded and ended up abandoned. Much of the interior is still quite ruined in some areas, and this historic site is not recommended for children under the age of 7.
Eastern State Penitentiary was the first “penitentiary” style of prison in the newly-fledged United States, and opened in 1829. Social reformers of the time hypothesized that the unsanitary, crowded and frankly immoral conditions at typical prisons of the time did not contribute to the edification of humankind. They had the idea that with sobriety, quiet time (lots of quiet time, all the time) and labor, a criminally inclined person would learn the error of their ways, and find grace and redemption through – wait for it – penitence.
So, instead of being tossed into a giant noisy building, crammed in with other prisoners or alternately, tortured in stocks or by other methods such as flogging, inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary were housed in small cells, alone. The cell walls are 20 inch thick masonry, and floor space is 7 ½ feet x 12 feet, with a private outdoor space on each that is similarly small. Inmates were not allowed to speak, ever. When moved from their cells for whatever reasons, the guards would put a hood over inmates’ heads, to keep them from seeing or being able to speak to anyone. They were provided with work projects, such as caning chairs and other manual crafts, to teach them the value of meaningful work, and to inspire them to temper their baser urges upon release.
Unfortunately, all that forced isolation via solitary confinement and sensory deprivation had the unintended consequence of driving a lot of inmates to the brink of insanity – and beyond. Whoops!
Solitary For Every Inmate At Eastern State Penitentiary No Longer
Changes came about, and in later years solitary confinement was no longer part of the plan. I’m still wondering what this photograph from the early 20th century is about…
Even still, the conditions at Eastern State were harsh. With cold winters and hot summers making the worst of the thick masonry structure, things in the cells were not what anyone would call comfortable. Well, except for Al Capone’s cell, which he had decked out like a cute little hotel room during his stay in 1929. Cozy!
Ghost Hunting At Eastern State Penitentiary
With its history of so much pain and human dysfunction that went on behind the walls, Eastern State has attracted notice from ghost hunters and paranormal investigations are a popular current activity. The “abandoned ruins inside the walls” aspect is also creepily inspiring, and offers a compelling visual backdrop for dramatic themes, and for fun scary events like the annual Terror Behind the Walls Halloween haunted house.
Paranormal show Ghost Adventures did an episode at the prison, and others have done similar shows, but not without some controversy about the veracity of their findings. If you really want to test it out for yourself, you can rent Eastern State Penitentiary for your own paranormal investigations.Check out paranormal investigator Joe Nickell’s site for scientifically sound methods of ghost hunting that would stand up to scrutiny and not rely on whacked-out night vision pictures of people freaking themselves out for “proof” of something otherworldly. Now that would be a show!
Disclosure: Admission for our visit to Eastern State Penitentiary was provided by the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation at VisitPhilly.com, but all opinions in this post are mine alone.
Go See It!
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
2027 Fairmount Avenue (corner of 22nd & Fairmount)
Philadelphia PA 19130