First opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary is considered to be the world's first penitentiary. Prisoners there were held in solitary confinement — a prison management style that came to be called the Pennsylvania System — with the belief that complete solitude would encourage penitence for one's crimes.
Though Eastern State eschewed corporal punishment, some felt the solitary confinement system was just as (if not more) cruel. Charles Dickens, on visiting the prison, wrote in his travel journal:
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.
The solitary confinement system was abandoned in 1913 when overcrowding in the penitentiary made it untenable. By then, thousands and thousands of prisoners had already served time in solitary. This fact (combined with Dickens' chilling words and the building's stark, foreboding appearance and feel) likely contributes to the haunting rumors that have circulated the penitentiary since the 1940s. The penitentiary is the frequent subject of ghost hunts, including an episode of Ghost Hunters in which this maybe-ghost was captured on film.
Here's what it's like to visit what many call the most haunted prison in America.
1. The Prison Dollhouse
Why It's Creepy: dollhouses come alive at night, everyone knows this
Paid admission into Eastern State Penitentiary also gets you an audio guide, which I was thrilled to discover is narrated by Steve Buscemi. Steve (who I will refer to by first name because we walked around the prison together for over an hour) first got to know the prison when using it as the filming location for his 2000 movie Animal Factory. He loves this prison.
At the beginning of the tour, just inside the first prison block, there is a little model of a prison cell. Outside it, a doll guard guides a doll prisoner (with the then-customary hood) into his cell. Prisoners at Eastern State were forced to wear hoods any time they left their cells, to prevent recognition by (and solidarity among) fellow prisoners.
2. Typical Prison Cell
Why It's Creepy: whose shoes are those?
A few of the prison cells in Eastern State have been modified and decorated to appear as they were while the prison was operational; here you can see one such example. Prisoners were not allowed any books beside The Bible. They were permitted to weave or make shoes if desired. Though some elements of the room were said to indicate empathy on the part of the architects and founders, the tiny doors (which require most people to crouch when passing through) and cold medieval design suggest otherwise.
3. Al Capone's Prison Cell
Why It's Creepy: old-timey gangsters; creepy classical music pumped through the cell
Infamous Chicago Outfit gangster Al Capone was incarcerated in Eastern State Penitentiary for most of 1929. A sign outside the cell told us that Capone told newspapers he found his cell "very comfortable," which is probably because he was given special privileges and allowed to furnish it with antique rugs, paintings, and furniture. He was also allowed a radio to listen to classical music, which the museum still plays (spookily!) in the cell today.
4. Cellblock 7
Why It's Creepy: possible scene of Ghost Hunters footage; freezing cold and terrifying
I recognized Cellblock 7 from Ghost Hunters, so it seems the footage they took of a potential ghost was taken here or in a very visually similar block nearby. I think it doesn't really matter which one, because ghosts are always moving through walls. Either way, this is a very ominous place to stand (let alone live) in. At this point in the tour, Steve instructs you to walk carefully up the stairs and stand on the balustrade above the lower level, even with the blocked-off cells on the top level. The penitentiary as a whole is extremely drafty and cold, but this room in particular was chilling. I would not come here at nighttime for a million dollars.
5. Ruined Prison Cell
Why It's Creepy: just look at it
Toward the end of the tour, Steve took us through Cellblock 4, in which many of the cell doors are open to reveal messy ruins from the prison's active years. Because the doors are so short, anyone who wants to see inside the rooms must stand very close to them. I thought maybe my friend Joyce would push me in, which is a case of my fears getting the best of me. Joyce is normal and would never push someone into an off-limits ruined prison cell of a historic landmark.
6. The Baseball Diamond
Why It's Creepy: a bunch of people standing around a field listening to audio guides in silence
At the end of the tour, Steve brings you into the old baseball diamond and tells you about the penitentiary's ultimate closing. On the map there is a list of supplementary audio clips you can choose after the main tour is over, and this is where I selected the one called "Ghosts: 'Is Eastern State Haunted?' (You can hear the clip on the ESP website.)
I liked this clip because Steve starts it by saying "Hi I'm actor Steve Buscemi. Is this place haunted?" Then Steve answers himself by saying "Who knows." He goes on to say that "some visitors have said that they 'sense' something," and the attitude he places on the word "sense" is just incredible. I don't think Steve Buscemi thinks there are ghosts here, but I do.