back to top

Notes For Unsolved: Eastern State Penitentiary

Research notes for Supernatural Season 3 Episode 3

Posted on

**Research compiled for Ryan on August 8, 2017 by Micki Taylor.

Location

2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19130


Background

  • Before the 19th century, many prisons were simply large holding areas that housed criminals of various offenses, ages, and even genders.

  • Disease was rampant in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail at that time.

  • Prisoners abused one another, and guards looked the other way while making money smuggling liquor in.

  • Prisoners often starved or froze to death in deplorable conditions there.

  • The late 18th-century (following the end of the American Revolution) was an era of reform.

  • A group called The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in Benjamin Franklin’s home in 1787. They were concerned with the conditions of prisons at the time and focused their reform efforts on this area -- specifically, within Pennsylvania.

  • They believed crime to be the result of a bad environment -- and envisioned a humane prison where labor, complete solitude, and discipline together would make inmates penitent -- hence the term penitentiary.

  • This theory would come to be known as the Pennsylvania System. The term “separate system” is also used. Its ideals were based in Quaker ideology.

  • The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons began its decades-long fight to open a new kind of prison.

  • Funding to build the Eastern State Penitentiary, which would initially hold 250 inmates, was approved back 1821.

  • A British architect who had settled in Philadelphia, named John Haviland, was chosen to design the building over three other architects who’d submitted plans.

  • Haviland’s design resembled a wagon wheel, with the seven original cell blocks laid out like long hallways that could all be seen from the central rotunda.

  • ESP would cover almost 10 acres, with 30-foot tall walls enclosing the prison.

  • In April of 1829, new legislation passed calling for “separate or solitary confinement at labor” of prisoners.

  • The goal of the Pennsylvania System, and of Eastern State Penitentiary -- at least, in the beginning -- was not to punish criminals, but to facilitate their rehabilitation.


Eastern State Penitentiary, 1829 - 1971

  • Eastern State Penitentiary opened its doors on October 25th, 1829, outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

  • Haviland’s original plans wouldn’t be completed until 1836, so some of the original 7 cellblocks were still under construction at this time.

  • The penitentiary would soon become known for its stunning architecture and modern advancements.

  • It had features like running water and heating before the White House did.

  • Cells had skylights and flushing toilets as well.

  • There were church-like, vaulted ceilings throughout -- a symbolic “eye of God” to go along with the bible found in each room. The more Gothic, medieval exterior of the prison was meant to intimidate.

  • It was, at that time, one of the most expensive buildings in America and was quite famous in its day.

  • After Eastern State was built, over 300 other prisons around the world were modeled after it. Architects and tourists alike came to marvel at the building. Over 10,000 tourists visited in 1858 alone (the most in one year while the penitentiary was operating).

  • Both the architecture / design and the Pennsylvania System of inciting penitence through labor and solitude were seen as progressive.

  • Eastern State Penitentiary was designed so inmates would have little contact with guards and minimal to zero contact with other inmates.

  • Meals were meant to be taken inside the cells.

  • Private outdoor areas were designed so inmates could exercise without interacting. Inmates were allowed outside for one hour each day.

  • Masks and hoods were used so prisoners could not communicate while outside of their cells.

  • These were worn when inmates were taken individually to bathe once per week or so.

  • The hoods were also meant to keep the prisoners from knowing the layout of the prison.

  • Labor was also expected to be carried out within the 12’ x 7’ cell the inmates were now confined to.

  • The only contact a prisoner would really have was the occasional interaction with the warden, a clergyman, or a visiting official.

  • Silence was enforced as much as possible -- a note from 1837 (pg 389) even mentions putting leather on wheels and suggesting putting wool socks over shoes and ends with the phrase, “if reform is possible, it will take place here.”

  • The very first inmate at ESP was a man by the name of Charles Williams, who’d been sentenced to two years for the theft of a watch, a gold seal, and a gold key.

  • The first female inmate came to Eastern State Pen in 1831. In 1923, female inmates were moved to another prison in Muncy, PA.

  • Cellblock 3 included the infirmary / was known as the hospital block. It went through several renovations over the years, but was dedicated to health care by 1907. It included an operation room, labs, a pharmacy, a recovery ward, etc.

  • From 1831 - 1835, cellblocks Four through Seven were built, each two stories tall (rather than the original plan of one story), as the number of inmates continued to increase.

  • Completion of John Haviland’s original designs were completed in 1836.

  • Eastern State Pen now included 450 cells.

  • At this point, the initial expense had totaled roughly $770,000 (in 1836 dollars). It is said that Eastern State Pen was second only to the US Capitol in terms of the most expensive government-funded American buildings to date.

  • New cellblocks were added in the 1870s - 1890s that were similar to the original cells’ design, only these new cells did not have private outdoor exercise areas.

  • Instead, inmates exercised together while wearing hoods with eye-holes.

  • These new cellblocks were mostly squeezed in between existing buildings.

  • Throughout the years, inmates were encouraged to create handiwork; early inmates were often tailors, shoemakers, and weavers. They mostly completed this work in their cells.


(In)famous Inmates

Al Capone: The most notable of Eastern State Pen’s inmates was Chicago mob boss Alphonse “Scarface” Capone.

  • After being convicted of carrying a concealed, deadly weapon, Al Capone spent about eight months in this penitentiary between 1929 - 1930. This was his first prison sentence.

  • His cell was located on what was known as the Park Avenue Block.

  • An August 20th, 1929 article from the Philadelphia Public Ledger described paintings, a polished desk and softly-glowing desk lamp, and a radio playing waltz music in Capone’s cell. (Pg 65).

  • Some believe Capone intentionally got himself incarcerated to stay alive following the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre killings in Chicago, in which he allegedly masterminded hits on rival bosses.

  • While at Eastern State, Capone purchased baseball uniforms for his fellow inmates.

  • On March 17th, 1930 -- the day Capone was to be released -- a huge crowd gathered outside the penitentiary to catch a glimpse.

  • You can see the crowds (but no Capone) in this clip.

  • However, they never got their glimpse because Capone secretly transferred to another prison earlier in the day and was discharged there instead, because he feared there might be enemies waiting for him in the crowd.

Morris Bolber: Morris Bolber, aka “Louie the Rabbi”, was another notable inmate at the penitentiary.

  • Bolber, along with two cousins named Paul and Herman Petrillo, had led a murder ring between 1932 and 1937.
  • While prosecutors found the ring guilty of 35 murders, it was suspected that the total number was likely higher.
  • Bolber was not a real rabbi; he professed to have magic healing powers. He provided the superstitious with charms and so-called cures.

  • Paul Petrillo would identify women he thought would go in on a scheme with them to take out a life insurance policy on their husbands, while Bolber would supply the arsenic often used to murder the husbands.

  • While some of the women were knowing accomplices to their husbands’ murders, it’s possible that others believed Bolber had given them a different kind of charm or potion (like a love potion).
  • The group would then split the insurance money.

  • Paul and Herman Petrillo were sentenced to death and died in the electric chair in 1940 and ‘41, respectively.

  • Bolber received a life sentence and served at Eastern State from 1942 until his death there in 1954.

William Francis Sutton: William Francis Sutton, aka “Slick Willie” Sutton, was one of the most notorious American bank robbers in history. (66)

  • He was also sometimes called the Gentleman Bandit because he was supposedly charming during robberies.

  • He was also sometimes called Willie “the Actor” Sutton due to his m.o. of dressing and acting like a police officer or delivery person during robberies.

  • Sutton, a Brooklyn native, was said to have committed over 50 bank robberies.

  • He landed at Eastern State after being caught robbing the Corn Exchange at Sixtieth and Market streets.

  • He spent 11 years at Eastern State and made one (unsuccessful) escape attempt during that time (more on that to follow). However, it’s said that he successfully escaped from three other prisons.

Frederick J. Tenuto: Frederick J. Tenuto, aka “The Angel” (as in of Death), was a mob hit man in Philadelphia who spent some time in Eastern State in the 1930s and ‘40s. (439 - 440) (67)

  • Interestingly… In 1946, both Tenuto and Willie Sutton were transferred to Holmesburg Prison, but they successfully escaped in 1947.

  • That is, until 1952, when a 24-year-old Brooklyn man named Arnold Schuster identified Sutton, which lead to his recapture years after his escape.

  • The following month, Schuster was shot dead, and it’s presumed but was never proven that Tenuto (who was then on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list) carried out the hit.

  • It’s said that Tenuto eventually met his end in secret, the target of another hit man.

Pep the Dog: On August 12th, 1924, Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog", a black Labrador retriever, was sentenced to Eastern State Pen by Governor Gifford Pinchot for (allegedly) killing Pinchot’s wife’s cat.

  • Pep was booked, assigned an inmate number, and got his mug shot taken.

  • A newspaper from the time stated that Pep had been Pinchot’s own dog that he hoped would increase prisoner morale; others believed Pinchot did this as a publicity stunt.

  • Pep lived at Eastern State until 1929 (when he was moved to a different penitentiary), accompanying the guards on their rounds and presumably being a very good boy.


Prison Breaks

Over 100 inmates escaped the walls of Eastern State Pen over the span of 142 years. All but one of them were recaptured.

  • In 1832, the first prisoner to escape -- who had served as a waiter to the warden at that time -- lowered himself from the roof and made a run for it. He was captured...and then escaped again in 1837 by doing the same thing again… and was subsequently recaptured.

  • In July 1923, an inmate named Leo Callahan and five armed accomplices held up several (unarmed) prison guards, allowing Leo and the other prisoners to use a ladder they had built to get over the east wall. Callahan had been convicted of Assault and Battery with Intent to Kill. Although all of Callahan’s accomplices were found (including one who’d made it all the way to Honolulu), Callahan is the only escapee from ESP who was never found.

  • On September 4th, 1927, William Bishie -- an inmate who’d been a trusted electrical engineer for the prison -- threw a guard off a corner tower before escaping over one of the walls with fellow inmate William Lynch. Authorities caught up to Lynch just four days later, but Bishie went free for seven years.

  • In April 1945, inmate Clarence Klinedinst, a plaster worker, constructed a tunnel leading from cellblock 7 out to Fairmount Avenue and 22nd Street (just outside the prison walls), through which he and 11 others escaped. All 12 were quickly apprehended.

  • Klinedinst escaped for about two hours and had 10 years added on to his sentence.

  • “Slick Willie” Sutton was one of the escapees, and he claimed he was the mastermind behind the plan.

  • The tunnel started from cell #68 in cellblock 7.

  • They worked in pairs, 30 minutes at a time, using spoons and cans that they had flattened to dig.

  • The opening to the tunnel was just 31 inches wide.

  • Among the escapees was Frederick “The Angel” Tenuto, the mob hit man, who wasn’t recaptured until two months later, when he was discovered in Brooklyn

  • The embarrassing debacle lead to the resignation of Warden Smith.

  • As these inmates were recaptured, they were moved to cellblock 13 -- the “punishment block” -- where Sutton held a hunger strike in retaliation.

  • Inmates caught planning their escape were punished with fewer food rations and being moved to dark cells.

  • Those who managed to escape and were recaptured were given longer sentences as well.


Decline of the Pennsylvania System

  • As part of their solitude, inmates at Eastern State Pen were not allowed to have any contact with the outside world, either in the form of letters, visits from family, or newspapers.

  • By the 1830s and 1840s, the civility of this approach began to come into question.

  • Charles Dickens wrote of his visit in 1842:

  • “...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 System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…

  • And though he lives to be in the same cell ten weary years, he has no means of knowing, down to the very last hour, in what part of the building it is situated; what kind of men there are about him; whether in the long winter night there are living people near, or he is in some lonely corner of the great jail, with walls, and passages, and iron doors between him and the nearest sharer in its solitary horrors.”

  • Interestingly, Dickens also wrote that he saw many prisoners who were allowed to keep pets -- including rabbits, birds, and cats -- in their cells.

  • The prison was investigated multiple times, starting in 1834, for failing to adhere to the Pennsylvania System. In particular, the punishment of prisoners was looked into.

  • For years, there were allegations of guards abusing prisoners despite plans for the two groups to rarely interact.

  • The cost of this style of solitary confinement was becoming prohibitive, and it still wasn’t clear that this approach was even effective.

  • And while many of the earlier prisoners served relatively short terms for less-serious crimes, by the 1860s, there were reports of longer average sentences and more serious crimes -- which meant greater lengths of time spent in solitary. (Pg 401)

  • Over the decades, the system of instituting total solitude for prisoners was enforced less and less; for example, there are records of baseball teams at the penitentiary as early as 1909.

  • Some inmates had to double up in cells as early as 1866 as the prison became overcrowded.

  • After that, rules regarding letter correspondence and family visits were relaxed.

  • The Pennsylvania System officially ended in 1913.


Later Years & Cellblock 13

  • Additional multi-story cellblocks 8 through 12 were added between 1877 and 1911.

  • Cellblock 13 was finished by 1926.

  • It consisted of 10 solitary cells that were unlit and poorly ventilated.

  • This was the punishment block, sometimes called “Klondike” or “the hole”.

  • The cells are said to measure just 4 ft x 8 ft and 8 ft tall.

  • Block 13 was closed in 1959 after Block 15 opened to take its place, following an investigation committee’s recommendation that the prison cease to use the solitary cells

  • Inmates were kept inside these solitary cells for up to 30 days as punishment.

  • They did have a radiator inside for heat, but it’s said that these were sometimes turned on full-blast to further punish inmates.

  • In the 1920s, some inmates were offered plastic surgery to reportedly make them seem friendlier to society. (Unknown whether any inmates went for it.)

  • By 1926, there were over 1,700 inmates at Eastern State.

  • The prison’s own reports seem to vary, but there would have been anywhere from 844 to 885 cells available at this point.

  • In 1929, a film was produced for the penitentiary’s 100th anniversary. It shows some of the changes made to the prison since the solitary system eroded, such as a huge bakery and kitchens staffed 24/7 by inmates, inmates filling the yards, workshops (where they labored and made crafts), and a large communal dining area built where the private exercise yards had once been. The first communal dining halls opened there in January of 1924. Two or three inmates were now housed in each cell.

  • In 1933, inmates rioted against overcrowding by setting fire to cells.

  • In 1934, a riot over low wages also lead to fires (started by shorting electrical outlets). In the 1930s, the penitentiary held roughly 1,800 inmates at once.

  • During WW2, some inmates did work for the War Protection Board, fashioning model ships and making tent pegs.

  • State legislature first proposed abandoning Eastern State in 1945.

  • In 1953, the institution’s name was changed from Eastern State Penitentiary to State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia (SCI-PHA for short).

  • In 1956, Death Row (aka Cellblock Fifteen), was the last major addition built on to what was now a complex of buildings. By now, there were about 1,000 cells within the prison.

  • Note: No prisoners were put to death at ESP; they were transferred when the time came.

  • By the 1960s, the prison was falling into disrepair.

  • The prison’s largest riot ever, in January 1961, lasted hours and required additional help from police and state troopers.

  • It began with 30 inmates, who beat guards and released other inmates being kept in the punishment block.

  • The prisoners planned to escape in a vehicle stolen from the garage. However, “Operation Breakout” was initiated by authorities, who used tear gas and billy clubs to subdue the inmates.

  • The prison was deemed a National Historic Landmark in 1965, while still operating.

  • The penitentiary closed in January 1970. It did briefly house county prisoners again from 1970-1971 following a riot at the county prison.

  • It’s estimated that about 80,000 inmates in total served at ESP over the years.

  • From 1971 until the mid-1980s, the grounds were abandoned except for the caretaker and the occasional visit by vandals. The penitentiary became damaged and overgrown.

  • Daily tours began in 1994 and still operate today.

  • These tours have in part been funded by an annual Halloween fundraiser, first started in 1991, called Terror Behind the Walls.

  • In 2003, an audio tour narrated by Steve Buscemi was introduced.

  • Now, some of the tour guides are former inmates. (Of other prisons, not of ESP)


Madness and Death at ESP

Despite the idealistic vision behind it, the solitary confinement approach may have actually exacerbated madness, suicide attempts, and death among the inmates at Eastern State Penitentiary.

  • Modern studies suggest the psychological effects of long-term isolation can include anxiety, insomnia, panic disorders, paranoia, aggression, and depression, among other mental health issues.

  • Living without human interaction for long periods can make reintegration into society much more difficult and has been proven to precipitate new crimes after release.

  • During his visit to ESP, Charles Dickens also wrote of meeting and observing those who were released from prison after living in isolation:

  • “When they get outside the gate, they stop, and look first one way and then the other: not knowing which to take. Sometimes they stagger as if they were drunk, and sometimes are forced to lean against the fence, they’re so bad:—but they clear off in course of time.”

  • And, of one inmate who had been a sailor: “why does he stare at his hands and pick the flesh open, upon the fingers, and raise his eyes for an instant . . . to those bare walls…?”(Pg 341)

  • In May of 1831, there is record of Prisoner #10 being put in a straight jacket and given no food or drink for three days upon suspicion of insanity. (Pg 379)

  • The 18th annual report of ESP from 1847 reported that, out of an average of 326 prisoners in 1846 there were 11 deaths; 1 from insanity. (Pgs 49 - 56)

  • FYI 3 were from scrofula (a form of tuberculosis) and 2 were from something called “ditto of bowels” which I am only *guessing* is like dysentary

  • Nine cases of insanity were reported that year as well

  • However, the report suggests that those who went mad were predisposed to do so for one reason or another and maintains the success of the solitary confinement system.

  • The 1879 report counted 52 inmates “to be of unsound mind” including “Violent subjects whose minds are wholly under a cloud”

  • However, this report still maintains that isolation is not what is causing the madness

  • An inmate incarcerated at ESP in the 1800s wrote, “In the gloomy solitude of a sullen cell there is not one redeeming principle. There is but one step between the prisoner and insanity.”

  • In fact, the signs of troubles with the solitary confinement method began to arise just a few years after the prison opened.

  • In Germany, where prisons had been modeled after the Pennsylvania System, 37 scholarly articles were published between 1854 and 1909 on psychotic disturbances found in prisoners. (Pg 367 - 368)

  • They determined that solitary confinement was the most influential factor in the alarming rates of mental instability and disease they were experiencing.

  • These studies found that prolonged isolation could cause vivid hallucinations, persecutory delusions (in which one believes harm is occurring to them or will occur), and maniacal and suicidal outbreaks.

  • Additionally, many of the studies noted rapid recovery from these symptoms soon after being released from prison.


Deaths At ESP

  • Over 1,000 entries were recorded in The Death Ledger, which documented which inmates died and by what cause in the years that Eastern State was operating.

  • One of the youngest inmates ever to stay at Eastern State was 11-year-old Mary Ash, convicted of arson. She died two years later, in 1876, of tuberculosis, a common killer of prisoners. She was the youngest person to die at ESP.

  • There was an unusually high number of deaths at Eastern State in 1881 and 1882, particularly due to the spread of tuberculosis.

  • Additionally in 1881, one inmate committed suicide after murdering his cellmate.

  • There were two inmate suicides recorded in 1882, committed by two men sentenced at the same time as vagrants.

  • On February 5th, 1940, an inmate named Joseph Havel used scissors to stab and kill his cellmate, George Kopp, in the night. This occurred in cell 49, B8.


Severe Punishment

There were instances of severe punishment when prisoners did not comply with the separate system by talking or acting out.

  • Some punishments included reduced food portions or less time outside. But there were other, far more severe forms of punishment, too.

  • In addition to the dark cells of block 13, there are tales of much more severe punishment and torture of the inmates at the hands of the guards. These included:

  • In the winter, inmates were dunked in a bath and hung up on a wall so that ice formed on their skin.

  • In the mad chair, prisoners would be bound so tightly that their circulation was cut off -- which sometimes left them permanently injured and, some say, led to amputation in some cases

  • An iron gag secured to an inmate’s mouth, ripping the tongue and mouth, while hands were tied behind the back

  • On the morning of June 27th, 1833, a 44-year-old prisoner by the name of Mathias Maccumsey was tortured with the iron gag for talking.

  • An iron bit roughly an inch square was placed in Maccumsey’s mouth. It was fastened in place by chains around the neck and secured the arms high behind the back in a very painful manner. The design was such that dropping the arms to relieve pressure would force the gag further into the mouth.

  • Maccumsey died as a result; it was ruled that he died of apoplexy, in this case likely meaning severe bleeding of a cavity or organ.


Ghosts of Eastern State Pen

Those who run the penitentiary and tours today say that it is not haunted. In fact, those in charge today are kinda sensitive to not exploiting or making fun of the prison’s darker past and the pasts of those who lived within its walls.

  • However, there are some who believe that Eastern State Penitentiary is one of the most haunted spots in America.

  • There are countless stories from visitors over the years, and even inmates and guards, dating as far back as the 1940s, when the prison was still in operation.

  • For instance, a shadowy figure has also spotted atop one of the guard towers, looking out over the yard.

  • According to a previous tour guide at ESP, a photo taken in cell block 2 curiously showed what seemed to be a full-body apparition that even she, a skeptic, could not explain.


Cellblock 4: Locksmith Gary Johnson has said that, in the 1990s, he was in cellblock 4 and had just unlocked it when something gripped him so tightly he was unable to move. According to Johnson, a negative force emanated from the cell, and he saw tormented faces along the walls -- one of which beckoned for him to come closer.Note: This story seems to have changed over the years, but this is the creepiest version and the one NPR has.

Cellblock 6: Shadowy figures are said to roam cellblock 6. There have been multiple reports from people who say they’ve seen people disappear into cells in cellblock 6 -- and by the time they catch up, nobody is there.

Cellblock 12: Voices and high-pitched laughter have been reported coming from an empty cellblock 12. In particular, a cackling laugh has been heard. Tour guides have reported that the cell doors on the third floor of cellblock 12 seemingly open by themselves when nobody is looking. In an episode of Ghost Hunters, the crew believed they spotted something moving in cellblock 12.

Death Row (Cellblock 15):Whispers have been heard emanating from the cells in death row as you walk past.Witnesses claim they’ve seen a shadowy figure running.

Al Capone’s Cell: As mentioned above, Capone came to Eastern State Penitentiary a few months after the Valentine’s Day Massacre (It was a failed attempt to take out Bugs Moran that left 7 men dead.) -- which he was never convicted of, but which most believe Capone masterminded.

  • One of those men, Albert Kachellek, was also known as James “Jimmy” Clark.

  • Capone’s contemporaries inside Eastern State reported hearing him screaming and begging for someone named Jimmy to get out and to leave him alone.

  • However, if Capone was haunted by the ghost of Jimmy Clark, it supposedly followed him to Alcatraz years later, after Capone was found guilty of tax evasion.

  • Also note that the exact location of Capone’s cell is unknown. It seems the prison may have dressed a cell like Capone’s, but that’s not necessarily the cell he stayed in.

The Infirmary

  • Some say a sense of unease falls over them while in the infirmary, as if being watched by some unseen force.

  • Voices and screams have reportedly been heard coming from the infirmary.

  • Others have heard sounds of sobbing and people crying out in pain.

Miscellaneous

Haunted Hot Spots
  • Apparently the vortex described by the locksmith happened at one of the doors between the private exercise areas and the baseball field

  • Cell Block 12 last cell on the right on the catwalk, a figure walks out

  • There is said to be a photo captured of a full bodied apparition in cell block 2 on the east side as described by a former tour guide who is a skeptic. (it’s at the end of the post)