The first time I had ever heard of the Eastern State Penitentiary was on an episode of Ghost Adventures a few years ago. I’m a life-long Boston girl who had never been to Philadelphia before, so I really didn’t know anything about Philly other than the fact that Rocky ran up some stairs there. But over the past few years I have seen a few other ghost hunting type shows that were filmed there, so when I knew that I was going to be spending a few days in Philly last month, the ESP was on my short list of places to go see.
Each year approximately 60 paranormal investigation teams explore the site, capturing extensive evidence of ghosts within the penitentiary walls. There were never any executions carried out at Eastern State, but over the years, the prison was home to its fair share of murders. In addition to many inmates that were killed there, at least two guards were murdered as well. Hundreds of others prisoners died from disease and/or old age. Admittedly, I really, really wanted to have a paranormal experience there the day I visited. Sadly, I didn’t, but touring the grounds was by far the highlight of my two days in Philadelphia.
The Eastern State Penitentiary was operational from 1829 until 1971. Today it stands in ruin. As you walk through the facility, you’ll see nothing but crumbling cell-blocks and empty guard towers.
When it opened in 1829, the prison was designed to hold 253 prisoners, each occupying a solitary cell for their entire sentence. Eastern State’s revolutionary system of incarceration, called the “Pennsylvania system”encouraged separate confinement that was intended as a form of rehabilitation, not just punishment. It was thought that if the inmates had time to reflect on their crimes, they would feel remorse and change. As it turns out, it just ended up driving many of the prisoners insane.
Convicts spent 23 hours a day locked in isolation cells. The other hour, the prisoners spent outdoors, alone, with leather bags over their heads. Guards wore socks over their shoes to hear any attempts to communicate between cells.
The solitary confinement system eventually collapsed due to overcrowding problems at the prison and today the Eastern State Penitentiary operates as a museum and historic site, open year-round. Visitors are allowed to walk into several specially marked solitary confinement cells, but most of them remain off limits and filled with original rubble and debris from years of neglect.
When we first entered the Eastern State Penitentiary, we were given the option to take “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour (included with admission). The four of us all decided to take our mp3 players and headsets and let Steve Buscemi, the audio tour narrator guide us through the penitentiary complex and tell us about the prison’s history.
One of Eastern State’s most notable inmates was Al Capone. Chicago’s most famous mob boss spent eight months at Eastern State in 1929-1930. His stay at Eastern State was actually his first prison sentence and he was arrested for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon. His time in Eastern State was spent in relative luxury. His cell on the Park Avenue Block had fine furniture, oriental rugs, and a cabinet radio.
Eastern State Penitentiary is open every day 10 am to 5 pm (last entry 4 pm).
Admission is $14 for adults, $12 for seniors, and $10 for students and kids (7-12). The tour is not recommended for children under the age of seven (some of the audio tour stops contain adult content, but don’t worry, they are marked so you will know when they come up).
The boys were also given a scavenger hunt so that they could search for things throughout the prison complex as they walked around. There were quite a few things for the kids to find, so they lost interest after about 10 things.
Eastern State Penitentiary is open rain or shine, and the building does not have climate control. We were there on a 90 degree day and believe me, we felt it. If you plan on visiting, dress for the weather – it’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Oh, and be sure to wear appropriate footwear.
The Eastern State Penitentiary is located at 2027 Fairmount Avenue in Philadelphia, PA 19130!
**Disclosure: My family and I received complimentary admission to tour the Eastern State Penitentiary, but I would have gladly paid because it was such an amazing experience. All opinions expressed here are strictly my own and were not influenced in any way.