The mossy walls and gloomy turrets of this imposing fortress loom over Philadelphia’s skyline. This former prison, now empty and in ruin, is a grim reminder of days gone by. Although some cells have been restored and are open for tours, most of this Gothic wonder sits empty as it slowly falls to pieces.
Built in 1829 by architect John Haviland in Gothic revival style, ESP was America’s first solitary system prison, a confinement system soon adopted at 300 prisons worldwide. The floor plan of ESP is radial, with 15 cell blocks, most of which are 2 stories. The system that the prison originally ran on relied on keeping each prisoner isolated as a form of rehabilitation. Individual cells were enclosed by heavy metal and wooden doors that blocked noise. Each cell had a separate garden with high walls, and no neighboring prisoners were in the yard at the same time. Each cell had one small window where sunlight shown down, representing the Eye of God. The corridors in the prison were built to resemble a church to remind prisoners that God was watching. Despite the solitary atmosphere, the prison was relatively advanced, and each cell had running water and heat. Still, the original 250-cell prison became overcrowded quickly, and inmates were subjected to dark, filthy, unventilated living conditions before massive reforms took place in the 20th century. Prisoners were led out of their cells with a bag over their head, so no other inmate could recognize them, and guards could view each individual cell through secret peepholes. However, prisoners still found ways to communicate through the pipes of the sewers that ran between the cells, and the system had to be redesigned several times.
In 1913, the prison ended the solitary housing system due to overcrowding. Solitary confinement was still used as a punishment, however, most often in the form of the Hole. The Hole was a cell block dug under cell block 14, where prisoners sat in complete darkness with no human contact and little food for up to 2 weeks. This was only one of the many methods of torture utilized at ESP. Prisoners were often dunked with ice water in the cold winter months and hung on an outdoor wall until ice formed on the skin, or strapped tightly to chairs with no food for multiple days until their lack of blood circulation and malnutrition led to insanity. The worst of these punishments was the iron gag, which attached a prisoner’s tongue to his wrists, and any movement would cause the tongue to tear.
Cell block 15 was where the worst prisoners were kept, and guards were restricted from going there. It was known as “Death Row,” but any prisoners set for execution were shipped somewhere besides the prison to be executed. Still, plenty of deaths did occur at the prison in the forms of murders and suicides.
The prison closed in 1970, and by 1994 ESP had been partially restored and opened for public tours.
Al “Scarface” Capone-The infamous mob boss spent 8 months at ESP in 1929-1930 for carrying a concealed weapon. He was given a luxurious cell with oriental rugs, a radio, and furniture.
“Slick” Willie Sutton-This bank robber spent 11 years at ESP. Sutton is famous for his 3 prison escapes, one of which took place at ESP on April 3, 1945. Sutton and 11 other prisoners dug a secret tunnel under the cell blocks and escaped. Sutton was recaptured only minutes after making it outside.
Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog”- Prisoner # C2559 was ESP’s only canine inmate. He was sentenced to life after killing former PA Governor Gifford Pinchot’s wife’s beloved cat. His stay brought morale and companionship to the other inmates.
Clarence Alexander Rae-Incarcerated at ESP in 1916 for kidnapping a young boy, Rae became somewhat famous after publishing a book of poems he wrote while behind bars. They are said to be one of the earliest first-hand accounts of prison life, and the poems are considered an exemplary example of the uniquely American genre of the “prison/captivity narrative.” It is highly recommended that you read his book: “A Tale of a Walled Town.” Rae was eventually incarcerated again, somewhat ironically, for stealing books.
Terror Behind the Walls-This annual attraction consists of mostly low-gore walk-throughs of different haunted houses. It is somewhat based on the fact that ESP is known to be haunted.
Bastille Day-ESP runs its owns version of this French national holiday. It includes a somewhat comedic reenactment of the Storming of the Bastille on July 14. It involves Marie Antoinette and others throwing Tastykakes at the Parisian militia from the towers while shouting “Let them eat Tastykake!” Tastykakes are manufactured in Philadelphia.
Although those who run the prison now like to downplay the hauntings, ESP is visited by dozens of paranormal teams every year, and the prison is considered one of the most haunted places in America.
One of the witnesses to the paranormal activity was Al Capone himself. He claimed to have often been harassed by the spirit of James Clark, a victim of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Vast amounts of paranormal activity have been reported at ESP. The apparition of a guard is seen; at least two guards were murdered at ESP while it was still in operation. People report feeling uneasy and overwhelmed by tragic thoughts. Anguished faces are seen and shadow figures run across the walls. Disembodied whispering and weeping is the most frequently reported activity. Almost every paranormal investigation at ESP has yielded evidence.
Perhaps it the spirits of the hundreds of thousands of prisoners who were physically and psychologically tortured behind the dark walls of Eastern State Penitentiary.
I’ve always loved Fantasy. The maps, particularly drew me in. I loved learning the geography of a new world, the customs of it’s people, how everything worked–it’s always fascinated me. Whether or not there’s magic in the world I’m reading about, the creation of an entirely new world has always been magical to me.