Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829. The Quakers of the Pennsylvania region felt that in place of punishment those convicted of a crime should be rehabilitated and reformed through the utilization of solitary confinement practices. For monks solitary confinement was practiced in order to help them reflect upon their lives and thus become closer with God. It was the Quakers belief that it could provide the same results for inmates convicted of criminal acts and sentenced to serve time behind bars.
The Eastern State Penitentiary was built to accommodate 250 prisoners in solitary confinement. Each prisoner had their own room of which they were confined for 23 out of 24 hours a day. Though the Quaker’s intentions were benevolent it was the actions of the guards and those supervising the facility that turned the prison into an eerie torture chamber. Inhumane and unspeakably torturous punishments were visited upon the prisoners of Eastern State Penitentiary. It was a place of great misery, emotional distress, pain, and death…the perfect breeding ground for ghostly activity.
In 1913 at a very popular time in its history Eastern State Penitentiary abandoned its solitary confinement policy as it began packing 1700 prisoners into overcrowded cells. From 1829 to 1913 the Pennsylvania System controlled the prison generating some of the most appalling conditions recorded in American history. Charles Dickens actually visited the facility in the 1840’s and was so disgusted by the levels of cruelty and mistreatment suffered by the prisoners at the hands of their captors that he wrote about it openly.
Word spread about the outlandish conditions of the prison. As a result the prison was removed from the soon-to-be dissolved Pennsylvania System’s control and reformed in 1913. In 1971 the prison was officially shut down for good.
During its rein as a solitary confinement facility prisoners were not allowed to communicate with other prisoners or guards. Even uttering words aloud to themselves was strictly forbidden. Many men once sane quickly slipped into madness. They were locked in their cells for all but one hour a day, wearing black hoods over their heads during those times they were allowed to venture outside. The purpose of this act was to eliminate communication between prisoners and guards. It also served to keep them disoriented in order to discourage and prevent successful escape attempts. It was reported that guards wore socks on their shoes so as to muffle any potential noise indicating their presence.
Severe punishments included the water bath, the mad chair, the iron gag, and the hole. The water bath consisted of dunking prisoners in baths of ice cold water and then stringing them up so that they were suspended from the prison wall. They were left hanging for the entire night. During the winter months layers of ice would form upon their skin.
The mad chair had tight leather straps that restrained movement. The straps would be fastened so tightly that they cut off circulation to a majority of the body. In conjunction with that the inmates would often go days without food. Their skin would turn purple from lack of circulation and in many cases was known to drive men mad.
The iron gag was one of the most deadly of the punishments used by the guards at the prison. Death could result from significant blood loss. This severe punishment was often implemented when the no communication rule was violated. An inmate guilty of this crime was fitted with an iron collar that had an iron mouth piece which clamped down on the offender’s tongue. The collar was then attached by a chain to his wrists and his arms were strapped high behind his back so that any movement of his hands or arms would cause the clamp to tear into the flesh of the tongue causing it to bleed. Too much movement would result in severe tearing and bleeding of the tongue. In this case an inmate could potentially die before his torment had reached an end. There is at least one documented case of a prisoner bleeding to death from this practice but others are suspected.
The hole was a large, underground pit dug under cell block #14. The most disruptive and defiant of prisoners were placed here sometimes for weeks on end. It was filled with cockroaches and rats. There was no light, no circulating air, and only a slice of bread and some water would be tossed down to the inmate. In the pitch blackness the prisoner had to pray that they got to these items before the rats and roaches. As a result of these conditions there was a high incidence of disease.
Incidents of paranormal activity within Eastern State Penitentiary began when it was still operating as a prison. Al Capone, one of the more famous residents of this prison, was reported to have been haunted by the ghost of James Clark, one of the men he murdered during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago. Capone had been convicted of illegal weapons possession in 1929 and incarcerated at Eastern State Penitentiary. Other inmates swore that they heard Capone pleading every night with James (“Jimmy”) Clark to leave him alone. According to some of his close confidantes the ghost of “Jimmy” followed him outside those prison walls and haunted him long after his release from prison.
Other reported hauntings include a shy, skittish shadowy figure that scurries away when someone gets too close, the figure of what is thought to be a guard in the guard tower, and evil cackling and whispering has been heard in cell block #12. Cell block #6 supposedly houses another shadow figure that slides down the wall. Cell block #4 exhibits ghostly faces on its walls. There are many reports of weeping, whispering, and even giggling emerging from within the prison walls when there is no one else around. The majority of the spirits that roam the prison grounds are reported to give off an angry, malevolent vibe. Very few seem to portray a benevolent or non-threatening presence.
With the overwhelming levels of misery, pain, anger, and madness that have tainted the prison over its years of operation it is no wonder it is considered one of the most haunted places in the world. Psychological and physical torture was so intense and brutal it is no surprise that spiritual activity is suspected to linger here. The Eastern State Penitentiary is a national historic site open to tours by the public. Whether you are a true believer or a skeptic the torturous and tragic past of Eastern State Penitentiary lends an undeniable eerie aura to this historical site.