Just outside Philadelphia, PA, Eastern State Penitentiary is an eerie must-see for anyone visiting the City of Brotherly Love...
Tucked into the Fairmount neighborhood just outside downtown Philadelphia sits a now-closed prison so famous, so historic, hundreds of other prisons are based on its design. Welcome to Pennsylvania’s Eastern State Penitentiary, one of the most haunting spots in all of Philly. (Photo gallery at end of post)
Closed in the 1970s, the prison that once housed notorious criminals such as Al Capone now welcomes guests throughout the year for daytime tours, special events, and even some truly terrifying ghost hunts. We stopped by on a cold December morning to check it out, and we’re here to tell you it lives up to the hype as one of the coolest places you can visit in Philadelphia.
For $14, the price is right for admission to a place you could easily spend an entire day exploring. Throw in the $2 coupon available online or on the back of their brochures found all around town, and you just can’t beat the value. (They also host special events, etc. Check out their website.)
After paying admission, you’ll also get a headset for the impeccably-produced guided tour narrated by none other than Con-Air convict and Boardwalk Empire kingpin Steve Buscemi along with former inmates, guards, and other notable people.
What you’ll see:
Considered a “preserved ruin,” the prison has an eerie abandoned feeling that makes for phenomenally creepy photographs. Walls are left in their crumbling state and remnants of the prison that was once are scattered throughout the buildings.
In addition to seeing several cell blocks, you’ll also find art installations all over the place- several made by current or former prisoners from around the country.
Of course, you’ll also see Al Capone’s cell, restored to as it was when he was at Eastern State in 1929. (More on that later)
Overall, the majority of the penitentiary is open for general admission visitors to enjoy. While visiting, you should also check the times for the “Hands-On History” experiences. Lasting only about 5 minutes, these little experiences let you do things like open cells and tour portions not accessible by yourself. These are included in your admission price, which is fantastic.
History of Eastern State Penitentiary
Not too long after America won its independence, a who's who of Philadelphians gathered at Benjamin Franklin’s home and started working on a plan to build a prison unlike any other in the world. Thirty years later, their dream became a reality when Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829. One of the most expensive buildings of its day, the prison became the gold standard of prison design and over 300 prisons would follow its lead. Also unique was the prison’s emphasis on rehabilitation, a radical idea for the time. The emphasis on repentance even led to the creation of the term “penitentiary,” for certain prisons.
Unfortunately, solitary “reflection” was key to the new focus on rehabilitation, and it took several decades for the harmful practice to finally be phased out at Eastern as those in charge slowly abandoned the thought one needed to be separated to be rehabilitated.
The penitentiary’s main 7-spoke design of cell blocks saw additions over the years with the final cell block, “Death Row,” being completed in the late 1950s. (Eastern State only held prisoners here, no executions took place on the prison grounds.)
By the 1960s, Eastern State Penitentiary was outdated and antiquated and eventually closed in 1971. The prison sat vacant and overgrown until 1994 when it reopened for historic tours.
Famous inmates of Eastern State
Like any famous prison, Eastern State has seen its fair share of famous prisoners. Most infamous, of course, is legendary gangster Al Capone who spent the better part of 1929 at Eastern on a weapons charge. His cell, however, wasn’t quite your standard cell. Decked out with rugs and even a radio, Capone hardly did “hard” time here. (More on Capone's time at ESP)
Another famous inmate, Willie Sutton gained a reputation for not only his life of crime on the outside but his escape attempt while on the inside. From Eastern State Penitentiary:
One of the most famous bank robbers in American History, "Slick" Willie spent 11 years at Eastern State Penitentiary. In 1945 Sutton, along with 11 other prisoners, escaped from Eastern State in an inmate dug tunnel that went almost 100 feet underground. Sutton was recaptured just minutes later. Over the course of his criminal career Sutton is credited with over 50 bank robberies, 3 successful escapes from prison, and over 30 years served behind bars. He died in 1980.
Is it haunted?
For the past few decades, Eastern has become a favorite site for paranormal investigators. The prison is so popular, they offer a regular program for any group wishing to ghost-hunt in the premises.
But is it really haunted?
Well, it’s safe to say it may be the most “studied” building in the country in terms of paranormal activity, and you can watch/listen to all sorts of haunting stories on their website. Guards and inmates have been reporting hauntings at the prison as far back as the 1940s. When you tour the place, you can see why it could give some people a spooky feeling.
With a price tag that’s plenty affordable and a location convenient to downtown Philadelphia, Eastern State Penitentiary is a must-see for anyone visiting. If you’re a history buff, give yourself at least 2-3 hours to explore the grounds.