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Haunted Places: Eastern State Penitentiary, PA

Updated on July 9, 2012
Diagram of the pentagon model of prison architecture, designed to segregate and confine inmates 24 hours a day
Diagram of the pentagon model of prison architecture, designed to segregate and confine inmates 24 hours a day

If you've ever seen the episode of "Ghost Hunters" on SciFi where they visit Eastern State Penitentiary, you'll recall the shadowy figure they caught on video up on the catwalk. Apparently this particular catwalk, like a number of other locations within the prison, is a hotbed of paranormal activity. When my mother, my sister and I visited the penitentiary in 2004, we caught not one, but two EVPs (electronic voice phenomenon) in the exact same spot. We were up by ourselves on the stairs that lead to the (now closed off) catwalk, snapping a few photos, when a voice came through sternly instructing us, "You don't have to take a damn picture." Just moments later, the same voice manifested again, this time forlornly stating, "I'm lonely..."

Eastern State Penitentiary, located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, was built in 1829 and designed to hold 250 prisoners, but was estimated to have held up to 1,700 at it's height in 1913. Built on the pentagon prison model, Eastern State has five wings which all extend outwards from a central point, similar to a wagon wheel. Believing that criminal activity was a product of one's environment, the building's structure sought to rehabilitate inmates through "confinement in solitude with labor." The prison is best known for housing famous mobster Al Capone in 1929, who insisted he was haunted by the ghost of James Clark, the brother-in-law of Capone's rival, murdered in the St. Valentine's Day massacre. Fellow inmates reported hearing Capone screams nightly, begging "Jimmy" to go away and leave him alone.

After it closed in 1970, Eastern State was virtually abandoned for 21 years, until it was selected for historic preservation and reconstruction began in 1991. Although it is open during the day for guide-led or self-led tours, Eastern State is also available at night for the hardcore ghost hunters willing to pay $10 each for a private, orvernight investigation. The only downside is you must have a minimum of 20 people in your group in order to gain access to the building overnight, which is offered only on selected days in September, October and November.

As early as the 1940s employees and prisoners alike began reporting unusual activity within the prison's walls. But by now the sightings have increased a hundredfold. In 1951, the prison began to house more violent criminals such as murderers and rapists and this fact, combined with the prison's history of using physical torture as a form of punishment, have both contributed to it's being haunted. In addition to the catwalk I mentioned above, voices, laughter and cackling have also been heard in the restricted Cellblock 12 area. Other active areas include Cellblock 6, where shadowy figures have been seen against the walls, and Cellblock 4, where ghostly faces have been spotted. Visitors have reported hearing footsteps in the long, dark corridors and wails that seem to originate from the secluded cells.

One of the most popular ghost stories comes from a locksmith named Gary Johnson who was at the prison to do some restoration work on a particular cell door when he had the sudden feeling that he was being watched. When he finally turned around, he witnessed a large, black shadow jump out of a nearby cell and leap into the cell across from it. Another common ghost sighting takes place in a guard tower high atop the prison's confining brick walls. The figure is thought to be some former prison guard, destined to stand watch over his wards for eternity. While some paranormal encounters give the spectator a sense of peace and benevolence, the spirits at Eastern State are usually angry and malevolent.


View from the catwalk of the now restricted two-story Cellblock 12
View from the catwalk of the now restricted two-story Cellblock 12 | Source
Stairs leading up to the catwalk where we caught the EVPs
Stairs leading up to the catwalk where we caught the EVPs | Source
Al Capone's cell restored to it's original state
Al Capone's cell restored to it's original state | Source
Courtyard watchtower where a figure, possibly a former guard, has been spotted
Courtyard watchtower where a figure, possibly a former guard, has been spotted | Source

"Night Visitors" take on Eastern State


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