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Philadelphia's Historic Eastern State Penitentiary

Updated on December 27, 2014
cam8510 profile image

Chris enjoys photographing the places he visits. He shares these photos as travel articles and also mixes them with creative writing.

Entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Entrance to Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA, USA | Source

Eastern State Penitentiary on Halloween

(From ESP website)

"Terror Behind the Walls" Haunted House

A massive haunted house in a real prison! Called “One of America’s Scariest Halloween Attractions” by The Travel Channel and consistently ranked among the top 10 haunted attractions in the country. All proceeds benefit historic preservation at this National Historic Landmark.

Music Videos and Films Made at Eastern State Penitentiary

One of the Living, 1985 with Tina Turner (Music Video)

Punk Rock Girl, The Dead Milkmen 1988 (Music Video)

12 Monkeys, 1995 with Bruce Willis and Brad Pitt (Film)

Return to Paradise, 1998 with Vince Vaughn and Anne Heche (Film)

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2009 with Shia LaBeouf and Megan Fox. (Film)

Crazy, 2010 Whitney Peyton (Music Video)

Eastern State Penitentiary, a Great Place to Visit in Philadelphia

Of all the historic places to visit in the city of Philadelphia, it might seem strange that I am suggesting a prison. A tour of historic Eastern State Penitentiary is just that awesome. I'm working temporarily in Philadelphia and have lots of time to get around and see the sites in this city that features Independence Hall, The Liberty Bell, Congress Hall, Carpenters Hall and world class museum after world class museum. When I first heard about Eastern State Penitentiary and saw photos, I knew I had to grab my camera and go.

If you are visiting Philadelphia in the fall, you might have the opportunity to go over to the prison for their annual haunted house. For Halloween 2013, Forbes rated Philadelphia's "Terror Behind the Walls" at Eastern State Penitentiary in its top ten haunted house attractions in the country. The event runs from late September through early November. Check the website for specific dates. Prices are much better online than at the door.

Eastern State Penitentiary is located in central Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on Fairmount Street between 22nd Street and Corinthian Avenue in the Fairmount section. When it was originally built in 1829, the prison was outside the city, surrounded by farm land. Today Eastern State Penitentiary is in the very heart of the fifth largest urban agglomeration in the United States.

The Front Tower of Eastern State Penitentiary

A view of the front tower from inside the prison walls.  Employees of the prison and their families lived in the tower.
A view of the front tower from inside the prison walls. Employees of the prison and their families lived in the tower. | Source

The founders of Eastern State Penitentiary were Enlightenment thinkers. They were convinced that the conventional method of locking criminals up in common holding pens and punishing them for their unlawful behavior was the wrong way of handling the problem. They believed that the criminal could be reformed, could be made sorry for his crimes by means of isolating him with only the memory of his misconduct to keep him company.

Cell at Eastern State Penitentiary

This ordinary cell at Eastern State Penitentiary exemplifies the isolation of prisoners during the Separate System days.
This ordinary cell at Eastern State Penitentiary exemplifies the isolation of prisoners during the Separate System days. | Source

Two Tiered Cell Block at Eastern State Penitentiary

Source

Directions to Eastern State Penitentiary

A markereastern state penitentiary, philadelphia, pa -
Eastern State Penitentiary, 2027 Fairmount Avenue, Philadelphia, PA 19130, USA
get directions

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Cell Door

Isolation of prisoners in Eastern State Penitentiary was extreme.  There was not even a small window for the doors to these particular cells.
Isolation of prisoners in Eastern State Penitentiary was extreme. There was not even a small window for the doors to these particular cells. | Source

Prison Management and Prisoner Reform at Eastern State Penitentiary

The founders of Eastern State Penitentiary developed a plan for prison management and prisoner reform which became know as the Pennsylvania System or the Separate System. The Separate System of prison management can be described in three steps.

  1. The concept of isolation-According to the plan of the founders, prisoners at Eastern State Penitentiary would be absolutely isolated from one another. They had individual exercise yards and when taken from their cells wore eyeless hoods. Guards were not permitted to talk to the prisoners and knew neither their names nor personal, criminal histories. Originally, the cells did not have doorways connecting to the interior hallway. They had only small windows through which meals were passed three times a day.
  2. The purpose of isolation-The powerful individuals in Philadelphia who embraced the separate system, intended to use it as a means of reforming, not punishing the prisoners. These founders felt that if a person was forced to endure total isolation with the memories of their own criminal behavior, in time they would actually become sorry, or penitent. This was the origin of the word, penitentiary.
  3. The physical structure that would provide and promote isolation-Eastern State Penitentiary sits on 14 acres and resembles a wagon wheel, with the hub being a central observation area and long, narrow cell blocks as spokes radiating outward. A guard could stand in the center of the observation room and by slowly rotating see the full length of each cell block. In keeping with the goal of isolating the prisoners, the fronts of the cells originally had no doors, but only small holes through which food was passed. The unique design of Eastern State Penitentiary has been, and continues to be copied around the world. Over three hundred prisons owe their basic design to Eastern State Penitentiary.

Thumbnail Birdseye views of Eastern State Penitentiary

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Birdseye view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Birdseye view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, USA
Birdseye view of Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, PA, USA | Source
Source

Tips for Your Visit to Eastern State Penitentiary

Clothing
Photography
After the tour
In the winter there is no heat in the prison.
Low light in nearly every area
Parts of the prison are open to visit without being on a tour
Hats
Natural lighting only
Go back to the open areas after your tour
Gloves
Wide angle lens would be helpful in many places
Wander at your own pace
Warm shoes or boots
 
Better photo opportunities with fewer people
Layer with sweater/medium weight coat
 
 

Early History of Eastern State Penitentiary

Founding members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons.  Shown are Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and Bishop William White.  (Photo of display at ESP).
Founding members of the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons. Shown are Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Rush and Bishop William White. (Photo of display at ESP). | Source

Opposing Viewpoints on the Job Eastern State Penitentiary Was Doing

From a report by two French officials to their own government. “Thrown into solitude... [the prisoner] reflects. Placed alone, in view of his crime, he learns to hate it; and if his soul be not yet surfeited with crime, and thus have lost all taste for any thing better, it is in solitude, where remorse will come to assail him.... Can there be a combination more powerful for reformation than that of a prison which hands over the prisoner to all the trials of solitude, leads him through reflection to remorse, through religion to hope; makes him industrious by the burden of idleness.." Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont

Charles Dickens, 1842: In its intention I am well convinced that it is kind, humane, and meant for reformation; but I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing....I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body; and because its ghastly signs and tokens are not so palpable to the eye,... and it extorts few cries that human ears can hear; therefore I the more denounce it, as a secret punishment in which slumbering humanity is not roused up to stay.

Video on the Willie Sutton Tunnel Escape of 1945

Other Prisoner Escapes From Eastern State Penitentiary

Throughout the one hundred forty-two year history of Eastern State Penitentiary, more than one hundred prisoners managed to escape.

The first person to escape was William Hamilton who, in 1832, managed to descend the wall from the warden’s quarters.

Six inmates scaled the wall in 1923. One of the six, Leo Callahan, was never recaptured.

Prisoners on the Loose

In the spring of 1944, cellmates Clarence Klinedinst and William Russell began work on a tunnel originating in their cell. Klinedinst was a plasterer and was working for the prison to repair damaged walls in one of the cells. The two men actually lived in the cell being repaired.

The two prisoners made a small, hidden panel in the wall where they were working and spent the next year constructing a tunnel behind it. They dug down fifteen feet, then horizontally for 97 feet and up 15 feet on the outside of the wall. During the early morning hours of April 3, 1945, Clarence Klinedinst broke through the ground at the corner of 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue.

He returned to the cell to get William Russell who convinced Klinedinst to wait till later in the morning. They waited and were joined by ten other inmates who were on their way to breakfast. One of these was famous bank robber “Slick” Willie Sutton.

The twelve men crawled through the tunnel, crossing an underground stream and surfaced covered with mud. They scattered into the surrounding neighborhood, but most were caught that same day. Willie Sutton was apprehended fifteen minutes and two blocks from the prison.

One escapee was out for eight days but returned to East State Penitentiary on the morning of April 11 and knocked on the gate. He wanted back in because he was hungry. Two others were arrested in New York City three months later. “Slick” Willie Sutton took credit for being in charge of the design and construction of the tunnel, while Clarence Klinedinst remained silent on the subject.

Miscellaneous Thumbnail Photos of Eastern State Penitentiary

Click thumbnail to view full-size
Cell blockCell blockTwo tiered cell blockEarly parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Prisoners were trained in various crafts such as that of cobbler. Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.Cell block
Cell block
Cell block | Source
Cell block
Cell block | Source
Two tiered cell block
Two tiered cell block | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Prisoners were trained in various crafts such as that of cobbler.
Prisoners were trained in various crafts such as that of cobbler. | Source
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor.
Early parts of the prison contained elaborate decor. | Source
Cell block
Cell block | Source

Eastern State Penitentiary, c.1830

Photograph of a painting on display at ESP.   Painting portrays the prison as it appeared around 1830.
Photograph of a painting on display at ESP. Painting portrays the prison as it appeared around 1830. | Source

Famous Prisoner, Al Capone

Photo of display of Al Capone's prison Photo.  c.1929
Photo of display of Al Capone's prison Photo. c.1929 | Source
Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary.
Al Capone's cell at Eastern State Penitentiary. | Source

High Points of the History of Eastern State Penitentiary

  • 1787- The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons met in the home of Benjamin Franklin. They discussed both the theory of reforming criminals and the design of the ideal prison.
  • 1829-Eastern State Penitentiary opened, becoming one of the most expensive buildings in the United States at the time and the most famous prison in the world.
  • 1830s-1840s-Tourists flock to Philadelphia to see the architectural wonder that was Eastern State Penitentiary.
  • 1842-Charles Dickens visited the prison and criticized the practice of isolating prisoners from one another, from guards and from the outside world as an official means of reforming criminals. This method had become known as the Pennsylvania System of prison management or the Separate System.
  • 1840s-1913-The Separate System of prisoner reform slowly eroded.
  • 1870s and 1890s-Cell blocks were added which did not include individual exercise yards. Prisoners in the new cell blocks would exercise together wearing hoods with eye holes.
  • 1905-A workshop was added which allowed prisoners to work on projects in the presence of other prisoners and guards.1909-the inmate operated newspaper known as The Umpire, published a regular roster of scores for the inter-penitentiary baseball league.
  • 1929-Al Capone was arrested for the first time and spent nearly a year in Eastern State Penitentiary.
  • 1945-American bank robber, Willie Sutton, joined eleven other inmates in an attempted escape. Sutton was recaptured within fifteen minutes.
  • 1956-The last major construction project at the prison was the building of Cell Block 15, Death Row.
  • 1960s-Age took its toll on the prison, requiring costly repairs.
  • 1971-Eastern State Penitentiary closed after 142 years of continuous operation.
  • 1980-The city of Philadelphia purchased the penitentiary with the goal of redeveloping the site.
  • 1988-Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned the City to halt redevelopment efforts.
  • 1994-First interpretative guided tours offered by the Pennsylvania Prison Society.
  • 1997-Pennsylvania Prison Society signed 20 year agreement with the City to operate the site.
  • 2001-The agreement was taken over by the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc.
  • Today-The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. continues to offer guided public tours every day of the year except Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years Day.

Exterior Wall and Guardhouse

Exterior wall and guard tower
Exterior wall and guard tower | Source

Silent Film Portraying Eastern State Penitentiary, 1929.

A Great Place to Visit in Philadelphia

Whether you are interested in architecture, the history of prisons, or just want a good scare, A tour of Eastern State Penitentiary is a very satisfying and educational experience.

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    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      favored, actually, it is a very educational tour. Some of the penitentiary has been restored, other parts are still in ruins. I understand that for some it might be an emotional experience. I'm still here in Philly, hello across the river.

    • favored profile image

      Fay Favored 2 years ago from USA

      Although it 's a stones throw across the bridge in NJ I never knew you could visit the penitentiary. Still not sure I would visit. A little bit "dark" for me. Nice job on the review.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Nicole. Thanks for reading and commenting. I've been to ESP in winter and summer. I love photographing the parts still in ruins.

    • Nicole Pellegrini profile image

      Nicole Pellegrini 2 years ago from New Jersey, USA

      Great guide to ESP - one of my favorite unique places to take visitors when they are coming to Philly, especially if they enjoy photography and building ruins. It's interesting to visit during the different seasons of the year as well, as in summer more spaces are open off the tour routes. But it's very haunting and eerie in the wintertime, too.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Deb, ESP really is a unique and interesting place. I've enjoyed seeing it and researching for this article. I look forward to going back in March when they expand their tours. No doubt this place was built to last a very long time. Thanks for stopping by.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 3 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      This sure looks like quite a place and has a lot of history to offer. These stone walls will be standing for a long time to come. Great work!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Eddy, thanks for visiting my hub. This was a fun one to research and a fun place to visit, although much of the history itself is sad. Have a great week.

    • Eiddwen profile image

      Eiddwen 3 years ago from Wales

      A great hub with just the right photos to balance. Thanks for sharing.

      Eddy.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi Mari, I'll ask no questions about prison. Thanks for stopping by and reading.

    • profile image

      dragonflycolor 3 years ago

      I've been a few prisons (never mind why) and this one has got to be the most creepy looking. I love it, great hub!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Ruby, I can't fault you for that. It is a sobering experience. Yet the architecture and history are alluring. Thanks for reading the article.

    • always exploring profile image

      Ruby Jean Fuller 3 years ago from Southern Illinois

      An eye opening presention for sure. A place i wouldn't want to visit. Complete isolation is soo cruel, my opinion. Great article!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Ann, The confinement was made even more intense by the nature of the cells. They could not be more cave-like. One hole in the ceiling for light and a hole for food to be passed through. That was the confines of their lives. I agree with you, I would have gone mad. Thanks for reading and commenting.

    • annart profile image

      Ann Carr 3 years ago from SW England

      Looks very grim, as do most prisons I suppose. Can't imagine what it must have been like to be in solitary confinement all the time; would've driven me mad I'm sure. I understand the philosophy but can't see how it could work! On the other hand, it might do some of the murderers these days, who get every luxury under the sun plus educational opportunities, some good to realise what hardship means.

      This is a most interesting hub and fascinating history. Ann

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Thank you Christine.

    • profile image

      pochinuk 3 years ago

      Following:

      The boy,with a fresh little brain helped me to understand. He made frequent visits to me there; taught me to look beyond my eye; and use my brain.

      Tunnel visions:

      "...The two prisoners made a small, hidden panel in the wall where they were working and spent the next year constructing a tunnel behind it..."

      I can be a prisoner of my eye, my brain gives an escape from what I think I see, but really is not there at all!

      (Correction on my comment:

      I worked in a place that was formerly a mental institution.)

      "…not so palpable the eye…"

      You quoted from a man who had this concern with the prisoners. Perhaps these place are contemporary icons to keep our brains fresh, alive, and vigorous concerning the guilt of others and how we are to apprehend them.

      Who now is the prisoner trying to get loose?

      When you write, as in your flash fiction, you offer the reader the opportunity to see with their brain-I like that! It comes with your good word choices when documenting your travels.

      Thank you for writing.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Christine, It is possible to walk the halls of Eastern State Penitentiary and see only concrete, wood, steel, plaster and decay. Thank you for reminding us that there is more there than the physical remains of old buildings. Thank for visiting.

    • profile image

      pochinuk 3 years ago

      "…a great place to visit…"

      Everything here transcribes through personal lenses good reasons to go here.

      "… not even a small window…"

      Hard to go: places where hurtful people had to go, ways to keep order, and of course guilt. It's difficult to ignore the fact of what something used to be when you are there: I worked in a former mental institution. A place still under dynamic renovation for living and commerce; a boy once came up to me and said:

      "Did you know there are ghosts in here?"

      I think you give a photo finish for what our minds should think on:

      The Photo: Cell Door

      The Photo: "…ordinary cell…"

      This is art that speaks my nebulous answer to the boy:

      "I will go, and yes, I know there are ghosts."

      Conclusively, your hub takes one

      to The Historic Eastern State Penitentiary.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi purl3agony, nice to meet you. Yes, Eastern State is a great place for photography. It's worth the visit if your out this way.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 3 years ago from USA

      I've heard about Eastern State Penitentiary, but have never been there myself. It seems super creepy, but certainly a great site for taking photographs. It's amazing to see some of these images. Thanks for sharing!!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      FlourishAnyway, Thank you for your enthusiastic comment. I appreciate it. I't's very nice to meet you here.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Phyllis, thank you for stopping by. I'm glad you found the article interesting. Have a great day.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Frank, I think you covered all the bases. I'm glad you enjoyed the article. Thanks for the visit.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Hi vandynegl, Nice to meet you. I just looked up the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville. It looks every bit as creepily interesting as Eastern State. I'm glad you found the article interesting. Have a great day.

    • vandynegl profile image

      vandynegl 3 years ago from Ohio Valley

      This is great information! I would love to be able to visit sometime! There is a penitentiary near where I live and the pictures are somewhat similar. It's the West Virginia State Penitentiary. I can't remember when it closed, but I was able to tour it before it was open to the public. Quite freaky!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      A beautiful mess, you've got to get back over this way and take in ESP. Make it after March though. That's when the tours are extended into more of the facility. Also, it is just plain cold in there right now. Thanks for stopping by.

    • a beautiful mess profile image

      Alex Rose 3 years ago from Virginia

      I almost went there, too! I was in a ghost hunting group that was going on an investigation there.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image

      FlourishAnyway 3 years ago from USA

      What a superb hub! I am definitely pinning this to my "Awesome Places I Want To Visit" board. Voted up +++ and shared, too. What an excellent write up and photos!

    • Phyllis Doyle profile image

      Phyllis Doyle Burns 3 years ago from High desert of Nevada.

      Very interesting hub with in depth information. Well done, cam.

    • Frank Atanacio profile image

      Frank Atanacio 3 years ago from Shelton

      amazing entertaining, educational, historic.. did I miss one? Loved it up and sharing :)

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      John, thanks for taking time to read this article. It is fairly long. The person leading my tour at the prison commented on the cell of Al Capone. There aren't many photos or other sources of information about what the average cell looked like or had in it. They assume Capone's cell was above average though. It does look rather extravagant as the room itself is little more than a cave.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 3 years ago from Queensland Australia

      What an Enthralling hub Cam, and your photos were excellent. I find places like this very interesting, and I am sure it would be the spookiest of ghost houses at Halloween. Looks like Al Capone was treated like royalty in there. Voted up.

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Randi, dank and damp it is. The place was let go from 1971 to the mid 90s. Since then it has been slow progress cleaning things up and making it presentable. I'm glad I was able to see it before they did much more work. There is something special in the rustic look and feel to the place as it is. Thanks for reading.

    • btrbell profile image

      Randi Benlulu 3 years ago from Mesa, AZ

      Interesting story. I don't remember reading much about it. I voted that I would visit there but it even looks dank and damp from your pictures! Great photography, Chris! up+

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      Eric, the founders of this prison were at least attempting to find a more effective way to reform criminals. Alas, I have to agree with Charles Dickens here, "I am persuaded that those who designed this system of Prison Discipline, and those benevolent gentleman who carry it into execution, do not know what it is that they are doing."

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      cam8510 we learn so much by how we treat our outcasts and lowest among us. Your photos were great. Perhaps this hub will haunt me enough to start up my visits to inmates again. I will make the phone call right now!

    • cam8510 profile image
      Author

      Chris Mills 3 years ago from St. Louis, MO until the end of June, 2017

      haha, Eric, I've seen the Mexican prisons, not as an inmate though. Those places aren't fit for rats. Thanks for reading this article. The Prison truly is a great place to visit here in Philadelphia.

    • Ericdierker profile image

      Eric Dierker 3 years ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

      Excellent job -- I feel bleak!

      It still looks better than that cell I was in in Tijuana.