What happens to prisons when they are no longer used to hold prisoners? For some, they become repurposed as anything from condos to shopping malls to museums. But Eastern State Penitentiary could never be anything but a monument to barbaric punishment. It’s just too haunted.
By far the most famous haunted prison in America is the Eastern State Penitentiary. Originally built in 1829, it was an active prison for almost 150 years. It was shut down in 1970, but since then it’s been used as a movie set (for 12 Monkeys and Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) as well as a popular site for ghost hunters.
The Gothic Revival prison looks like a cross between a fortress and a church. The individual wings were arranged in a wheel shape, with a multitude of cells in each wing. The floor plan looks like a constellation of cathedrals. The religious overtones were no accident. Vaulted ceilings and low doors that forced inmates to bow were designed to make them feel like monks.
Although it seems like a relic now, with its medieval architecture and crumbling interior, the prison was actually quite modern for its time. It had running water and central heat before the White House was upgraded with those basic amenities. Although it was not meant to be a luxurious home for criminals, it was nicer in many ways than most homes.
Except that homes don’t force you into solitary confinement where you go slowly mad in spaces that resembled horse stalls more than prison cells. They were only allowed outside for two breaks of a half hour each and permitted to bathe once every two weeks. Even when allowed out of their cells, however, they were forced to wear monastic robes so they couldn’t see each other.
Sounds barbaric, but the pioneering Pennsylvania System was actually supposed to be a more humane way of rehabilitating prisoners. The solitary confinement was meant to encourage them to meditate on their crimes and become better people. In fact, the name “penitentiary” was meant to evoke the Christian concept of penitence.
The prison welcomed visitors, with thousands touring the facility every year. The writer Charles Dickens visited in 1842, but he was not impressed by what he saw. “The system is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong,” he wrote.
Eastern State eventually gave up on solitary confinement as more and more prisoners needed to be housed. Originally built to house 250 inmates, by 1926 that number had swelled to 1700. It’s the same pattern that many of the Kirkbride insane asylums followed–the initial plan was lost in the need to house more and more people until conditions become deplorably crowded.
Extreme methods of torture were allegedly practiced on the inmates. Although their most famous prisoner, Al Capone, was allowed luxuries like Turkish rugs and a radio, most prisoners weren’t so lucky. There are rumors of “the mad chair,” where inmates were gagged and strapped down, sometimes so tightly that they lost circulation.
Nowadays, the prison is a crumbling, rusting relic. The misery and madness of the former inmates is baked into the walls, according to paranormal experts who have visited the site. It’s a popular destination for both amateur ghost hunters as well as those with their own shows such as the crew of Ghost Adventures.
The prison offers daylight tours as well as the “Terror Behind the Walls” haunted house. If you’re a thrill seeker, you should miss it–but be prepared to pay up to $50 per ticket for the experience.
If you can’t–or, more sensibly, won’t–go ghost hunting at Eastern State Penitentiary, then you’re smarter than Ryan and Shane from BuzzFeed. You should definitely watch the episode where they explore the prison–but maybe not at night.