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Eastern State Penitentiary

Posted on Thursday, October 1, 2015

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A deteriorating early 19th century prison in the heart of Philadelphia has become one of the city’s oddest and most popular tourist destinations.
 

The History 

In the years that followed America’s victory in the Revolutionary War, the infant country sought to remake all of its old world public institutions in the spirit of the American enlightenment.  The prisons of the time were inhumane places where prisoners were housed like cattle and abuse was common, thus people began to set about creating a new type of prison.
 
As with many early American innovations, Benjamin Franklin was involved, inviting a group know as the “The Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons” to meet in his home in 1787.  Among those involved was another signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush.  Rush, a prominent medical doctor and the "Father of American Psychiatry" sought to create a prison with the primary purpose of reforming criminals instead of only punishing and degrading them.
 
Both Franklin and Rush would pass away before their new prison finally became a reality over 40 years later when Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829.  Designed by John Haviland, the imposing Gothic Revival structure was designed as an entirely new type of prison. With all inmates housed individually in their own cells, the solitary confinement was meant to cause prisoners to reflect upon their misdeeds in silence.  With a sole window on the ceiling of each cell that was designed to invoke the eye of God, the hope was that prisoners would eventually become penitent of their crimes and become reformed individuals, ready to reenter society once the time came.  Haviland himself thought of the prison as a sort of “forced monastery” that would push prisoners to God and purposely designed the inside of the penitentiary to resemble the inside of a church.
 
Eastern State Penitentiary
 
The innovative design brought visitors from all over the world to see Eastern State Penitentiary and hundreds of prisons throughout the world were modeled on the design. The idealistic nature of the prison however would often clash with the harsh realities of running a prison; overcrowding and budget shortfalls would often threaten the unique nature of Eastern State.  By 1913 the separate confinement system was abandoned, although Eastern State continued to operate as a prison all the way until 1971.
 
After its closure there were many plans to demolish the prison and redevelop the land but those plans never came to fruition, meanwhile the prison continued to deteriorate and fall apart. Despite its deteriorating condition many Philadelphians loved the haunting look of the building and its amazing history and petitioned to save the building and turn it into the National Historic Landmark and tourist attraction that it is today.
 

What to see

Eastern State Penitentiary offers daily tours, giving visitors the ability to actually explore this amazing 19th century ruin.  While Eastern State Penitentiary was viewed as a major step forward for the human rights of prisoners, visitors to the prison will immediately see that being a prisoner here was still far from a walk in the park.  
 
Tourist can see the actual cells that housed prisoners, cells designed not only to prevent each prisoner from interacting with other prisoners, but also with the guards as well.  Prisoners ate alone, slept alone, and even their recreation time was spent alone.  In the rare instances in which prisoners would be forced to walk through the cell block past other cells, prisoners would be forced to wear a sack over their heads that prevented them from seeing or interacting with anyone.  
 
The isolation was apparently enough to drive some prisoners mad.  It’s because of this that many people today think of Eastern State as a very haunted place.  Just about every ghost hunting show that has ever existed has filmed at Eastern State and the penitentiary draws visitors from all over the world who are hunting for the paranormal.  Even for those who don’t believe in ghosts, walking down the deteriorating cellblocks and seeing the dusty remains of the cells can be a very spooky experience. An audio tour voiced by Steve Buscemi (Fargo, Boardwalk Empire) helps to add to the creepy ambiance of the Prison.
 
Tourists can also visit the cells of some Eastern State’s most famous prisoners including infamous gangster Al Capone and bank robber Slick Willie Sutton. Eastern State Penitentiary
 

Insider Tips

Just touring through Eastern State Penitentiary on a beautiful sunny day can be a pretty haunting experience, so imagine how terrifying the building is after dark.  Since 1995 Eastern State Penitentiary has been offering a nighttime tour of the Penitentiary, which transforms the prison into America’s creepiest haunted house.  Known, as “Terror Behind the Walls” the event has become a Halloween favorite for Philadelphians and tourists alike.  If you are visiting Philadelphia around Halloween, Terror Behind the Walls is a must see.
 
Eastern State Penitentiary - Terror Behind the Walls
 
In 2015 Terror Behind the Walls will be open every Friday through Sunday in October with additional dates as we get closer to Halloween, the entire schedule can be found here.  In 2015 Terror Behind the Walls will be bigger and more terrifying than ever before with new sections of the massive haunted house and all new features, totaling six haunted experiences in all.  Be sure to book your tickets in advance online to receive a discount in your ticket price.  Aside form the standard haunted tour experience, Eastern State is now offering special V.I.P. experiences that include a dinner package and even a visit to a speakeasy set up in Al Capone's cell!  Eastern State is also offering a special V.I.P. After Dark Tour that includes a private flashlight led guided tour followed by direct access to the front of the line to experience all six of Terror Behind the Wall's haunted attractions.
 
Speaking of V.I.P. haunted attractions, I also wanted to remind you that our sister tour, the Spirits of '76 Ghost Tour, offers their own V.I.P. ghost tour experience.  On a V.I.P. tour, guests will not only experience our acclaimed Spirits of '76 Ghost Tour but they will also be equipped with actual ghost hunting equipment.  Our Ghost Hunters will take you on a private expedition using ghost hunting equipment such as EMF Detectors, infrared thermometers and other paranormal detection equipment and processes.
 

How to Get There

Guests of The Constitutional Walking Tour can walk to Eastern State Penitentiary by continuing West on Arch Street from the National Constitution Center, where our tours begin and end, all the way to 21st Street and taking a right.  Eastern State Penitentiary will then appear in front of you at the intersection of Fairmount Avenue and 21st Street.  The scenic 2 mile walk to Eastern State will give you a great look at the city, however those looking to save time can use Septa to get there quicker.  Eastern State Penitentiary is easily accessible from the Fairmount stop on the Broad Street Subway line.  Street parking is also available in the vicinity if you drive, as well as a large parking lot next to Eastern State.
 

Hours

Mon-Sun - 10am – 5pm (Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day.)
Terror Behind the Walls: Varries by date, check the online schedule for details.
(Note: these hours are subject to change, and you may want to contact Eastern State Penitentiary to confirm)
 

Additional Information

22nd and Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
215.236.3300
 

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