There are a lot of historic sites in Philly: the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Elfreth’s Alley, Betsy Ross’ House. However, there is another facet of our beloved Philly that many people are not aware of. We are home to the world’s first penitentiary: The Eastern State Penitentiary.
Today, this massive stone prison sits abandoned. But it is an important historic landmark and a very popular site for both locals and visitors.
This prison holds a special place in history. It opened in 1829 as the world’s first penitentiary where prisoners were kept in isolation. This prison was built with the grand idea of evoking repentance in the hearts of the prisoners instead of only punishing them.
As background, the Pennsylvania Prison Society was worried over the state of the prisons in the state and met under the leadership of Benjamin Franklin in 1787 to revolutionize the system. The rational and humanistic principles of the age radicalized the prison system – or so they thought.
Eastern State Penitentiary was born as an experiment to reform the prisoners. The prison aimed to bring social change through solitary confinement. Upon completion, this ambitious prison was one of the largest and most pricey buildings in the United States. The concept of isolation and the ultimate prison design was adopted by over 300 prisons all over the world.
Architecturally, this structure holds a special place in history. John Haviland designed seven cellblocks radiating from a central rotunda – a first in a building of incarceration. The design of this famous Philly penitentiary provided enhanced security and control for the guards, and further isolation for the prisoners.
The penitentiary housed inmates from 1829-1971 – more than 140 years. Once closed, the facility remained in ruins for several years before plans came about to turn the facility into an attraction. However, many sections of the prison still remain in ruins.
Eastern State is located in Fairmount, the area immediately north of center city and near the art museum. From the courtyard, you can see the towering skyscrapers of the Philadelphia skyline. The ruins of the penitentiary, now a National Historic Landmark, showcase an important and bleak phase in American history.
In Fairmount, it’s hard to miss this towering structure that looks like a castle, complete with high walls and big windows. It is an imposing fortification. And that’s by design. However, visitors will learn on the tour, many of the imposing features of the prison are fake.
At first sight, the imposing building may send chills down your spine. The grey walls look menacing. The medieval façade of the prison is intimidating. As you roam through the blocks, you will witness 30-foot barrel-vaulted hallways, skylights, and tall windows. Terror seems to reside at every nook and corner of the building.
The grim feeling increases as you move along the corridors. The cells are preserved along with the furniture. The vaulted cells still evoke fear amongst visitors. Each cell was equipped with a toilet, central heating, skylight, and running water. The cells also had an attached running yard, confined by a ten-foot wall where the inmates exercised.
The prisoners here led a severe life. They were barred from meeting relatives or friends. Even talking to the guards was restricted. You can read chilling stories of prisoners who spent years here without meeting a soul. The designers of the system didn’t want the inmates to mingle with anyone, nor have any understanding of the building. So, they were hooded when taken out of their cells. The prisoners had to maintain silence. They were severely punished if they tried to talk to each other through cracks in the walls.
Initially, the prison had a plan of 450 cells in 3 blocks, but the project proved to be too costly. Later, second and third stories were built, retaining the same footprint.
The Self-Guided Tour
The Eastern State Penitentiary tour is extremely popular tour with both tourists and locals. The abandoned prison is a unique tourist site that lures visitors with its creepy ruins, history, and famous inmates. And visitors report eerie feelings as they walk through the cell blocks and grounds.
The self-guided tour takes about 90 minutes with the audio guide, plus additional time to explore on your own. The audio guide covers the artistic installations and is narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.
The tour usually begins from Cell Block 1. Here, you get a real feel for what it was like to be an inmate. Each cell had only a feeding hole and skylight. The prisoners engaged themselves in jobs like weaving and shoemaking.
As you pass through the hallway, you will hear narrations by prisoners recounting their prison life. The cellblock tour ends at the yard. Tourists prefer to take a break here for fresh air before visiting other sections of the prison.
There are two more sites of interest- the morgue and death row. The morgue looks gloomy, but it is the Eastern State Penitentiary death row that receives more attention. No execution was held at the penitentiary, but death row inmates were holed up here. The eerie silence that prevails beyond the walls touches the soul.
If you want to see the medical facilities in the prison, visit the Hospital Block. Medical artifacts that are displayed here are among the most interesting objects in the whole prison. You can see the remains of the laboratory, operating room, x-ray lab, dental office, and psychiatric department.
Visiting Eastern State Penitentiary is extremely popular with photographers who use the natural light to document the abandoned structure, the empty cells, the crumbling walls and wide-open yards. This prison is also a popular venue for filming movies and TV shows. It’s also been used in Philly music videos.
This penitentiary had its own share of glory. It housed famous criminals like gangster Al Capone and bank robber Slick Willie Sutton.
Al Capone was imprisoned for the first time for possessing a concealed weapon. He was afforded a grand cell here right inside the main entrance. Capone’s cell had a cigar stand, radio, and an additional bed for his cellmate. On the tour, his cell has been recreated to give you a glimpse of his stint of two years in this prison way back in the 1920s. The cell is located in the ‘Park Avenue’ section of the prison and is a favorite on the tour for its realistic looks.
Halloween Nigh Tour
Yearning for goosebumps? If you want to ‘feel’ the creepiness of the prison, go for the night tours. These tours will make your blood curl as you pass through the dimly lit cells at night. The broken walls and dim arches create a scary feeling that is hard to describe.
However, you are not alone. Eastern State Penitentiary inmates and officers have reported mysterious happenings at the site that have resulted in many paranormal research projects. In fact, this is considered one of the most haunted places in Philadelphia.
For more blood-chilling experiences, visit the prison during the Fall, to take part in the Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary, a special tour designed for brave hearts. The tour will allow you to visit two haunted houses, live performances, and special narrations for Halloween Nights. This replaces the long-running Terror Behind the Walls – the most famous haunted house in America.
The tours of the prison have a gripping effect on the visitors. As you listen to the stories of escapes attempted by prisons and their harrowing experiences, you will be shocked.
Here are some tips if you plan to visit Eastern State Penitentiary:
Ticket prices vary by time of admission and also whether the tickets are purchased in advance. Daytime admission ranges from $16-20 for adults and $13-15 for children and seniors. Night admission for Halloween nights range from $34-79 per person, depending on day of the week and time. Tickets can be purchased on their website.
Parking near Eastern State can be a bit of a challenge. There is a lot of on-street parking in the Fairmount neighborhood, but requires excellent parallel parking skills and patience to find spots. The most convenient parking lot is located just one block away at 2201 Fairmount Avenue.
We recommend La Calaca Feliz for Mexican food and A Mano for handmade pasta, both located along Fairmount Avenue.