Right in the heart of a bustling city sits an abandoned prison, a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and vacant guard towers. The shadowy edifice stands in ruin overlooking the cobblestone streets of Fairmont Avenue, Philadelphia. The Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 and functioned as a prison until 1971. While operational it housed some of the era’s most notorious criminals including Al Capone and bank robber, “Slick Willie” Sutton.
The correctional facility represented the world’s first true “penitentiary,” a prison designed to inspire true penitence in the hearts of convicts. The layout encouraged solitary confinement, a system that drove many prisoners into madness. In desperate need for human interaction, many prisoners would whisper through vents or tap on pipes. Those caught doing so would face harsh punishment such as ice baths, days strapped down tightly on a chair for without food, weeks locked in a hole in the ground, or an iron gag which would tear the tongue with the slightest movement.
Eastern State’s Infamous Inmates
Alphonse “Al” Capone (January 17, 1899 – January 25, 1947) represents the most notorious American gangster to spend time behinds its walls. Born in Brooklyn to Italian immigrants, Al Capone later moved to Chicago where he led organized crime during the Prohibition Era. Him and his cronies made big money smuggling and bootlegging alcohol and pimping prostitutes from the early 1920s to 1931. After his arrest for carrying a concealed, deadly weapon, Capone was sentenced to prison for the first time and spent the next eight months at Eastern State between 1929 to 1930.
In his heyday, William “Willie” Sutton (June 30, 1901 – November 2, 1980) stole an estimated $2 million during the span of his 40 year career as a bank robber. Nicknamed Slick Willie and Willie the Actor, the man had a penchant for executing robberies in disguise. Although he spent more than half of his adult life in jail, he managed to escape 3 times. After his conviction on February 5, 1935, he was sentenced to 25 to 50 years at the Eastern State Penitentiary for robbing the Corn Exchange Bank with a machine gun.
On April 3, 1945, Sutton, along with 12 other prisoners, escaped the institution through a 97-foot (30 m) tunnel. Like something out of Shawshank Redemption, Willie dug the tunnel over the course of a year undiscovered. Sutton was recaptured the same day by the Philadelphia police.
Another infamous prisoner to spend his days at Eastern State was Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” , an actual dog seen here in his mug shot. In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot sentenced Pep to a life sentence at Eastern State for murdering his wife’s beloved cat. He received C2559 as his inmate number.
Want to read about more notorious criminals? Read The Soap Maker of Correggio, a woman who turned her victims’ bodies into soap and tea cakes.
The Haunted Penitentiary
The prison closed its doors back in 1971 and remains standing in decay in the middle of Philadelphia. The abandoned prison still attracts visitors throughout the year, especially during October for its annual Haunted House Halloween event.
Many people consider Eastern State Penitentiary as one of the most haunted sites in the Untied States. Since the 1940s, guards and prisoners alike have reported ghost sightings and paranormal experiences. Stories of eerie experiences have only increased since the Eastern State was abandoned.
Paranormal investigators flock to explore the site including from the TV show Ghost Hunters, making this one of the most carefully studied buildings in the United States. According to staff members, each year at least two dozen ghost sightings at Eastern State Penitentiary are reported. Those visiting the penitentiary claim to hear sounds of giggling, weeping, and whispering echoing through the corridors.
Once while restoring the 140 year old lock in Cell Block #4, a locksmith felt a powerful force push him down. He looked up to see the anguished faces of apparitions swirling around the cell block walls. Years later, the locksmith shudders at the thought of his experience there.
Read our article Haunted New Orleans for more tales of the paranormal.