When it comes to haunted prisons, few have a richer history than the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Today, it’s a U.S National Historic Landmark that’s available to the public all year round as a museum.
When it served as a prison, however, the ESP was anything but warm and welcoming — murders, suicides, horrific abuse, and severe mental agony took place within it.
During its later years, it would also prove to be a hotspot for paranormal activity.
The Early Days Of The Eastern State Penitentiary
Back in the day, the penitentiary housed a wide variety of criminals.
From small-time pick-pocketers and shop-lifters to serial killers and rapists — many convicts saw the end of their days inside those thick stone walls.
When it was first put into use in 1829, the main goal was rehabilitation rather than punishment — in stark contrast to most prisons of this period.
This emphasis on reformation over retribution was brought about by the Quakers — a Christian protestant group that believed every human could access their divine light within.
Inspired by their faith, they wanted to give the inmates at the ESP a chance to reflect upon what they’d done and turn towards God in repentance.
The early influence of the Quakers can be clearly seen in the architecture of the prison — its heavy iron gates, stone walls, and arched ceilings are all nods to classical European churches.
Additionally, every cell came with a Bible and a lowered entrance which forced the inmates to bow each time they went inside (this was later removed in favor of thicker, soundproof doors).
The Long-Term Effects Of Isolation
The Eastern State Penitentiary was one of the first prisons in the world were widespread use of solitary confinement was common.
This was also the work of the Quakers.
They figured it would be best if the inmates reflected and repented by themselves — away from the distractions and influences of others.
As a result of this policy, many of ESP’s convicts spent most of their sentences in isolation (sometimes for the rest of their lives).
Over time, it became clear that this took a heavy toll on many minds…
More People, More Problems
The Eastern State Penitentiary was initially built to house up to 250 prisoners at a time.
Since the main focus was on rehabilitating the inmates, each cell initially had running water, heating, and their own toilets.
However, as the years went by, the original intent of the Quakers started to fade and things took a turn for the worse.
When the author Charles Dickens visited the prison in 1842, his observations of the compound were less than ideal, to put it mildly.
Dickens described his experience at the Eastern State Penitentiary as follows:
“Looking down these dreary passages, the dull repose and quiet that prevails, is awful.
Occasionally, there is a drowsy sound from some lone weaver’s shuttle, or shoemaker’s last, but it is stifled by the thick walls and heavy dungeon-door, and only serves to make the general stillness more profound.
Over the head and face of every prisoner who comes into this melancholy house, a black hood is drawn; and in this dark shroud, an emblem of the curtain dropped between him and the living world, he is led to the cell from which he never again comes forth, until his whole term of imprisonment has expired.
He is a man buried alive — to be dug out in the slow round of years…
…I believe that very few men are capable of estimating the immense amount of torture and agony which this dreadful punishment, prolonged for years, inflicts upon the sufferers”.
Entering The 1900s
By the year 1913, the conditions at the ESP had deteriorated even further.
The facility now housed approximately 1700 inmates — it had become way too overcrowded to keep things running smoothly.
As a result, the prison dropped its dedication to the solitary confinement plan, and so the last remnants of the Quakers’ vision were finally thrown away.
Since the imprisoned population began interacting more and more, the guards became increasingly wary.
A Hellhole Takes Form
Eventually, the officers of the ESP decided to use harsher treatments to keep everything in check — sometimes mistreating inmates or downright torturing them.
Some of the reported abuses were:
- Chaining inmates’ tongues to their wrists for prolonged periods
- Throwing freezing water at them in winter temperatures
- Randomly denying them food until they were near starvation
- Strapping prisoners tightly to chairs for several days on end
- Beating them until they collapsed in their cells
In later years, a series of half-dug tunnels were discovered underneath the ESP — indicating that many prisoners desperately tried to escape this hellish reality.
It’s very likely that the aforementioned abuses led to increased depression and mental illness among inmates — especially in those who served longer sentences.
A good deal of them ended up taking their own lives — not bearing the thought of living through endless days inside the dreaded stone walls.
Others snapped and took their frustration out on their fellow inmates — sometimes ending in murder.
Over the decades, as the death toll inside the prison started rising, both guards and prisoners started experiencing paranormal phenomena.
During the 1940s, they reported hearing disembodied voices, feeling a mysterious presence, and seeing apparitions walking down the hallways, among other things.
To most of the government officials and the general public, however, these tales were seen as little more than hoaxes and urban legends.
The Fall Of The Eastern State Penitentiary
The paranormal experiences would continue for several decades, until the ESP was finally closed down and emptied in 1971.
Only one year later, the whole complex had been completely abandoned, and nearly all maintenance work was halted.
Some sections of the compound were used for storage by the Philadelphia Streets Department.
Other than that, nature started taking back a good deal of the real estate, with trees and grass growing in the halls and cells throughout the complex.
Combined with smashed windows and a crumbling interior, the place looked more like a haunted prison than ever before.
The last man to leave the compound was a city caretaker by the name of Dan McCloud, who regularly fed the many stray cats that now inhabited the emptied compound.
In the decades that followed, rumors of apparitions and ghostly voices in the ESP kept spreading among the local populace.
The Gates Are Reopened
In 1991, the spooky buildings were finally cleared of the wild growth and animals, thanks to funding from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Three years later, the ESP once again opened its doors — this time for historical tours through its abandoned halls and cells.
These initial tours were quite rough, as the renovation was still limited.
Visitors were required to wear hard hats at all times in case of the crumbling walls or other debris would fall down.
In 1996, however, the penitentiary was in good enough shape to be officially reopened as a museum.
As the masses started coming, though, it would prove to be anything but an ordinary exhibition…
Eerie Accounts From The Haunted Prison
Not long after opening its doors again, the ESP proved itself to be a hotspot for what seemed to be paranormal activity.
Among other things, startled visitors were reporting:
- A shadowy figure of a man often spotted standing in one of the watchtowers.
- Blurry humanoid outlines that faded in and out of sight
- Disembodied, blood-curdling screams
- Wailing coming from inside the walls
- Desperate whispers that called for help
- Sounds of footsteps in the empty courtyard
- Things moving around by their own inside some of the cells
- Maniacal laughter in one of the corridors
Enter the Ghost Hunters
Today, the seemingly-haunted prison has a near-100-year old reputation marked by ghostly happenings.
Because of this, it’s become a popular site for ghost hunters and other thrill-seekers — especially around Halloween.
Based on most reports, cell blocks numbered 4, 6, and 12 are the ones with the most paranormal activity.
Inside these areas, hearing eerie voices and seeing ghostly faces in the walls are among the most prevailing experiences.
A number of people have supposedly caught a few of these events on audio and video.
Perhaps the most well-known example is from the TV show Ghosthunters, where a possible apparition was taped moving towards one of the crew’s cameras.
There are also supposed recordings of EVP (electronic voice phenomena) from the haunted prison.
In some of these audios, one can detect what sounds like faint whispering, along with clearer voices that say “help”, “help me”, “I’m here”, and “I’m lonely”.
Close Encounters of the Ghostly Kind
Lastly, several people (both staff and visitors) have had more intimate experiences inside the creepy penitentiary.
- Invisible hands giving them a slight push from behind — often while standing atop a flight of stairs
- An overwhelming feeling of being watched by someone
- Intense, full-body chills out of nowhere
- A sudden, unexplained drop in room temperature
- Having a shadowy figure appear and disappear right in front of them
- Voices whispering directly into their ears
Visit If You Dare
With its chilling history plus an extensive list of paranormal phenomena, the Eastern State Penitentiary surely seems to fit the bill of a haunted prison.
It’s open to the public throughout the year, with interest naturally spiking around Halloween.
If you’re an aspiring ghost hunter or simply on the lookout for a thrill, you could pay it a visit if you so wish.
Be warned, though, that you may just find what you’re looking for…