One of the most interesting and allegedly haunted places in America is the Eastern State Penitentiary located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An estimated 75,000 inmates served time here from 1829-1971. Known as the country’s first official penitentiary, Eastern State’s wagon wheel design quickly became a model for more than 300 prisons all over the world.

The basic principles behind the prison turned into more of a social experiment inspired by a meeting at Ben Franklin’s home. Quakers thought isolation would make rule breakers know God and remorse, but instead it made inmates in the maximum security prison go insane. They thought that complete isolation would make you feel quicker remorse and condition you to change your ways indefinitely. One of the ways that this was carried out was having each inmate in their own solitary confinement cell with two doors. The first was a grid metal door slammed shut, and then a wooden door closed in front of it to keep inmates from communicating. Eastern State Penitentiary took it even further making sure all inmates wore full face masks when they went out in the yard. Zero communication, immeasurable distress.

eastern state penitentiary
Photo by ABE PACANA

Solarity cells had skylights to let in “God’s light” a toilet, running water, heat and a Bible. It wasn’t until 1913, that Pennsylvania abandoned the solitary confinement system, recognizing its failed methods. Eastern state adapted and altered the prison cells to accommodate more inmates per cell. With such a drastic change, prison guards updated their corrections methods.

The Eastern State Penitentiary was part of a movement that was considered to be highly controversial at the time. Its purpose and intent was to modify the behaviors of the individuals that served as inmates through solitary confinement and various types of labor. While it is considered to be the first official penitentiary located throughout the world, this haunted prison was not the only penitentiary of the time.

mad torture chair eastern state
Photo by ABE PACANA

Eastern State has a few famous inmates during it’s almost 190 years in operation. Chicago’s most famous mob boss, Al Capone, served eight months for carrying a deadly weapon in a concealed manner. Because of his money, he was placed on the “Park Avenue Block” allowing him to furnish his cell in whatever he wanted like rugs, lamps, plants, and two skylights.

Eastern State Penitentiary Al Capone
Photo by ABE PACANA

William “Slick Willie” Sutton was serving an 11 year sentence as a famous bank robber when he unsuccessfully tried to escape by digging a tunnel with his fellow inmates in the 1940s. They spent a year digging a tunnel 15 feet down and exactly 100 feet long, but by the time they reached the end, they were being pulled out of the mud by officials who took them right back behind the gate.

Experience the claims of paranormal activity in person like the guys did on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures at your own risk. If you’re truly interested in the paranormal, you can get more details about touring the prison on Eastern State’s site.

Anyone out there consider yourself brave enough to enter the prison knowing its dark history? Let’s start a conversation in the comments below.

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48 Comments

48 thoughts on “Haunted America: Eastern State Penitentiary”

  1. Joyce H

    Having looked at the pictures, I imagine that at night the place is pitch black, which would for sure, add to the spooky feeling of the place. Situated in the U.K. it would be easy for me to say I would be happy to enter the prison, which in daylight, I would. However, I honestly do not think that I could be enticed to spend a night alone in that place, even if you paid for me to fly out there, unless it was in a large group, then yes, count me in.

    1. Sheila

      I have spirits around me at times, even sometimes when I go out with my daughter & grand-daughter. I must say that being in a haunted place never has bothered me. But, I have to also say that “to go to a haunted place with bad spirits, isn’t quite what I would
      do really”. lol You don’t realize the bad vibes and the awful feelings you get when your used to having spirits around you. I have had
      just one bad incident, & wouldn’t want anything worse than that to happen. ( My experience wasn’t traumatic, but with my family member there, & a child at the time, that was not what I wanted to happen). Not getting into it at this time, it would take a longer writing. But if it were just a haunted place where no murderers or lifers were, ( an old haunted place), like “Loretta Lynn’s Dude Ranch” then I would very much go for a look. That doesn’t bother me. I love to hear about hauntings. My daughter & grand-daughter of course always ask me (if we go to an errie place), “are there any ghosts or spirits in her Mom”? hahahaha I do however check out the area for them. I think this is really cool though MIke Wolfe. I love when you tell us about the places, during your trips. I love to hear all about hauntings too. Thanks for sharing with us all. Keeps me waiting to hear more. S. Thomas

    2. Mike

      From the UK, went there two years ago truly fascinating. The Architect was John Haviland (1792–1852) an English-born who was a major figure in American Neo-Classical architecture and one of the most notable architects working from Philadelphia in the 19th century. I understand that there were Prisons in the UK designed on the same wheel principle.

  2. Chrisine

    I love anything with Ghost. I do not think I would spend a night sleeping there. But i do believe in Ghosts and spirits.

  3. Douglas Yarbrough

    I would never be caught dead or alive in Eastern State Penitentiary I have seen many of the paranormal investigators shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures where they’ve done investigations on that place and especially Al Capone’s cell who they said he claimed it was haunted and drove him insane just the thought of being in a place we’re so Much Death took place I could never take myself too.

  4. Hazel Meredith

    Visited here last year with a photography group (after spending the morning at Mount Moriah Cemetary!). We had private time after it was closed to the public – they took us into cell blocks not open to the public due to their fragile condition. Quite an amazing place – awesome for photography. Didn’t capture any “ghosts” that I could see in my images! Don’t think I would spend a night alone in there either! The cells are extremely tiny.

  5. Adam

    Hello Mike, not blog related but did I hear that you were doing another show? Was it about you saving some houses and old buildings? If so can you tell me more
    Cheers
    Adam

  6. shannon

    I grew up in Philly and visited the ESP for a regular tour and for the haunted house they do there for Halloween. It’s a creepy tour during the daylight but set up as a haunted house at night is terrifying! There is definitely a weird vibe to that place. The state of decay that it’s in just adds to the overall creepy feeling. Very cool place.

  7. Lori MacNeel

    I live right outside of Philadelphia, and have been to ESP for the Halloween experience, and it’s definitely a scary place at any time. While in the area; you should have done a tour of the Pennhurst Asylum, that place is really haunted. It was a terrible place; where terrible things happened to the patients that were sent there. Maybe next time you’re in this area you can check that place out. (If you Dare)

  8. Jennifer Van Ert

    I was fortunate to tour two very old prisons while visiting Australia. One in Perth and the other in Hobart. We also did a night tour of the prison in Hobart and hearing about the strange happenings there was exciting. Love that kind of stuff.

  9. susie

    Having worked on Alcatraz…Al Capone definitely had it easier at ESP! No rugs, plants or homey furniture on Alcatraz!

  10. Cindy

    I’d go!! Dead people don’t scare me. It’s the live ones that scare that hell out of me. Lol
    Love you guys.

  11. BILL VANOVER

    I’VE HEARD ABOUT EASTERN STATE PEN AN WE HAVE THE OLD MANSFIELD REFORMATORY HERE IN OHIO THAT HAS A HAUNTED BACKGROUND, THE MOVIE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION WAS MADE THERE.

  12. Tino Cedeno

    Philly is where I grew up especially right around the prison I remember all the nights we used to walk right by the walls wondering what was going on,on the other side of the wall. As a kid I had imagined it to be an old Castle,one of my brothers lives right across the street
    from it. We had no idea it was haunted…I am so glad to see you are doing a show on it….

  13. Nina Stefanick

    I was born and raised in Philadelphia so I know about the prison. My husband and I toured it a few years ago and it was a really unique experience. Every Halloween, they have guided tours. We have not done that yet, but I hear it is scary.

  14. Denise Dyson

    The pictures that are posted are awesome. However, you couldn’t pay me enough money to spend the night in that place. I have lived in the Philly area all my life so of course you hear all kinds of stories about ESP. My kids have been to ESP every Halloween for many years and they loved it but not one of them would ever stay the night if ever asked. If those walls could talk what stories they could tell us. Hmmmm but perhaps some walls are trying to tell stories… Only those brave enough to stay would know….

  15. ROBIN CHRISTENSEN

    I would love to visit, but only during the daytime. I’m fascinated yet scared. My husband and I had separate paranormal experiences with his deceased uncle, so we definitely believe in spirits. Most people don’t believe unless they have seen it for themselves. Thanks for showing everyone the pictures!!

  16. Connie freeman

    I am very sure that there would be spirits in this prison,most likely not those that a non- bible believer would want to encounter.But I would choose to visit,yes.Thank you so much Mike for share!

  17. Kathleen Marshall

    Sorry Mike, it was truly creepy enough when our children and I discovered months later that at least 3 of the 4 kids and I had all experienced the arrival of my father holding the hand of an elderly woman – my grandmother – as they walked through our house at least 8 years after Dad passed away and longer than that for my Grandmother’s passing. It was like he wanted her to see me and our children. We didn’t make it up as nobody mentioned the experience for months and discovered it was all occurred on the same night!

  18. Scott Hall

    We literally just visited ESP yesterday. It is an incredible place. Put this place on your list of places to visit. We want to go back in October for a visit at night. I think it is awesome that Mike is promoting Eastern State.

  19. Alasdair

    I grew up in a haunted house, there was nothing fearul about it, we named the ghost after the lady who died in the house and her apparition was nothing unusual especially after many years of her ‘visits’. In fact, we all felt a strange comfort knowing she was there, and as a child, I was puzzled at the fear or terror some guests would display upon experiencing her presence. They were after all grown up, and scared.. of Mrs Wallis.
    Ghosts need not be feared, it’s only living people who are dangerous.

  20. Doug Blevins

    I visited in the day time but am interested in spending the night possibly.

    I collect Prison shanks and related items and am always looking to add to my collection

    If anyone has anything for sale feel free to contact me at Retrosigns@comcast.net

    I am looking forward to visiting again since I live in Pa and am very close to the prison

  21. Mel Stephens

    I grew up in western Pa, flood city! I’m sure Mike would have enjoyed goin thru my dad’s basement and double garage, but my 3 older brothers gave away most everythin. Just a couple things were a barbers chair that an identical 1 sold 4 $40,000 after it was restored, also a dash with most of the parts 4 a 57 Stedabaker lowboy, lots of sawed stone & saw.

  22. Tammy Warren

    I LOVE any kind of places/stories like this!!
    I’d love to go and spend the night in that beautiful place with so much amazing history.
    Shoot, Forget one night I’d like to spend a week living in it, if I was still alive that long enough. :/
    Even though I’m a very devoted Christian I’ve always been fascinated by the spirits of those that haven’t moved on yet.
    It’s a very interesting subject to me.
    Love ya and love the show
    God bless <3
    Sincerely,
    Tammy in Bama

  23. RW

    Are there spirts around us? Maybe so, maybe not… But one thing is definite, any night in any prison is not for me! Thank you for publishing this very interesting article.

  24. bjarne tom jorgensen

    would be great to visit it..but too far away from me in denmark

    greetings from here in Scandinavia

  25. Kamille Wilkinson

    I know how much my Savior loves me and does not desire for me to be frightened so I’m not going to invite fear. He also does not wish for us to tamper with spirits except His Holy Spirit. Love your work, thank you for doing what you do but you can count me out.

  26. Rock

    I believe places become scary only when the observer has been told of its’ history. The human mind is a magnificent computer and will fill in the blanks and let the imagination run wild. Basically, you see what you are told you are supposed to see. It’s not intentional, it’s just one of the wonderful function of our minds.

  27. Michele K. Henderson

    I lived in Philadelphia, about 3 blocks from ESP, for about ten years, and have been touring the prison from the very beginning, when the tours were dirt cheap and the participants would be required to wear hard hats. They have really put a lot of effort into restoring the prison and making it safe for visitors. Even though the prison “may” be haunted, you should visit this place for more than just a paranormal experience. In fact, the tours mention the “ghosts” really only in passing. It is an amazing historical slice of American history you can’t find anywhere else, and it even has a museum too! Don’t think it’s only for paranormal enthusiasts.

  28. Della Ballew

    After hearing stories about that place from friends that lived around there. I have a strong feeling that it’s true. The photographs just add proof for me. That place is spooky.

  29. Jennifer W.

    Love it. I may check it out in a couple of weeks. Ghosts are cool and fun! But they can touch you and that’s when it gets scary.

  30. Bonita Esquibel

    I am going to put this on my bucket list. I love history and ghostly things. I would stay the night in it. I can’t wait to retire and start touring haunted places.

    My mom and I took a road trip to the 7 sisters road in Omaha Neb. My mom and her friend were in a separate car behind my daughter and I. Because it was such a dark road we stopped and got out to see the stars. My mom’s best friend said she heard some men voices. My mom and I both had our cameras with us and each camera has two batteries. They were fully charged. The next day we went to take some pictures of some family members and all 4 batteries were dead. We charged the batteries and they did not drain again.

  31. Chris Boyd

    We spent an afternoon at ESP in 2007…A daunting place with an overwhelmingly depressing aura…Physically impressive in it’s size and architecture… I am glad we experienced it but cannot imagine spending more time there. The agony within those walls was ever present and very sad.

  32. Susan

    Great pics! But we have another prison in MO (Jefferson City Penitentiary) that has a long history, too! And is supposed to be haunted! Mike and Frank picked it to find some prison art and had a tour of the cells…I believe it’s now open for tourists, but don’t know the schedule…they were thinking of making rooms for guests out of the cells, but i believe this was nixed due to cost…Spook on!

  33. Robin B.

    Thanks for the info on ESP. Saw Ghost Hunters, Ghost Asylum, and Ghost Adventures’ shows about Eastern States Penitentiary. Very spooky! Would like to visit it sometime, but during the day. Would not like to visit there at night or stay in it overnight !
    Love your show Mike. Keep finding that rusty gold out there and preserve more of our history for us.
    Thanks!

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  35. Marge M

    I have visited Eastern State Penetentiary twice. I am fascinated with the place. I find myself walking inside the cell blocks and catwalks for hours, and outdoors in the recreation areas. I find a weird sense of beauty in the deteriorating walls and the sun bursting through the skylights on a bright sunny day.

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