Is Eastern State Penitentiary Really Haunted?

A Philadelphia Prison's Grim Past

  • Inmates once were hooded so they would not be recognized by guards or other inmates, allowing for anonymity upon release. Eyeholes were allowed in hoods circa 1890, but prisoners were still not allowed to communicate.
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    Inmates once were hooded so they would not be recognized by guards or other inmates, allowing for anonymity upon release. Eyeholes were allowed in hoods circa 1890, but prisoners were still not allowed to communicate.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • In the 1890s, Eastern State Penitentiary's seven cellblocks radiated from a room known as "Center." Architect John Haviland wrote that the design would promote "watching, convenience, economy and ventilation."
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    In the 1890s, Eastern State Penitentiary's seven cellblocks radiated from a room known as "Center." Architect John Haviland wrote that the design would promote "watching, convenience, economy and ventilation."
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • A medical team works on a patient in the prison's infirmary in this undated photo.
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    A medical team works on a patient in the prison's infirmary in this undated photo.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • Hundreds of inmates lined up every day along the serving windows at "Soup Alley" on the way to the dining hall.
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    Hundreds of inmates lined up every day along the serving windows at "Soup Alley" on the way to the dining hall.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • Guards inspect a tunnel that inmate Willie Sutton and 11 others tried to use in a doomed escape in 1945.
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    Guards inspect a tunnel that inmate Willie Sutton and 11 others tried to use in a doomed escape in 1945.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • In the 1890s, prison staff used food carts to deliver meals to prisoners through small wooden feeding doors in their cells. Inmates were not allowed to eat together until 1924.
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    In the 1890s, prison staff used food carts to deliver meals to prisoners through small wooden feeding doors in their cells. Inmates were not allowed to eat together until 1924.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • The facade of the penitentiary as it looked in the 1920s.
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    The facade of the penitentiary as it looked in the 1920s.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • Cellblocks 8 and 9 were added to the radial plan in 1877 to accommodate more prisoners; however, guards could not see down those corridors without the use of surveillance mirrors, seen here at left and right.
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    Cellblocks 8 and 9 were added to the radial plan in 1877 to accommodate more prisoners; however, guards could not see down those corridors without the use of surveillance mirrors, seen here at left and right.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • The exterior of Eastern State's death row. No executions actually took place at Eastern State; the prisoners were shipped elsewhere.
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    The exterior of Eastern State's death row. No executions actually took place at Eastern State; the prisoners were shipped elsewhere.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
  • In 1905, a free-standing building was constructed between cellblocks. The second floor was used for religious services, movies and concerts and as a gymnasium.
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    In 1905, a free-standing building was constructed between cellblocks. The second floor was used for religious services, movies and concerts and as a gymnasium.
    Courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary

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With its looming, gloomy high stone walls, crumbling corridors, and stark cells that once housed thousands of hard-core criminals, Eastern State Penitentiary certainly looks haunted. Its 142-year history is full of suicide, madness, disease, murder and torture, making it easy to imagine the spirits of troubled souls left behind to roam its abandoned halls.

The harsh punishments used on prisoners are enough to make you shiver even without seeing a ghost. There was the water bath, in which inmates were dunked then hung out on a wall in winter until ice formed on the skin. The mad chair, which bound an inmate so tightly that circulation was cut off, later necessitating amputations. The iron gag, in which an inmate's hands were tied behind the back and strapped to an iron collar in the mouth, so that any movement caused the tongue to tear and bleed profusely. And "The Hole," a dank underground cell where unfortunate souls had no light, no human contact, no exercise, no toilet and little food and air.

The prison, which closed in 1971, is considered by several sources to be one of the most haunted places in America. It has been featured on the Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted Live, Syfy's Ghost Hunters and MTV's Fear. Dozens of paranormal researchers visit every year and report that it's a hub of otherworldly activity. Perhaps most convincingly, there are the stories of eerie experiences by visitors, staff, guards and inmates that have corroborated each other since the 1940s.

Ben Bookman, a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary, uses a diorama to point out the prison's cellblocks.

Ben Bookman, a tour guide at Eastern State Penitentiary, uses a diorama to point out the prison's cellblocks. Emily Bogle/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Emily Bogle/NPR

Cellblock 12 is known for echoing voices and cackling; Cellblock 6 for shadowy figures darting along the walls; Cellblock 4 for visions of ghostly faces. Many people have reported seeing a silhouette of a guard in one of the towers. Footsteps. Wails. Whispers. The same stories, over and over again.

One of the most legendary tales comes from Gary Johnson, who helps maintain the crumbling old locks at the prison. In the early 1990s, he had just opened an old lock in Cellblock 4 when he says a force gripped him so tightly that he was unable to move. He described a negative, horrible energy that exploded out of the cell. He said tormented faces appeared on the cell walls and that one form in particular beckoned to him.

But tour guide Ben Bookman says, "It's a lot harder to find a believer than it is to find a skeptic here. We at Eastern State do not claim that the prison is haunted. We run a haunted attraction."

Bookman says the staff does not like to exploit the prison's darker image. "Most people making TV shows come in looking for ghosts. That's not the story we tell. Inmates were real people. These were people's lives. Seventy-thousand people spent time here. We're not going to glorify it, and we're not going to make fun of it."

Perhaps hauntings are a self-fulfilling prophecy — if you want to have a haunted experience, your imagination just might make sure you do. Certainly there are thousands of visitors who say they've experienced no odd feelings, no sudden chills, no strange sounds, no apparitions. And yet there are plenty who say they have.

What do you want to believe?

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