Paranormal Claims at
Eastern State Penitentiary
- Intense negative feelings have been reported in Cellblock 4
- Shadow figures have been seen lingering in cellblocks
- Voices and laughter have been heard in Cellblock 12
- Al Capone was reportedly haunted by a ghost at Eastern State
- The ghost of a dog has been heard howling and running through cellblocks
- An apparition is known for standing still in long hallways
- A dark figure has been seen standing at the top of the prison guard towers
The History of Eastern State Penitentiary
In one particular neighborhood of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an unshakable stone fortress stands proudly beside the blocks of townhomes and bustling thoroughfares. Since 1829, the towering walls of Eastern State Penitentiary have loomed large over Fairmont Drive, intimidating onlookers and promising safety from all the criminals housed within its seemingly impenetrable perimeter.
Notorious mobsters, robbers, and murderers all did time in Eastern State over its 142 years in operation. But though it’s been over fifty years since it held its last prisoner, Eastern State Penitentiary is said to still be a hotbed of prisoner activity…from beyond the grave.
Ghost stories have slowly leaked out of Eastern State’s walls ever since the prison’s closure, and today the complex is renowned as one of the nation’s most haunted lockups.
Timeline of Eastern State Penitentiary's History
Swipe or use timeline points to see Eastern State Penitentiary through the years
Before Eastern State Penitentiary housed Philadelphia’s criminals, there was Walnut Street Jail. Smaller by comparison, Walnut Street Jail served the city from the late 1700s into the early 1800s, and included an experimental wing of 16 cells examining the idea of 24/7 solitary confinement for all prisoners.
But, by the 1820s, overcrowding had become unacceptable, and a newer, larger prison was ordered to be built: Eastern State Penitentiary. Prisoners first crossed its threshold in October 1829.
Eastern State Penitentiary fully bought into the solitary concept toyed with at Walnut Street Jail. Prisoners were housed in separate cells with only skylights illuminating them, and they would not be allowed to exercise or work alongside other prisoners.
When they had to leave their cells, prisoners would wear masks obscuring their sight and ability to speak to anyone, furthering the constant solitude. Despite these stringent security measures though, the prison saw its first escape in 1832.
The prison’s construction wasn’t done until 1836, but by then it was state-of-the-art and definitively controversial. Eastern State boasted new plumbing systems and central heating for all 450 cells, in a time when even the White House didn’t have central heat.
But, the solitary system garnered much revulsion, including from famed author Charles Dickens, who considered the prison’s system incredibly cruel after his visit in 1841. Despite the cruelty, public tours were popular and thousands toured the prison.
As the 1800s went on, expansions were continually made to Eastern State, including four new cell blocks in 1877. New cell blocks took different appearances as they were built, with skylights removed in favor of regular windows and many aspects of the original architecture modernized for new wings.
These changes also compromised the solitary system, which broke down throughout the late-1800s as more traditional systems took hold. By 1913, Eastern State abandoned the solitary system completely.
In 1924, prisoners were allowed to dine in communal halls for the first time, highlighting the change since the solitary system was first mandated. By 1926, more expansions were made, bringing the prison’s capacity up to 1,700 prisoners. Not long after that expansion, in 1929, Chicago gangster Al Capone became an inmate at Eastern State Penitentiary.
He served eight months in the prison, and got special treatment including a writing desk, paintings hung on his wall, and his own personal radio.
In 1945, Eastern State Penitentiary saw its most daring escape when 12 prisoners tunneled their way out to the street, breaking the surface just as a police patrol passed by. Though they quickly scattered, all 12 were swiftly captured, with most only being free for a few short minutes. Infamous bank robber Willie Sutton later took credit for the planning of the escape.
After the highly publicized escape attempt, the Pennsylvania Legislature recommended abandoning the almost 120 year old prison.
Eastern State Penitentiary saw its biggest inmate riot in 1961. Though it was quickly snuffed out within hours, the riot was a PR disaster for the aging prison. Discussions about shutting down Eastern State became more common after that, and it was only a matter of time before it happened. In 1970, the order was given to close down the prison.
All prisoners were quickly moved out, and the prison was used one last time to house inmates in 1971 after a riot at the county jail. After that, the complex fell into abandonment and disrepair.
In 1988, revitalization efforts took hold and the first public tours of the prison were offered. By 1994, tours became a daily occurrence. Ever since, Eastern State has expanded as a tourist attraction, offering many different kinds of tours, events, and fundraisers to support preservation.
And through the thousands of visitors to the prison, stories of the Eastern State experience have spread far and wide. Many of those stories include reports of paranormal encounters within the prison’s cell blocks.
Tortured Souls of
Eastern State Penitentiary
Many claims of hauntings at Eastern State Penitentiary stem from some of the punishments and harsh realities faced by inmates in the prison’s solitary system. It’s often said that the levels of isolation prisoners faced, up to 23 hours a day or more, drove them insane rather than reformed them. That, coupled with cruel, torturous punishments, resulted in unmatched misery that some visitors say is still palpable.
Some of the punishments included an ice bath, after which prisoners would be chained to an exterior wall until the moisture turned to ice on their skin; and the ‘mad chair,’ a restraining chair that was regularly strapped so tightly prisoners lost feeling and circulation to their limbs.
With such painful day-to-day lives, it’s no wonder so many people believe those horrors still haunt Eastern State.
Creepy Cellblocks at Eastern State Penitentiary
One well-known paranormal experience at Eastern State Penitentiary happened in Cellblock 4 in the early 1990s when a maintenance worker was struck by an intensely negative sensation upon entering the cell block.
Shortly after, the worker reported seeing the faces of tormented souls appear on the cell walls, and even reported a shadowy apparition leaping across the cellblock.
Ghostly Voices Within Eastern State Penitentiary
Cellblock 4 isn’t the only one with reports of paranormal phenomena. In Cellblock 6, more shadow figures have been reported moving along the walls and inside cells. Additionally, Cellblock 12 is another reported paranormal hotspot, said to be home to many disembodied voices.
The voices in Cellblock 12 are said to be so loud that they echo through the long stone corridors of the prison. And oftentimes, the voices from Cellblock 12 are allegedly accompanied by loud, cackling laughter.
Ghost Dog at Eastern State Penitentiary
Another ghost claimed to haunt Eastern State Penitentiary is that of Pep, perhaps the prison’s most unique inmate. Pep was a black Labrador retriever sentenced to life without parole in August 1924 for killing Governor Gifford Pinchot’s cat, or so the story goes.
In reality, Pep was brought into Eastern State as a therapy dog, but he was given an inmate number, C-2559, as well as a mugshot. Today, Pep’s ghost is sometimes reported still frolicking through the cellblocks. His presence is often heard in the form of dog tags jangling through corridors, and sometimes even howls in the dead of night.
Eastern State Penitentiary
Haunted Al Capone
Al Capone himself also reportedly had his share of paranormal encounters while locked up at Eastern State Penitentiary. During his eight month stint, Capone claimed he was haunted by the ghost of James Clark, one of the victims of his St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.
Prisoners in Capone’s cell block claimed to hear him at night, begging for James’ spirit to leave him alone. Since then, visitors and investigators have reported encounters with the phantom of James Clark in Capone’s old cell.