Eastern State Penitentiary

The rational me says that there are no such things as ghosts. The rational me also says that there is absolutely no way I am spending the night alone in Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) because if any place is haunted, it is this old prison. Make no mistake about it, this place can be scary – even during the day when you are alone on a cell block and even without “Terror Behind the Walls,” the annual haunted house extravaganza that runs from late September to early November every year.

A Cell Block at ESP - Photograph by Chris John
A Cell Block at ESP – Photograph by Chris John

For a place that seems so foreboding, ESP was actually founded on Quaker-inspired principles designed to address the failings of existing prisons by promoting regret and penitence among those wayward souls whose crimes against society required a stay here. In fact, the word “penitentiary” derives from the school of thought on which the Pennsylvania System is based and which is reflected in the design of ESP. When the prison opened in 1829 it was not only the most expensive building in America, but it marked a radical and, to some, progressive departure from existing prison designs and how prisoners were treated.

Grand Accommodations               Photograph by Chris John
Grand Accommodations – Photograph by Chris John

As primitive as the cells seem by today’s standards, ESP was built with running water, flush toilets, and central heating, amenities that outclassed even the White House of the day. Private accommodations were provided for each prisoner complete with their own small skylight to let in  light from Heaven. A clever PR firm probably could have made ESP sound like an impressive destination resort if they left out the part about potential madness induced by years of solitary confinement.

Photograph by Henry Rowan

To make sure that the convicts were properly introspective, no contact with other prisoners was allowed. Inmates were hooded whenever they were outside of their cells and even their one-hour a day exercise period was done in solitude. This prevented them from gaining any real knowledge of the building, which is set up in an efficient hub and spoke layout to allow oversight from a central location. The massive 30-foot vaulted hallways, were designed to invoke a monastic aura while the cell doors were made intentionally short to force the prisoners to bow as an expression of humbleness.

Cell door at ESP - Photograph by Henry Rowan
Cell Door at ESP – Photograph by Henry Rowan

While the interior was designed utilizing the fundamentals of religious architecture to inspire a sense of reflection and penance, the medieval exterior facade served quite a different purpose. One look at the high walls and intimidating buttresses and even the dullest person must have thought twice about the wisdom of incurring an extended stay. Today, ESP stands cramped in a Philadelphia neighborhood, but even without the open fields of 1829 to give it its proper sense of scale, it remains a very impressive and foreboding structure.

From the Outside               Photograph by Chris John
From the Outside – Photograph by Chris John
A Gargoyle Guards the Walls at ESP - photograph by Chris John
A Gargoyle Guards the Walls at ESP – Photograph by Chris John

The physical design and principles that dominated the early operation of the prison spawned enormous interest and were duplicated in whole or part by more than 300 prisons world-wide. Over time, the focus on solitary confinement slowly disintegrated and, by 1913, it was abandoned entirely, except as a punishment itself. Thus, ESP evolved into the type of prison that we think of as being “normal” today. Over the years, new guard towers were added and new cell blocks were built as needed, including adding a second floor to some of the wings. In 1956, Cell Block 15, “Death Row,” was built and it remains a featured stop on the tour.

Death Row               Photograph by Henry Rowan
Death Row – Photograph by Henry Rowan

Even with the additions and renovations that occurred over the years, it was obvious that ESP was an antiquated facility and the state decided to close it in 1971, 142 years after it had opened. The City of Philadelphia bought the property from the state in 1980 and after a more than a bit of consternation and concern by residents and community activists about their plans for the property, the City leased it to a non-profit group instead of tearing it down. Ultimately, it has ended up in the good hands of the Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. which has kept the prison open for tours and its history alive. Today, ESP has grown into one of Philadelphia’s leading attractions and it is very popular with city residents and tourists alike.

A Suite at ESP Photograph by Chris Johns
A Suite at ESP – Photograph by Chris Johns

OK, enough about the building (you can read the short version of the prison history by clicking here or partake in the long version – 571 pages – by clicking here.) What about the ghosts? In all likelihood, the ghosts of ESP cannot count the most notorious of the Roaring Twenties gangsters, Al Capone, among their numbers. Although “Scarface” was at ESP for eight months of R & R, his cell had oriental rugs, a radio and some rather nice furniture. In his free time, you might have found him in the Deputy Warden’s office making phone calls, so it is unlikely that Al’s ghost chose this to be its non-resting place.

Al Capone's Cell at ESP Photograph by Chris John
Al Capone’s Cell at ESP – Photograph by Chris John

Other prisoners didn’t fare as well as Capone so their spirits have some good cause to be hanging around.  ESP is reputed to be one of the most studied sites in the United States for paranormal activity and it is the frequent star of TV programming focusing on haunted places. Tourists and employees alike have reported weeping, moaning and whispering being heard on the cell blocks and visual sights of apparitions are common enough to make one take pause. Given the frequency of such reports and the reality that ESP is a “ruin” (much of it is open but it has not been restored and is in “disrepair”), this prison is one place that you really don’t want to spend the night.

A bad place to spend the night alone - Photograph by Henry Rowan

Not the best place to spend the night - Photograph by Henry Rowan

Of Special Note:

ESP runs a haunted prison program around Halloween each year called “Terror Behind the Walls.” Personally, I am not too big on haunted house and haunted hayrides and had always dismissed this as but one more example of such silliness. Perhaps I wasn’t being fair. I’ll make the trip in next year but from all I have been told, “Terror Behind the Walls” is the mother of all haunted houses and really is scary. In checking around a bit, it appears that this is quite an elaborate production and goes way, way beyond fake spider webs and people jumping out and saying “Boo.”  If it is as good as people say, perhaps it will get its own entry under events next year!

An ultra-wide at ESP - Photograph by Chris John
An ultra-wide at ESP – Photograph by Chris John

Photography at ESP:

ESP is a photographers dream location. The lighting and textures are such that a serious shooter could spend days there and not feel like they have run out of subjects. There is a one-time “tripod charge,” which is good for the year and we strongly suggest you bring one. The prison is very dark, forcing the use of very slow shutter speeds in many situations.

ESP is tailor-made for wide and ultra-wide angle lenses as you end up shooting the small cells through small windows in small doors. If you are going to ESP specifically to shoot, it is best to go on a bright, sunlit day, even though you are going to be inside. Little natural light enters the thick walls and you need all the help you can get from Mother Nature. The downside is that this produces scenes with extreme dynamic range, which is one reason why ESP has become a favorite place for photographers working with multiple exposure and/or HDR techniques.

A Non-Existent Vision of ESP - Photograph by Henry Rowan
A Non-Existent Vision of ESP – Photograph by Henry Rowan



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