Eastern State Penitentiary: America’s Most Historic Prison

Written by: Frank Iacono

Construction of the Eastern State Penitentiary, America’s most historic prison, began on a cherry orchard outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1822. The chosen design created by British-born architect John Haviland was a technological marvel which consisted of seven wings of individual cell blocks radiating from a center hub; this was unlike any other prison design seen before the penitentiary opened in 1829.

Eastern State, at its completion was the most expensive public structure ever built, is considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary. It was initially renowned for its Enlightenment-inspired efforts to reform inmates rather than merely punish them. Eventually, this system was abandoned in favor of solitary confinement and a Death Row block. The once-genteel penitentiary housed, at one time, the most notorious prohibition-era gangster – Al Capone. Capone’s private cell even allowed him to have fine antiques and Oriental carpets.

The prison was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1966 and closed in 1971. It is now considered by several sources to be one of the most haunted places in America. The penitentiary has been featured on the Travel Channel’s Most Haunted Live, Ghost Adventures, and Paranormal Challenge; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR.

Today, Eastern State Penitentiary is open for tours seven days a week, year-round. Visitors can explore the cell blocks and learn about the history of this facility and its relevance. Eastern State offers a daily guided tour with one of their expert tour guides, or visitors can take a self-guided audio tour, “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi.

In this edition of The Creative Spotlight, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Kelley, Senior Vice President & Director of Interpretation and Amy Hollaman, Associate Director, Events and Operations; Creative Director for Terror Behind the Walls and asked them about the history, the correctional system of incarceration, notorious criminals who were incarcerated, the annual Terror Behind the Walls and “good to know” facts concerning the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Q&A Session

The Creative Spotlight: The Eastern State Penitentiary, which was designed by John Haviland and opened its doors on October 25, 1829, was considered the first true penitentiary. Why do you think it received this designation and what made it so controversial?

Sean Kelley: Eastern State is considered the world’s first true penitentiary because of its intent, to instill penitence and true regret in the hearts of its prisoners. Eastern State’s focus was on achieving this penitence through silence, prayer, and labor, all of which took place in the solitude of inmates’ cells. Solitary confinement was a revolutionary concept when compared to prisons at the time, where inmates of all ages and crimes were housed together and physical punishment was the norm. Now, we can look back at the system of isolation that was so prevalent at the beginning of Eastern State’s history and recognize how, although it was supposed to be a solution to prison reform, it truly was harmful for inmates.

TCS: For the benefit of those who are not familiar with the Eastern State Penitentiary, can you provide us with at least three “Good to Know” facts?

SK: Three “Good to Know” facts about the Eastern State Penitentiary, include:

  • Eastern State Penitentiary’s system of solitude was seen as a revolutionary concept in prison reform. But what we know now, nearly 200 years later, is that solitary confinement is incredibly damaging for people’s mental health.
  • Architect John Haviland’s wagon wheel design of Eastern State has been copied over 300 times. There is a prison that looks just like Eastern State on every continent except Antarctica.
  • The penitentiary had running water and central heat before the White House!


TCS: Eastern State Penitentiary is touted as America’s Most Historic Prison. Can you perhaps share with us some stories about notorious criminals who were incarcerated there such as bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al “Scarface” Capone?

SK: One of the most famous bank robbers in American History, “Slick Willie” Sutton spent 11 years at Eastern State Penitentiary. In 1945 Sutton, along with 11 other prisoners, escaped from Eastern State in an inmate-dug tunnel that went almost 100 feet underground. Sutton was recaptured just minutes later. Over the course of his criminal career Sutton is credited with over 50 bank robberies, three successful escapes from prison, and over 30 years served behind bars. Visitors can step into the cell and view the hole from which Sutton and 11 others escaped.

Our visitors also enjoy viewing the cell of Chicago’s most famous mob boss, Al Capone. According to news reports, his time at Eastern State was spent in relative luxury. Reports stated that his cell housed a cabinet radio, oriental rug, and fine furniture. He also had his tonsils removed from the penitentiary operating room in 1929.

Take a 360-degree panorama view of Al Capone’s cell by visiting kuula.co/post/7lL8y.

TCS: Please explain Eastern State’s revolutionary so-called separate philosophy or correctional system of incarceration, dubbed as the Pennsylvania System of Confinement?

SK: The separate system, or Pennsylvania System, was based on the idea that penitence would lead to reform. Through silence, spiritual reflection, and physical labor, criminals were supposed to find this penitence in their hearts and change their ways. The early system was strict. Inmates has no contact with each other, and even interactions with guards was mild. Meals were even passed through a feeding hole, limiting guard/inmate interaction further. When inmates were taken from their cells, a hood was placed over their head to avoid any contact.

TCS: Can you please describe for us what an inmate experienced in the 1800’s under the Pennsylvania System of Confinement?

SK: When Eastern State was designed, its architect had to create solutions to ensure the success of this separate system. Originally, each cellblock and individual cell was designed with similar architecture to a church, with high, arched ceilings and a single skylight. Because each cell was meant for a single inmate, each has its own exercise yard and flushing toilet.

The penitentiary’s most famous architectural aspect is its radial design, with a central surveillance hub and seven cellblock which radiated from it much like a wagon wheel. This was to ensure complete and total surveillance to ensure control. As additional cellblocks were built over time, this idea of surveillance became harder and harder to achieve.

TCS: Can you please describe for us some of the horrible forms of punishment that the inmates encountered when they broke the rules?

SK: Eastern State officials mostly avoided physical punishments, though straightjackets and other restraints were occasionally applied.

In the 1800s, Eastern State’s “silent system,” or “Pennsylvania system,” stood in opposition to the Auburn system of incarceration employed in New York State prisons such as Auburn and Sing Sing. The Auburn system housed prisoners in solitary cells overnight, but grouped them together during the day for silent labor. Auburn administrators used corporal punishment on those who broke prison rules, while Eastern State officials largely avoided such punishments.

On occasion, Eastern State officials placed prisoners who became unruly or violent, and those who repeatedly disturbed the penitentiary’s silence, in restraints such as the “iron gag” and the “composing chair” (also called the “mad chair” or “tranquilizing chair”). One prisoner, Mathias Maccumsey, died after being placed in the iron gag for attempting to communicate with other prisoners.

Another punishment that officials used on occasion in the 1800s was the “shower bath.” A “shower bath” was a punishment used by prison officials in which a prisoner was restrained and doused with water.

Though solitary confinement had been used in the prison’s early years for rehabilitative purposes, by the early 1900s, solitary cells were reserved for those who broke prison rules. Infractions that resulted in solitary confinement included stealing items from the kitchen, fighting, gambling, cursing an officer, and other misconducts.

TCS: Please share with us the specific changes that occurred to the Penitentiary in the 1900’s and how those changes affected the prisoners daily living conditions and interactions with other inmates versus the 1800s?

SK: The separate system that Eastern State was so infamous for had begun to erode early on. By the late 1800s, inmates were issued hoods with— for the first time—eye holes. They would exercise together, in silence and anonymity. A congregate workshop was added to the complex in 1905, eight years before the Pennsylvania System was officially discontinued. With a large number of prisoners in an aging structure, the system of solitary isolation was completely abandoned in 1913.

An issue that faced the wardens of Eastern State, which we still face today, is prison overcrowding. As the penitentiary took in more and more prisoners, the separate system was no longer realistic or achievable. The original seven cellblocks were no longer enough to hold inmates, and by the time the penitentiary closed in 1970, an additional 8 cellblocks had been added. This compromised both the system of isolation and surveillance that was so pivotal in the 1800s.


TCS: By 1965, the Federal Government designated Eastern State Penitentiary as a National Historic Landmark. In 1971, it was closed. Can you describe for us the various proposals the City of Philadelphia had for the property after it purchased it for redevelopment?

SK: Eastern State sat abandoned for about 16 years before it went up for sale in 1987. Developers placed bids ranging from $2.5 million to $3 million. Suggested developments included a condominium complex, a supermarket, restaurants, and a nightclub. The following year, the preservationist group Eastern State Task Force (which would eventually become Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc.) was formed and the first limited group tours of the prison are offered. The rest, as they say, is history.

TCS: Please describe for us what the public can expect to see or encounter during one of the historic public tours?

SK: There is something for everyone at Eastern State. We offer a daily guided tour with one of our expert tour guides, or visitors can take a self-guided audio tour, “The Voices of Eastern State” Audio Tour, narrated by actor Steve Buscemi. Eastern State also features history exhibits and a critically acclaimed series of artist installations. Visitors can enjoy Hands-On History interactive experiences which allow visitors a closer look through short demonstrations with our expert tour guides. Our latest exhibit, Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration, looks at our nation’s skyrocketing incarceration rate and the driving factors behind it. Eastern State sits on nearly 11 acres, so we encourage visitors to walk around and explore everything the museum has to offer!


TCS: When do you start preparing for Terror Behind the Walls and tell us what exactly goes in to the overall preparation process?

Amy Hollaman: Terror Behind the Walls, America’s largest haunted house, is located inside the massive, castle-like walls of Eastern State Penitentiary. This extraordinary theatrical production is consistently ranked among the top haunted attractions in the nation. Preparation takes place year-round, and once the event is up-and-running it takes an elite team of 14 makeup artists almost three hours to prepare the cast of more than 200 performers each evening.

Terror Behind the Walls is the single largest source of revenue for Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., the 501(c)3 tax-exempt, charitable organization that administers both the daytime prison tour program and the Halloween fundraiser. Since 1991, Terror Behind the Walls has raised more than $5.3 million to fund preservation efforts at this National Historic Landmark.

With the help of Terror Behind the Walls, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site is thriving. Daytime prison tours are available every day, year-round, from 10 am to 5 pm.

TCS: Terror Behind the Walls an annual Haunted House Halloween event, consists of six startling attractions. Can you please describe each of the attractions and tell us what you feel entices visitors from across the country to attend year after year?

AH: Terror Behind the Walls (TBTW) consists of six haunted attractions that create a seamless experience for visitors. All six attractions are included in one admission price. As visitors enter Terror Behind the Walls, they are confronted with a critical decision: should they explore the prison and watch the action, or should they mark themselves to truly interact with the denizens of the cellblocks? Those who opt in for true interactivity may be grabbed, held back, sent into hidden passageways, removed from their group, and even occasionally incorporated into the show. They will deal with the consequences of their decision through six long attractions:

  • Lock Down: The creatures of Lock Down: The Uprising have risen to TBTW from the depths of the darkest universe. They are agile, ruthless, and hungry for flesh. They have no law, no chain of command, no concept of confinement.
  • Machine Shop: Hidden deep inside the cell blocks is a long-forgotten Machine Shop. Evil pervades this space – an evil with one mind but with many bodies.
  • Infirmary: The Infirmary takes the fear of hospitals to a whole new level. Discover the world of prison medical treatment, including shock therapy, hydrotherapy, and other torturous experiments gone wrong.
  • Quarantine 4D: Flat walls appear to have depth, creatures emerge from seemingly nowhere, and some brave visitors will be challenged to face their worst fears.
  • Break Out: Inmates surround you using every way imaginable to escape. Keep an eye out at every corner, as inmates may even be using YOU to aid in their attempt to gain freedom.
  • and, a brand-new attraction for 2017!

Be the first to know about our new attraction – follow us @TerrorAtESP on:

TCS: Can you describe for us the coverage that Eastern State received on Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures and Most Haunted Live, Syfy’s Ghost Hunters, MTVs Fear and others?

SK: Many people believe that Eastern State Penitentiary is haunted. As early as the 1940s, officers and inmates reported mysterious visions and eerie experiences in the ancient prison. With the growing interest in paranormal investigations, Eastern State Penitentiary may now be the most carefully studied building in the United States. Approximately 60 paranormal teams visit to explore the site in a typical year. The penitentiary has been featured on the Travel Channel’s Most Haunted LiveGhost Adventures, and Paranormal Challenge; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR. Footage captured on the second tier of Cellblock 12 by paranormal investigators during filming of SyFy’s Ghost Hunters may be the most controversial ghost sighting in history. During the filming of Paranormal Challenge S01E02, host Zak Bagans called Eastern State Penitentiary “one of the most haunted places in the world.”


Contact or Visit:

The Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130
Website: http://www.easternstate.org
Phone: 215-236-3300

About Frank Iacono

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Frank Iacono is a highly skilled results-oriented Strategic Marketing Professional with proven critical thinking, problem solving, and project management skills, developed through more than 20 years of experience concentrated in integrated marketing strategies. Frank brings a thorough, hands-on understanding of marketing strategies and technological platforms as related to applications available for web design, content development, email marketing, site and campaign analytics, search marketing and optimization, service and product marketing, lead and demand generation, social media, and customer retention.

Frank has a BA degree in English/Communications and Marketing from Cabrini College, and he received his Webmaster Certification from Penn State Great Valley.