Eastern State Penitentiary

Why Was Eastern State Penitentiary Considered To Be Hell On Earth?

The Eastern State Penitentiary is located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, at 2027 Fairmount Avenue between Corinthian Avenue and North 22nd Street in the Fairmount section of the city, and opened its cells in 1829 as the largest building in the U.S. It has been closed since 1971.

This was the first United States prison to be built in such a way, dubbed the “Pennsylvania System” or separate system[1], originated and encouraged the separation of inmates from one another as a form of rehabilitation. After a meeting at Benjamin Franklin‘s house in 1787, the idea of a new type of prison was created.

British architect John Haviland was given the job to design Cherry Hill, as it was called in 1829. He gave the prison a neo-Gothic look to instill fear into those who thought of committing a crime. His design became known as the “hub-and-spoke” plan which consisted of an octagonal center connected by corridors to seven radiating single-story cell blocks, each containing two ranges of large single cells—8 × 12 feet × 10 feet high—with hot water heating, a water tap, toilet, and individual exercise yards the same width as the cell.

When the prison was completed in 1836, it held 450 prisoners. Guards could look into each cell via peepholes without the occupant knowing. A rectangular slot allowed the passage of food and work materials. Each cell was only lit by a window or skylight which was known as the “Window of God” or “Eye of God”.

During their time in their cells, they worked on prison projects such as shoemaking or weaving. Prisoners were allowed time in their individual exercise yards which were designed so that they could not communicate with each other. They were allowed to garden and even keep pets in these areas. If a prisoner left his cell his head was covered with a hood so the others could not recognize him. In 1831, it was realized that more space was needed so they started adding a second floor to all the wings. In 1832 the first escape was made by a prisoner that had been deemed low risk and made the warden’s waiter. He lowered himself from the roof of the front building. He was captured but escaped in the same way in 1837.

I am persuaded that those who designed this system… do not know what it is they are doing… I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.

Charles Dickens (not impressed with the prison)

By 1836, the building was the largest and most expensive public structure ever erected in the United States at the cost of $780,000. In the 1870s four new cellblocks were added between the existing wings. The individual exercise yards were eliminated and the prisoners exercised together in silence while masked.

Two thousand prisoners were housed by 1923, with more cells being built, some below ground. This included “The Hole”, under block #14. Here, inmates would stay locked, sometimes for weeks, with no light, no human contact, with only bread and water to eat. Also, In 1923, all-female prisoners were removed and sent to the new prison at Muncy. Leo Callahan and five accomplices armed with pistols used a ladder to scale the east wall in July of 1923 and escape. Callahan was never found. There were riots in 1933 and 1934 where the prisoners set a lot of fires.

During renovations in the 1930s, thirty incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were discovered. In April 1945, twelve men escaped in a 97-foot tunnel built by Clarence Klinedinst, who worked as a prison plasterer. They were quickly re-captured. The tunnel began in a cell at the end of Cell Block 67 and exited outside the penitentiary wall near the corner of 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue.

Some of the various physical and psychological torture regimens for various infractions were the “water bath” – inmates soaked in freezing cold water and hung outside in the winter until ice formed on their skin; an “Iron-gag” torture device was placed in their mouth and chained to their hands behind the back, with movement causing it to rip the tongue; they would be bound tightly to the “mad chair” for days, sometimes circulation would be cut off for so long that limbs had to be amputated.

Some of the most notable inmates were Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, the famous mob boss who spent 8 months here for carrying a concealed weapon. Victor “Babe” Andreoli, was serving a life sentence in 1937 for murder and escaped in 1943. He was hunted down and shot dead at a Chester, PA diner. Morris “The Rabbi” Bolber, was incarcerated in 1942 as a member of an arsenic murder ring located in Philadelphia.

The prison held women for about 100 years and Freda Frost was the last of them, serving a 20-year sentence for murder. She was transferred to the Muncy Industrial Home for Women in 1923. William Francis “Slick Willie” Sutton spent 11 years here. He robbed 50 banks, escaped from prison 3 times, and spent over 30 years behind bars.

The prison has been labeled one of the most haunted places in the world. Al Capone was one of the first to be haunted, complaining that there was a ghost sharing his cell with him in 1929.

After the prison was closed in 1971, there were several stories about the prison being haunted by the ghosts and spirits of the long-dead prisoners who went insane due to the excessive mental and physical torture they suffered. Eerie sounds have been heard by staff, guards, and prisoners as well as visitors which date back to the 1940s, making this one of the most haunted locations in the world.

There have been reports of hooded entities and shadows in the corridors. There have been many TV shows like Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, Portals to Hell and Most Haunted Live, MTV’s Fear, and Syfy’s Ghost Hunters visiting the Eastern State Penitentiary.

Crying in extreme pain, orbs, streaks of light, cell doors opening, slamming, disembodied sounds, touching, and scratching has been reported. While the prison was operating, there were over 50 suicides and a dozen murders within its walls.

Two six-foot-tall stone gargoyles flank the prison entrance, snarling at all who dare to enter its gates. It became a National Historic Landmark in 1965, closing in 1971, and reopening for tours in the 1990s. Up to 300,00o visitors walk these halls each year.

  1. A separate system is a form of prison management based on the principle of keeping prisoners in solitary confinement. When first introduced in the early 19th century, the objective of such a prison or “penitentiary” was that of penance by the prisoners through silent reflection upon their crimes and behavior, as much as that of prison security. More commonly, however, the term “separate system” is used to refer to a specific type of prison architecture built to support such a system.


Eastern State Penitentiary
The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia
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Mysterious Facts
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Author: Doyle

I was born in Atlanta, moved to Alpharetta at 4, lived there for 53 years and moved to Decatur in 2016. I've worked at such places as Richway, North Fulton Medical Center, Management Science America (Computer Tech/Project Manager) and Stacy's Compounding Pharmacy (Pharmacy Tech).

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