• Gaby Triana

Haunt Files #4 - EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY by Noah C. Nuñez


Where in the World?

2027 Fairmount Ave

Philadelphia, PA 19130



Want to visit one of the most haunted failed experiments in the world? Eastern State Penitentiary, designed by British architect John Haviland, is now the ruins of a once expensive and architecturally beautiful prison. The gothic revival design gave the penitentiary its signature scary look, intended to discourage prisoners from upheaval. Ahead of its time, the prison even had running water and heat before the White House. Its radial design, like the spokes of a wheel, served as a blueprint for many prisons built since. Once known as “Cherry Hill,” it erected in Francisville, Philadelphia in 1829. At the time, it was the largest and most expensive structure in the country. The complex consisted of a semi or full circle array, which allowed the prisoners to be under constant surveillance from a tower directly in the middle of the structure. The blueprint for the prison became known as “the-hub-and-spoke plan." This design included an octagon shaped center that connected to seven single story cell blocks. The cells included a water tap with heating, a toilet, a Bible, and exercise yards.

In its heyday, Eastern State's ideology, also known as the Pennsylvania System, was based on the assumption that people were inherently good. They believed that when subjected to elongated periods of solitary confinement, the prisoners would become penitent, thus the name “Eastern State Penitentiary." Prisoners must have believed this was a better alternative to normal prisons where abuse ran rampant. However, the effect was likely worse. In 1913, the solitary confinement concept was rescinded due to its lack of effectiveness and for space. A mess hall was built on campus, and the prison's population increased from 250 to 1700. This meant that the prisoners could finally exchange words and eat together.

In 1945, one of the most famous escape attempts was initiated when a plaster worker named Clarence Kleindienst dug a 127-foot-long tunnel that came out of the far side of the prison wall. He escaped with ten other men on the morning of April 3rd. However, he was captured soon after. By 1971, the prison was severely weathered and unable to function any longer. In 1994, they opened their doors for public tours.

Before rescinding the Pennsylvania System, the prison was made to hold 252 people. Each had their own cell with a skylight above symbolizing “The Eye of God," meaning they were all to serve their sentence in solitary confinement under the watchful and judgmental eye of God. Many thought this was good for prisoners to find remorse and salvation, but this drove many prisoners, especially those with pre-existing medical conditions, insane to the point that they either killed themselves, or other inmates as well.

Haunted History

Prisoners spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, with only two 30 minute breaks. Every two weeks the prisoners were taken to bathe. They were given hoods so that they were unable to see other inmates. Those who spoke were punished heavily. Some of their torture methods included pouring water onto a prisoner and leaving them out in the cold weather until morning, a chair that prisoners were strapped to and not fed for days, and throwing them into a pit with no food, water, or a toilet for days or weeks. Although Eastern State Penitentiary didn’t support execution, it still had its fair share of murders and deaths over the years. At least two guards were murdered over the years as well as many inmates. Hundreds of other inmates died as a result of old age, disease, or suicide over the years as well.

Starting in the 1940’s, people started reporting mysterious and eerie experiences at the prison, and its haunted reputation just grew from there. In the 80 years since, Eastern State certainly seen its share of paranormal encounters. Some of these include crying sounds, as if someone was being tortured, orbs or streaks of light appearing and then disappearing, disembodied voices in the prisons halls, people reportedly hearing their names called when there was nobody there, people reportedly feeling someone tap them on the shoulder, sadistic laughter, cell doors opening then suddenly slamming shut, cell doors jiggling, and furniture being dragged. Many paranormal investigators visiting the prison from around the world claim its dark aura is steeped in paranormal occurrences.

Many people have shared their paranormal encounters at Eastern State Penitentiary, and many encounters happen in specific locations within the prison. For example, the reports of crying babies is always inside cell block 7. Others have said they’ve seen a guard tower who materializes at night. One story includes former locksmith Gary Johnson. He told how one day he was assigned to remove a lock in cell block 4. He described the feeling of being watched intensely, and as he opened the lock, he felt an overwhelming force pushing him, as well as saw faces on the wall in front of him, presumably tortured souls who were killed or committed suicide in the prison. Eastern State has even been featured on many paranormal investigative shows, such as Ghost Hunters, Paranormal Adventures, and BuzzFeed Unsolved.

If you would like to visit Eastern State Penitentiary, consider booking a tour. They are open from 10 AM to 5 PM, except holidays. Unfortunately, the historic site is currently closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Normally, they operate an annual haunted house event called “Terror Behind The Walls," though that will be closed for the year of 2020 as well. For more information, visit their site: https://www.easternstate.org/halloween/node/3.

Noah Nuñez is a 9th grade writer and tutor who lives in Miami.

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