Eastern State Penitentiary: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

Eastern State Penitentiary: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S.A.

The Silent Treatment

Eastern State Penitentiary, which opened in Philadelphia in 1829 (and closed in 1971), was designed to be an enlightened institution that would reform, not punish, the prisoners interred there. But the experiment went horribly wrong. Strict solitary confinement in tiny cells, it was believed, would allow prisoners to reflect on their crimes, become penitent and mend their ways; the word “penitentiary,” in fact, originated at Eastern State. In practice, however, the severe deprivation of all human contact drove more than one prisoner mad. Author Charles Dickens visited the hulking neo-Gothic structure and was appalled: “I hold the slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body,” he declared.

Located just a few blocks from Philadelphia’s renowned Museum of Art (www.philamuseum.org) and Fairmount Park (www.fairmountpark.org), Eastern State Penitentiary now gives visitors the chance to experience the same degree of shock and disgust that Dickens felt by taking a tour of the 11-acre site. In addition to regular daytime tours, limited groups are allowed to visit ESP during twilight hours and on specially scheduled winter tours. For the truly brave at heart, Eastern State is also the home of Terror Behind the Walls, widely recognized as one of the best—and most realistic—haunted “houses” in the country. Actors portraying inmates and guards reenact the horror experienced inside ESP for guests during Terror Behind the Wall’s seven-week run each fall.

When it was opened, Eastern State was the largest building in North America and reportedly the most costly. Its revolutionary approach to crime and punishment is reflected in the building’s design; eight spokes radiate out from a central tower, giving prison guards unprecedented access and visibility. Prisoners’ cells had only the most spartan furnishings and a small skylight known as “the eye of God.” Entrance to the cells is gained through a small pair of doors, intended to ensure absolute quiet for the prisoners’ reflection. Strict silence was so essential to the atmosphere at ESP that guards wore socks over their shoes to muffle their footsteps.

It wasn’t just the environment that was severe at Eastern State. Prisoners could leave their cells only with hoods over their heads, and punishments for violating rules on silence and other transgressions bordered on the medieval. Some prisoners were forced to stand outside in freezing weather, stripped to the waist, while water was sprayed on them. One particularly gruesome punishment involved an iron clamp on the tongue that would cut deeper into the inmate’s mouth if he moved. Were these sadistic punishments and the macabre atmosphere the cause of the numerous paranormal sightings in the prison? Possibly—but nobody’s talking.

Eastern State Penitentiary, 22nd and Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia, PA ( 215/236-3300; www.easternstate.org).
When to Go: Year-round.
Philadelphia International Airport (13 miles/21km).
$$$ Hotel Windsor, 1700 Benjamin Franklin Pkwy., City Center ( 215/981-5600; www.hotelwindsor.com). $$ Alexander Inn, 301 S. 12th St. ( 215/923-3535; www.alexanderinn.com).

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