Behind Bars at Philadelphia's Storied Eastern State Penitentiary

More than 1,700 criminals once walked these halls; now, tourists visit the infamous prison daily

On a quiet day at Eastern State Penitentiary, you can practically hear the whispers of the past. Standing ominously among brownstone homes and lively cafes in the city’s Fairmount neighborhood, Eastern State—once a famous prison, now a top tourist attraction—is considered the Alcatraz of the East Coast thanks to its fabled past.

After opening in 1829 on farmland in what was once considered the outskirts of the city, Eastern State operated for 142 consecutive years before closing at the dawn of the Seventies and reopening as a tourist attraction in 1994. “The building was designed with the belief that if people were housed in solitary confinement, they would become penitent,” explains Sean Kelley, Eastern State’s program director.

Inside Eastern State Penitentiary

And while the prison itself was built by the state, the Quakers influenced the design and layout controversially intended to enlighten inmates with solitude and labor. The concept was eventually adopted for prisons on five continents, and the characteristic wagon wheel floor plan is still being used in many prisons today. Eastern State became not only one of the most copied, but also the most expensive buildings in the early United States.

“The building had running water and central heat even before the White House,” says Kelley. “The United States president was using a chamber pot at the time the prison opened. Having flush toilets in the 1820s was shocking.”

Famous Faces

While the prison was designed for 250 prisoners—the first of whom was the thief Charles Williams—at its height in the 1920s, 1,700 inmates were housed at Eastern State, including many famous names like Al Capone and Willie Sutton.

Willie Sutton

Capone was nabbed in Philly for carrying a concealed deadly weapon and spent nearly a year behind bars (his first-ever incarceration) in what’s possibly the most popular cell at Eastern State, decked out with lavish antiques and a Persian rug. And Sutton, one of the country’s most legendary bank robbers—famous for telling a reporter that he robbed banks “because that’s where the money is”—also played an interesting role in the prison’s history, in part, for an escape he made with 11 other inmates in 1945 through a tunnel dug by hand.

About 100 inmates have escaped from the penitentiary during its long history. “And only one stayed free,” says Kelley: Leo Callahan, who climbed the prison wall in 1923 and was never heard from again.

Other famous residents of the penitentiary include Pep, a dog that was sent to prison for murdering Governor Gifford Pinchot’s cat, as well as a colony of feral felines that made the prison their home after it shut down in 1971. “The cats lived at Eastern State from the 1970s through the 90s,” says Kelley. A groundskeeper named Dan McCloud fed the felines 50 pounds of food each week. Today, a plaque and 39 sculptures by artist Linda Brenner, called “Ghost Cats,” memorializes both the cats and their caretaker.

Hollywood Ties

Many new spaces have been uncovered and restored for tours in recent years, including a synagogue built in 1924. “It’s a beautiful gem of a space,” says Kelley, “lined with benches under two big skylights.” It opened recently in a small alley inside the prison and is now part of ongoing tours and a memorial exhibition about Jewish life at Eastern State.

Eastern State Penitentiary synagogue

In addition to tours illustrating the penitentiary’s history (Steve Buscemi adds his voice to audio tours), and “Hands-On History” interactive expereiences, visitors can also access underground punishment cells beneath cell block 14 where inmates were held in windowless, concrete rooms until the state eventually declared the manner of confinement unconstitutional.

Thanks to its unique state of disrepair and mysterious lore, Eastern State has also been used as a backdrop in many movies and television shows, including “Transformers 2” with Megan Fox, “12 Monkeys” with Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis, “Return to Paradise” starring Vince Vaughn and CBS’s “Cold Case.” Music videos have also been shot on site by Tina Turner and Philly rapper Beanie Sigel. And according to Kelley, several ghost-hunting shows have also visited the penitentiary, including “Ghost Hunters Academy,” which filmed a segment about alleged hauntings at the site. Because of the prison’s novel approach to punishment during its heyday, it has also received many famous visitors eager for study, including writers Alexis de Tocqueville and Charles Dickens.

Special Events

Throughout the year, visitors can enjoy many special events, including Terror Behind the Walls, considered one of the scariest Halloween events in the country. The adult fright fest turns the already fabled site into a haunted house starting in September and running through Halloween season.

There are also plenty of family-friendly events, including Prison Break Weekend in June that commemorates famous escapes. “There’s an escape theme throughout the site,” says Kelley, including tunnels and rock walls for school-age children. And in April, Tunnels and Towers Weekend kicks off, featuring tours of the punishment cells and Tower Camp, which gives visitors access to remote-controlled cameras atop the towers—and an aerial glimpse onto the grounds.

There are also tours of the kitchen, bakery and back alleys, as well as special movie nights and receptions, and a reunion in May for former inmates and officers. And each spring, artists gather to showcase works selected for a site-specific exhibition.

A nearly empty hallway inside Eastern State Penitentiary

The signature summer event is Bastille Day in July, a reenactment of the storming of the Bastille—complete with “Marie Antoinette” (played annually by Terry McNally, owner of nearby London Grill) tossing cakes over the prison wall. Visitors enjoy an all-day, all-ages, French-themed block party with food, drinks and music. “There’s even a functioning guillotine that is used to slice melons,” says Kelley.

But even with a mouthful of guillotined melon on a summer day, visitors to Eastern State Penitentiary can’t help but be reminded of the inmates who once called this place home.

Eastern State Penitentiary, 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue, 215.236.3300, www.easternstate.org

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