In the middle of gritty downtown Philadelphia stands a fortress, The Eastern State Penitentiary, which was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world and held some of the most notorious lawbreakers of the country, now stands in ruins.
Today, it is a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers, considered by many as one of the creepiest places in the world. It was a great social experiment where the most devastating blow was the sound of silence, which turned inmates into raving lunatics and created fear in the most hardened criminals. The long history of 142 years of the Penitentiary is full of suicide, disease, madness, and torture, which made it easy to imagine spirits of the troubled souls roaming freely in its abandoned halls.
It was during the new era of prison reform in 1787, when the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prison conceived the idea of a prison entirely for solitary confinement. Funded by Quakers, belonging to a historically Protestant denomination, formally known as the Religious Society of Friends, the reformers finally unveiled their masterpiece on 25 October 1829, when the Eastern State Penitentiary was opened.
Designed by John Haviland, it resembles a wagon wheel from above, with a central rotunda and the cell blocks radiating outward like spokes. The unique design made it possible for a lone guard standing in the centre to monitor all the corridors of the penitentiary.
Considered the world's first true penitentiary, the Eastern State Penitentiary was originally constructed as a radical departure from the other prisons of its time. Originally, each of its cells was equipped with its own exercise area, running water, central heating, and private flushing toilets. However, a small portal in the exercise yard, attached to the back of the prison and opened onto the cell blocks, was the only access to the cells, which was used by the guards to supply meals to the prisoners.
But soon the system appeared to be unrealistic, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed to allow the prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through the metal doors, which were again covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out noise. The cells were made of concrete with a single glass skylight, said to represent the Eye of God, suggesting that the prisoners are always under the watch of God.
Basically, the Eastern State Penitentiary was intended not to punish, but to correct and to move the criminals toward spiritual reflection and change. However, in reality, the guards and councilors of the facility designed a variety of physical and psychological tortures, which were unethical, immoral, and simply inhuman. In the first place, the prisoners were not allowed to speak, sing, or hum. It was a place of absolute silence, and that sound of silence was a devastating blow for the inmates. The harsh punishments that were used on the prisoners are clearly a violation of human rights. There was a water tub in which the offending prisoners were doused in freezing water during the winter months and were fastened against an outside wall until ice formed on the naked skin. There was the mad chair where the prisoners were strapped tightly with leather restraints for days on end, which sometimes ended with cut off the blood circulation of the unfortunate prisoner, and ultimately amputations. There was the iron gag in which the hands of the offending prisoner were tied behind the back and the other end was strapped to an iron collar in his mouth, so that struggling against the chains could cause the tongue to tear and bleed painfully. Apart from many other punishments, there was the terrible Hole, an underground cellblock dug under cellblock 14, where the worst behaved prisoners were thrown for as long as two weeks to suffer isolation, without light, exercise, toilet facility, human contact, and insufficient food and air.
However, due to overcrowding problems, the Eastern State Penitentiary officially abandoned the solitary system by 1913 and operated as a congregate prison until it closed in 1971. Although the City of Philadelphia purchased the property intending to redevelope it, the property was left abandoned. While vandals smashed the skylights and windows, an urban forest bloomed in the halls and cells. The abandoned huge fort-like structure with unrestricted growth of unwanted vegetation soon gave birth to several eerie stories, and it came to be known as one of the most haunted places in America. In fact, with its looming towers, gloomy and high stone walls, crumbling corridors, and stark cells, it really took the shape of a haunted fort. Numerous hair-raising experiences retold by the staff, guards and inmates corroborated each other. While cellblock 6 became notorious for shadowy figures darting along the walls, cellblock 12 came to be known for echoing voices, footsteps, wails, and whispers. Even it was reported by many that they saw the silhouette of a guard in one of the towers.
Finally, the gothic building of the Eastern State Penitentiary was declared as a national historic landmark by the federal government declared in 1965, which could not be demolished. Much later, after a series of struggles and discussions, it was opened to the public as a nationally acknowledged museum in 1994, with the mission to interpret the legacy of the American criminal justice system. Today, instead of criminals tourists walk beneath the vaulted ceilings and skylights of the building that once housed by the prisoners.