When compiling a list of places in America where Ghosts are Most Frequently found, prisons and jails are high on the list. The amount of trauma, pain and terror experience by men who are incarcerated often leaves a lasting impression behind. The horrible events that occur in some of these places cause the spirit of the men who lived and died here to linger behind as well. Jails and prisons can be terrifying places -- for those in this world and the next!
BY TROY TAYLOR
I. AMERICAN PENITENTIARY
One of the first institutions brought to the New World by the early settlers was the jail, a place where lawbreakers could be held while they awaited trial and subsequent punishment. There were more than 150 offenses in those days for which the punishment was death and for the rest, there was whipping, branding, beatings or public humiliation. At that time, the jail was not a place where criminals were kept for punishment. In fact, the idea of a prison was a purely American institution that would have a profound effect on both this country and around the world.
The first state prison was the notorious Newgate, established in Connecticut in 1773. It was actually an abandoned copper mine where prisoners were chained together and forced into hard labor about 50 feet underground. Newgate became the first "hell hole" of American prisons, but it would not be the last. Almost immediately, social reformers appeared, but it has been questioned whether or not their efforts to achieve humane treatment helped or harmed the prisoners. The first reform was attempted in 1790 at Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail. It was renovated by the Quakers for the jail was described as being a scene of "universal riot and debauchery.. with no separation of those accused but yet untried... from convicts sentenced for the foulest crimes."
The jail was remodeled in 1790 and for the first time, men and women were housed separately in large, clean rooms. Debtors were placed in another part of the jail from those being held for serious offenses and children were removed from the jail entirely. Hardened offenders were placed in solitary confinement in a "penitentiary house" and prisoners were given work and religious instruction. Within a short time though, the Walnut Street jail became overcrowded and a new institution had to be constructed.
Around this same time, two new prisons were built and would soon become models for the rest of the nation. Eastern Penitentiary was built in Philadelphia in 1829 to further the Quaker’s idea of prisoner isolation as a form of punishment. Prisoners were confined in windowless rooms with running water and toilets. They would come into contact with no living persons, save for an occasional guard or a minister who would come to pray with them and offer spiritual advice. This extreme isolation caused many of the prisoners to go insane and it comes as no surprise that the prison is believed to be haunted today. Also in 1829, a rival system, which gained wider acceptance, was started with the building of a prison in Auburn, New York. Here, the prisoners worked together all day at hard labor and then were isolated at night, as they were at the Eastern Penitentiary.
Even though they worked together, inmates were forbidden to talk to one another and were forced to march from place to place in the prison with their eyes always directed downward. The warden of the prison was Elam Lynds, who believed the purpose of the system was to break the spirit of the prisoners. He personally whipped the men and urged the guards to treat the prisoners with brutality and contempt. One standard punishment was the "water cure", which consisted of fastening a prisoner’s neck with an iron yoke and then pouring an ice-cold stream of water onto his head. At other times, the man would be chained to a wall and then the water would be turned on him through a high-pressure hose. While the pain was unbearable, it left no marks.
The Auburn system began to be adopted throughout America because it was much cheaper to operate than the Pennsylvania system. The cells were much smaller and money was to be made from the inmate labor. And as the system spread, the treatment of the prisoner became even more imaginative. The striped uniform was first introduced at Sing Sing and floggings, the sweatbox, the straitjackets, the iron yoke, the thumb screws and the stretcher became widely used. The "stretcher" had a number of variations. A man might be handcuffed to the top of the bars of his cell so that his feet barely touched the floor, then left that way all day -- or his feet might be chained the floor and his wrists tied to a pulley on the ceiling. When the rope was pulled, the prisoner was stretched taut. "Sweatboxes" were metal chambers that were so small that the prisoner literally had to crawl inside. They might be left in such confinement all day and in some cases, the boxes were moved close to a furnace so that the heat inside of them would be intensified.
The Auburn system was based on cruelty and repression, with the idea that such treatment would reform prisoners and make them change their ways. Instead, it was a failure and led to riots, death and the closure of many of the institutions. Unfortunately, many of the practices have been adopted (in some degree) by modern prisons.
After the Civil War, new ideas began to be experimented with. In 1870, men like Enoch Cobbs Wines, and others who formed the American Prison Association, started the reformatory system. The Elmira Reformatory, the first of the new type, opened in New York in 1876. Although the reformatory plan was originally intended for all ages, prisoners at Elmira were limited to between the ages of 16 and 30. The principle of the plan was reformation, rather than punishment and was hailed as a great advance in humane treatment of prisoners. By 1900, 11 states had adopted the reformatory system but by 1910, the plan was considered dead. Most guards and wardens were incapable of administering the grading program and fell back on favoritism rather than reformation. Because of this, many of the men who were paroled, and were allegedly "reformed", went right back out and committed new crimes. Today, many prisons are still called by the name of "reformatory" but are merely a part of the general prison system.
Despite some of the claims, there has been little advance in prisons since the introduction of the system in 1829, although thanks to reform wardens like Thomas Mott Osborne and Lewis E. Lawes, much of the outright cruelty and squalor of the earlier prisons has been considerably reduced. Still, many of the extreme punitive concepts have persisted, as evidenced by the 1930’s "super prison" of Alcatraz. This prison, called by some the "American Devil’s Island", was the worst of the federal prisons and was said to be escape proof. According to some estimates, almost 60 percent of the inmates went stir crazy there. Alcatraz left an extreme mark on the prisoners and on the guards and staff members as well. It soon lost its original purpose of confinement for escape artists and troublemakers and became a place to put inmates who it was deemed deserved harsher treatment, like Al Capone. By 1963, Alcatraz was shut down, having proven to be a failure.
And some would consider the entire American prison system a failure as well. Many critics have charged that the prisons have failed to reform criminals or even to act as a deterrent to crime. Eventually, prisoners are simply released, mostly due to a lack of space, and they go right back out and commit new crimes. Many of the prisons themselves have returned to the status of "hell holes" as well. The brutal conditions often lead to permanent injury, insanity, trauma and death. Is it any wonder that prisons and jails have become known as such haunted places?
2. EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY
After the changes at the Walnut Street Jail in 1790, the Quakers of Philadelphia began to search for a new method of incarceration for criminals in which "penitence" would become essential in the punishment of the lawbreaker. (Thus, we have the word "penitentiary"). The Quaker’s concept of such incarceration would involve solitary confinement, a method already popular in Europe with members of monastic orders. It was believed that if monks could achieve peace through solitary confinement and silence, then criminals could eventually be reformed using the same methods. After years of overcrowding at the Walnut Street jail, a new prison was proposed within the city limits of Philadelphia.
Called Eastern State Penitentiary, it was be designed to hold 250 prisoners in total 250 prisoners in total solitary confinement and opened in 1829. An architect named John Haviland was hired and he set to work creating an institution in the popular "hub and spoke" design. It had been used in prisons throughout Europe and was highly effective, allowing for a constant surveillance of the prison from a central rotunda. The original design called for seven cell blocks to radiate outward from the center house and guard post.
Prisoners were confined in windowless rooms that were small, but were equipped with both running water and toilets. This was an amazing innovation for the time period as very few public or private buildings were equipped with indoor facilities. Of course, the reason for this was not for the comfort of the prisoner but to keep him out of contact with other people. The walls were thick and soundproof, so prisoners never saw each other. Each prisoner was also given his own exercise yard, surrounded by a brick wall, furthering the sense of extreme isolation. They would see no other inmate from the time they entered the prison until the time they were released.
Construction began on the prison in May 1822. The site selected for it was an elevated area that had once been a cherry orchard. Because of this, the prison later acquired the nickname of Cherry Hill. As construction began, changes forced John Haviland to create new designs so that the prison could hold an addition 200 prisoners. At that time, the prison was the most expensive single structure ever built but Haviland’s design would become so popular that it would be copied for nearly 300 institutions around the world.
Although the prison would not be completed until 1836, it began accepting prisoners in 1829. The first inmate was Charles Williams, who was sentenced to two years for burglary. Like all of the other prisoners who would be incarcerated here, Williams was stripped of his clothing, measured, weighed and given a physical examination. He was also given a number and was not referred to by his name until the day that he was released. A record was made of his height, weight, age, place of birth, age, complexion, color of hair and eyes, length of feet and if he was able to write, the prisoner placed his name on the record.
An Early print
showing the “hub and spoke” method of design for the prison. In this way,
guards could patrol the penitentiary from a central location.
A floor plan of Eastern State
that was created in 1836. The prison had already started to grow and would
see more additions over the next century.
After the prisoner was examined, he was given a pair of wool trousers, a jacket with a number sewn on it, two handkerchiefs, two pairs of socks and a pair of shoes. Then, a mask that resembled a burlap bag was placed over his head so that he would not be able to see the prison as he was taken to his cells. It was believed that if an inmate were unable to see which direction to go if he slipped out of his cell, it would be harder for him to escape. The masks were eventually discontinued in 1903.
The small cell doors remain intact
After that, he was taken to his cell. As he entered it, he would be forced to stoop down (as a penitent would) because the doorways were shortened to remind the prisoners of humility. Above him would be the only lighting in the cell, a narrow window in the ceiling that was called the "Eye of God".
Silence had to be maintained at Eastern State at all times. The guards even wore socks over their shoes while they made their rounds. By doing this, they moved in secret around the prison and while the inmates could not hear them, the officers could hear any sounds coming from inside of the cells. The prisoners were not allowed any sort of books or reading material and could not communicate with anyone in any way. If they were caught whistling, singing or talking (even to themselves), they were deprived of dinner or were taken to one of the punishment cells. Any prisoners who repeatedly broke the rules were taken to a punishment cell and were restricted to a half-ration of bread and water.
Even though communication was forbidden, most of the prisoners attempted it anyway. The easiest way to do this was to attach a note to a small rock and toss it over the wall into the next exercise yard. It was probably the quietest form of communication and the most popular. Other forms of contact ranged from coded tapping on the walls to whistling softly and even muffled speech. Since there were vents for heat in every cell, a limited amount of contact could be made through the ducts. They could also tap on the vents and be heard by several prisoners at once. However, if they were caught, they knew with certainty that they would be punished.
At first, punishment at Eastern State was mild compared to other institutions. Most prisons used the lash, a leather strap that was administered to the back, but officials at Eastern State believed that solitary confinement in the 8 x 12 stone cells was punishment enough. However, as the prisoners began to repeatedly break the rules, the punishments became more intense -- going far beyond the plans that had been conceived by the Quakers. The most common forms of punishment created by the prison staff became the Straitjacket, the Iron Gag, the Water Bath and the Mad Chair.
The straitjacket was commonly used by mental institutions to restrain crazed patients and to keep them from hurting themselves or others. At Eastern State, the jacket was used in a different way. Inmates would be bound into the jacket and soon their face, hands and neck would become numb. Eventually, they would turn black from a lack of blood flow and the inmate would usually pass out. The use of the straitjacket was finally discontinued around 1850.
The dreaded Iron Gag
The Mad Chair was another form of punishment, or restraint, adapted again from mental asylums. Here, the prisoner would be tied to the chair by chains and leather straps and held so firmly that he was unable to move at all. After long periods of time, his limbs would become very painful and swollen. The offending prisoners would often find themselves strapped into the chairs, unable to move a muscle, for periods of time befitting their punishments. These periods could last anywhere from a few hours to days. Prisoners who spent any length of time in the chair would find themselves unable to walk for hours (or even days) afterward. Their limbs were often a bluish-black color, caused by the lack of circulation, and it could take a week or more before they returned to their normal color.
The Water Bath was another punishment that was adapted from "treatments" at mental hospitals at the time. It involved either dunking, or drenching, a prisoner in ice cold water and then hoisting them up in chains to spend the night attached to the wall. This punishment was especially popular with the more brutal guards during the winter months, when the water would freeze onto the inmates skin.
The Iron Gag was the most commonly used punishment -- and the one most feared by the prisoners. It was a device that was placed over the inmate’s tongue while his hands were crossed and tied behind his neck. His arms were then pulled taut and the hands secured just behind the man’s neck. The gag was then attached to his tongue and his hands and locked in place. Any movement of the hands would tear at the gag and cause intense pain. The inmate’s mouth would be bloody and sore by the time he was released from their bonds.
As mentioned previously, such measures had not been devised as part of the system of penitence, created by the Quakers. They had been improvised by the guards and by officials at the prison, who incidentally were already been investigated by the state for questionable financial dealings in 1834, two years before the prison was officially completed. Later that same year, the prison would be investigated (for the first time) for inhumane treatment of prisoners. Investigations continued over the years and revealed chilling and horrific punishments that had not been conceived of by even the early guards. For example, Block 13, which was constructed in 1925, contained especially small cells that had no light and no ventilation. Prisoners who broke the rules were incarcerated in these cells but when they were discovered by inspectors years later, authorities were ordered to tear down the walls between them and make them larger chambers. Another dark discovery was made when inspectors uncovered "the Hole" under Block 14.
It was a pit that had been dug under the cell block that was reserved for especially troublesome inmates. They were often kept for weeks in this black, rectangle of earth, chasing away rats and vermin and subsisting on only one cup of water and one slice of bread each day.
While punishments and seclusion were undoubtedly hard on the health of the prisoners, the diseases within the prison were even worse. During the first few years of the prison, poor planning caused the odor of human waste to constantly invade every part of the building. This was caused by the design of the vents and by the plumbing and heating methods that were used. Water was supplied to every cell for the toilets and for the running water. Since the prisoners were only permitted to bathe every three weeks, they were forced to wash themselves in the basins inside of their cells. To heat the water and the rest of the prison, coal stoves were placed in tunnels underneath the floors. Since the sewer pipes from the toilets ran alongside the pipes for the fresh water, the coal stoves also heated the waste pipes. Because of this, the prison always smelled like human waste. The problem was finally corrected in later years because of the frequency of illnesses among the prisoners and the guards.
A largely intact cell (likely dated
circa 1960’s) that was found in an area of the prison closed to the
general public today.
But most damaged of all was the mental health of the inmates. The inmates at Eastern State often went insane because of the isolated conditions and so many cases were reported that eventually the prison doctors began to invent other reasons for the outbreaks of mental illness. It was believed at that time that excessive masturbation could cause insanity. Because of this, the doctor’s log book of the period listed many cases of insanity, always with masturbation as the cause. It was also noted that many of the men went insane because of their genes and these two diagnoses remained popular throughout the 1800’s. It was never documented that the total isolation caused any of the men’s breakdowns.
Without question though, being imprisoned at Eastern was mind numbing. The prisoner was required to remain in his cell all day and all night in solitary confinement, thinking of nothing but their crimes. The system was brutal on the inmates but hard for the warden and guards as well. The first warden at Eastern was Samuel Wood and it was up to him to insure that the punishment of total solitary confinement was carried out. He and his family were required to reside on the premises of the prison and were not allowed to leave for periods of more than 18 hours without permission from the prison commission.
One of the biggest problems in the early days at Eastern was keeping the guards sober. It was so boring making the rounds and maintaining total silence that the guards often drank to combat the monotony. At one point, the guards were even given a ration of alcohol during the workday so that they would not drink too much. However, few of them remained sober so the prison commission eventually passed a rule that threatened anyone found drunk on the job with immediate termination.
|Eventually, Eastern State Penitentiary became the most famous prison in America and tourists came from all over the country to see it. Some sightseers traveled from even further abroad. Perhaps the most famous Eastern tourist was the author Charles Dickens. He came to the prison during his five-month tour of America in 1842 and named it as one of his essential destinations, right after Niagara Falls. Although he came to the prison with the best of intentions, he really did not believe the officials knew what damage the isolation was doing to the minds of the prisoners. He later wrote about his trip to the prison in 1845 and stated that "the system here is rigid, strict, and hopeless solitary confinement... I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong." He went on to write about the inhumane treatment of the inmates and after speaking to many of them, came to believe that the solitary conditions were a "torturing of the mind that is much worse that any physical punishment that can be administered."|
Dickens wrote about a number of the prisoners that he encountered during his visit, including a man who had turned every inch of the interior of his cell into a breathtaking mural. Dickens was stunned when he saw it and exclaimed that it was one of the most amazing works of art that he had ever seen. He tried to speak to the man who had created it but was shocked when he realized that the prisoner’s eyes and expression were totally blank. Although he did not rant, rave or weep hysterically, Dickens knew that the man had gone totally insane.
And this man was just one of the thousands who were incarcerated at the prison during its years of silence. The loneliness, misery and solitude drove many of them to madness. The conditions of the place drove many of the inmates over the brink, leaving little doubt as to why insanity and escape attempts were a major problem at Eastern State Penitentiary throughout the 1800’s and beyond.
Although it wasn’t easy for a prisoner to escape, there were many that tried. The only way to get out was to scale the wall of the exercise yard and then make to the high wall or the front gate. This had to be done without attracting the attention of the guards and with the added disadvantage of not knowing the prison layout. Each of the inmates had brought into the prison and then marched to their cells with hoods over their heads so that they could not see their surroundings. In spite of this, the first escape came in 1832. Prisoner number 94, a prison baker named William Hamilton, was serving dinner in the warden’s apartment. The warden stepped out of the room for a moment and Hamilton managed to tie several sheets together and lower himself out the window. He was not caught until 1837 and when he was, he was returned to his old cell.
There were other escapes as well, but the most memorable came in 1926. Eight prisoners took turns tunneling under cells 24 and 25. They went down about eight feet and then started digging toward the outer wall. The tunnel had been extended nearly 35 feet before they were caught. A similar tunnel actually succeeded in making it out of the prison in April 1945. A group of prisoners, using wood from the prison shop for reinforcement, managed to dig a shaft under the prison and beyond the wall. After it was completed, the men went out at slightly different times to avoid being noticed. By the time they all reached the tunnel’s exit, the guards had realized they were missing and the last two were caught climbing out of the tunnel. The others were apprehended a few blocks away.
The method of total solitary confinement was finally abandoned in the 1870’s. It was largely considered a failure in that it was too expensive to manage and had shown little in the way of results. It was decided that Eastern State would become a regular prison. From this point on, being sent to solitary confinement was a punishment and no longer the accepted norm at the prison. The prisoners were no longer confined to their cells only and a dining hall and athletic field were built. Since the prisoners no longer needed the individual exercise yards, the areas were converted into cells to help with the overcrowding that was starting to affect the prison. Between 1900 and 1908, many of the original cells were also renovated and what had once been a small chamber for one man, became close quarters for as many as five. Along with these changes came new cell blocks, a wood shop, a new boiler room and other buildings where the prisoners could labor. There were also art and educational programs added as the prison system began to try and rehabilitate the inmates rather than merely punish them. The work done by the inmates also helped both the prisoners and the prison itself. No work was contracted out and the goods that were made in the shops were sold and the proceeds helped to pay for the prison’s expenses for many years.
In 1924, Eastern State saw what must have been the most unusual inmate ever incarcerated in the penitentiary during the entire history of the institution. According to prison lore, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" to a life sentence at Eastern State in August of that year. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot at left. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale and the story of the "cat murder" was concocted as a humorous publicity story.
During the early years of the Twentieth Century, the first rumors of ghosts began to circulate at the prison. The walls of the place had an almost tangible oppressiveness about them and it was not hard to believe that the generations of prisoners who had lived, died and lost their sanity within the penitentiary could still be lingering behind. However, the first real ghost story of Eastern State surrounded not the prison itself but perhaps the most famous (or infamous) prisoner to ever be incarcerated here -- Al Capone.
Following the bloody events of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, Capone slipped out of town in May 1929 to avoid the heat that was still coming down from the massacre and to avoid being suspected in the deaths of several of the men believed responsible for the killing of the Moran gang. While in Philadelphia, he and his trusted bodyguard Frankie Rio were picked up on charges of carrying concealed weapons and were sentenced to a year in prison. They eventually ended up in the Eastern Penitentiary.
Capone continued to conduct business from prison. He was given a private cell and allowed to make long-distance telephone calls from the warden’s office and to meet with his lawyers and with Frank Nitti, Jack Guzik and his brother, Ralph, all of whom made frequent trips to Philadelphia. An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger for August 20, 1929, described Capone's cell: "The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk.... On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish..." The place was obviously unlike the cells that were being used by other prisoners of the time! He was released two months early on good behavior and when he returned to Chicago, he found himself branded Public Enemy Number One.
It was while he was incarcerated in Pennsylvania that Capone first began to be haunted by the ghost of James Clark, one of the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre victims and the brother-in-law of his rival Bugs Moran. While in prison, other inmates reported that they could hear Capone screaming in his cell begging "Jimmy" to go away and leave him alone. After his release, while living back in Chicago at the Lexington Hotel, there were many times when his men would hear from begging for the ghost to leave him in peace. On several occasions, bodyguards broke into his rooms, fearing that someone had gotten to their boss. Capone would then tell them of Clark’s ghost. Did Capone imagine the whole thing, or was he already showing signs of the psychosis that would haunt him after his release from Alcatraz prison?
Al Capone’s unflattering 1929
mugshot when he was arrested on weapons chargers in Philadelphia.
Whether the ghost was real or not, Capone certainly believed that he was. The crime boss even went so far as to contact a psychic named Alice Britt to get rid of Clark’s angry spirit. Not long after a séance was conducted to try and rid Capone of the vengeful spirit, Hymie Cornish, Capone’s personal valet also believed that he saw the ghost. He entered the lounge of Capone’s apartment and spotted a tall man standing near the window. Whoever the man was, he simply vanished. Years later, Capone would state that Clark’s vengeful specter followed him from the Eastern State Penitentiary -- to the grave.
Eastern State underwent sweeping reforms in 1913 after the structure overflowed with a population of 1,700. But despite the renovations that followed, talk began to circulate in the 1960’s about closing the place down. By this time, it was in terrible shape and the only way to keep it in operation was to renovate it again. The buildings were still overcrowded and walls had crumbled in some locations and in others, ceilings were starting to collapse. The cost of repairing the prison was nearly as high as building a new one. By 1970, Pennsylvania Governor Shafer announced that four new prisons would be built to replace Eastern State. Most of the men from Eastern State would be transferred to Graterford Prison, which would be located about 25 miles from Philadelphia. Construction began immediately on this institution to help relieve the overcrowding and the concern about the conditions at the old prison. As Graterford was completed in 1971, prisoners began to be sent there. On April 14, 1971, Eastern State was completely empty. The last of the men were transferred out and the prison was shut down until a short time later, when it became the Center City Detention Center.
Prison riots at the New Jersey State Prison at Trenton later that year forced Eastern State to open its doors once again. Because of the overcrowding and the riots at the New Jersey prison, a number of the inmates had to be relocated. Eastern State was the closest available facility and they were temporarily moved here. The place operated with a skeleton crew for eight months and then was shut down again.
Once more, the prison stood empty and silent.
3. Ghosts of Eastern State Penitentiary
Whispers and rumors of ghosts had echoed from the prison walls for many years before the penitentiary was actually closed down. By the time the building’s last living prisoners were removed though, anyone who had spent any time in the place were certain that something supernatural was taking place at Eastern State. It has been said that when the last guards made their rounds through the prison, this last foray into the darkness caused them to utter chilling stories to one another -- and to anyone else who would listen and not think them insane. They spoke of the sounds of footsteps in the corridors, pacing feet in the cells, eerie wails that drifted from the darkest corners of the complex and dark shadows that resembled people flitting past now darkened doorways and past windows and cells. It seemed that the abandoned halls, corridors and chambers were not so empty after all! Those who left the penitentiary on that final day had become convinced that a strange presence had taken over the building and most breathed a sigh of relief to be gone.
But if ghosts lingered in the building, they would soon be sharing the place with a handful of those from among the living. In the middle 1970’s, the empty prison was designated as a National Historic Landmark and was eventually purchased by the city of Philadelphia to be used as a tourist attraction. The Pennsylvania Prison Society of Philadelphia was placed in charge of operating and promoting it as a historic site and they continue to conduct tours of the penitentiary today.
And from these tours and forays into the prison, came more the tales of ghosts and hauntings. Without question, the prison was designed to be a frightening place and in recent times, it has become even more so. The prison still stands as a ruin of crumbling cellblocks, empty guard towers, rusting doors and vaulted, water-stained ceilings. It is a veritable fortress and an intimidating place for even the most hardened visitors. But does the spooky atmosphere of the place explain the ghostly tales as merely tricks of the imagination? Those who have experienced the spirits of Eastern State say that it does not!
"The idea of staying in this penitentiary alone is just overwhelming... I would not stay here overnight," stated Greta Galuszka, a program coordinator for the prison.
Over the years, volunteers and visitors alike have had some pretty strange experiences in the prison. In Cell Block 12, several independent witnesses have reported the hollow and distant sound of laughter echoing in certain cells. No source can ever be discovered for the noises. Others have reported the presence of shadowy apparitions in the cells and the hallways, as though prisoners from the past can find no escape from this inhuman place. Several volunteers believe that they have seen these ghostly figures in the "six block", while others have seen them darting across corridors and vanishing into rooms. Eastern State’s Death Row has also been the scene of strange encounters and chilling visitations by the same shadowy figures encountered by others.
A locksmith named Gary Johnson was performing some routine restoration work one day when he had his own odd encounter. "I had this feeling that I was being watched," he recalled, "but I turned and I’m looking down the block and there’s nobody there. A couple of seconds later and I get the same feeling... I’m really being watched! I turn around and I look down the block and shoooom.... this black shadow just leaped across the block!" Johnson still refers to the prison as a "giant haunted house."
Angel Riugra, who has also worked in the prison, agrees. "You feel kinda jittery walking around because you feel something there, but when you turn around, you don’t see anything," he said. "It’s kinda weird, it’s spooky!"
One of the most commonly reported specters in the prison is encountered by staff members and visitors alike among the older cellblocks. The phantom is always described as being a dark, human-like figure who stands very still and quiet. The figure usually goes unnoticed until the visitor gets too close to him and he darts away. The sightings never last for long but each person who has encountered the apparition state that it gives off a feeling of anger and malevolence. Could this be a prisoner who has remained behind in protest of the inhumane treatment that he and so many others received in this cruel and brutal place? Perhaps -- and it’s likely that this single spirit does not walk here alone.
Another of the penitentiary’s most frequently seen spirits is a ghost that stands high above the prison walls in a guard tower. It has been assumed for many years that this is a the spirit of a former guard who is still standing his post after all of these years. One has to wonder why a guard, who was free to leave this place at the end of the day, would choose to remain behind at the prison. But perhaps he has no choice -- we can only speculate as to what dark deeds this lonesome man may have been witness to, or perhaps had taken part in, during his years at the prison. Maybe he is now compelled to spend eternity watching over the walls that held so many prisoner in days gone by.
As intimidating as all of this sounds though, it is the history and the hauntings of the prison that continue to bring people back. Many of the staff members, while unsettled by the strange events that sometimes occur, are nevertheless fiercely protective of the place and are determined to see that it is around for many years to come. Even so, they can’t help but feel that forces are at work inside of the prison.
"So much did happen here," Greta Galuszka added, "that there’s the potential for a lot of unfinished business to be hanging around. And I think that’s my fear --- to stumble upon some of that unfinished business."
The haunted guard
tower at the prison is said to boast the specter of a former guard and it
was also the scene of some strange activity on the night of the
“Mysterious Worlds” filming in June 2003.
4. FILMING WITH THE LEARNING CHANNEL
In June 2003, I had the opportunity to spend the night at Eastern State Penitentiary with a crew from Digital Reality Television, who was producing a series for The Learning Channel called “Mysterious Worlds”. The episode that I have been involved with, called "America's Ghost Hunters", deals with ghosts and hauntings and premiered October 30, 2003. I was first contacted about the show by producer Michael Brockhoff. He explained that the premise of the episode was to bring together researchers and groups who specialized in various aspects of paranormal investigation. Each of them would be filmed separately and then we would be brought together for the final segment of the show in one haunted location. After much discussion, I mentioned Eastern State Penitentiary to him as a possible site for the last segment. The prison had a history of hauntings and the officials there would be open to the idea of us spending an entire night there and also with the mention of ghost in relation to the buildings. I would later find out that even their own public tours make mention of the possibility of spectral prisoners still lingering behind.
I met with Michael Brockhoff, and producer Steve Rice, when they came to Alton, Illinois to film the first segment that I did with them. My “specialty” for the show was “historical research” , meaning that I looked for independent sightings or encounters with spirits from a single location. I had already documented such activity in Alton at the First Unitarian Church and had a number of witnesses who had reported a haunting without realizing that others were experiencing the same thing. We spent an entire day filming at the church and at our bookstore and made plans for the upcoming trip to Philadelphia.
Meanwhile, other members of what would be the final team were also filming segments in various parts of the country. Each of them would film an investigation using their “specialty” for a separate segment and then each would be put to use at Eastern State. The teams included Tonya Hacker and Tammy Wilson from Oklahoma, who were working with EVP; a group called Seven Paranormal Research from North Carolina, who had trained a dog to be able to pick up anomalous energy fields in a haunting; and investigators from the AGHOST group in Seattle, who had put together a computer system with a multi-sensor array to measure several energy fields at once. Although I had corresponded with several of these investigators in the past, I would be meeting them for the first time in Philadelphia.
On June 6, 2003, I flew into Philadelphia and met with Michael and Steve at the hotel. I spent that first evening seeing a little of the city and tracking down the best Philly cheesesteaks in town (Pats!). The following morning, I spent several hours working on sit-down interviews with the cast and crew and then went to the prison to check out the layout of the place during the daylight hours. After walking around for a couple of hours, I met with some of the staff members and one of them was kind enough to take me on a tour of areas of the prison that are not open to the public. I would later have access to these same spots during out shoot but would find that they looked totally different after darkness had fallen. It was a very wet and gloomy weekend in the city and the prison seemed especially eerie with an overcast sky and the constant dripping of water in places where the buildings had fallen into ruin. I photographed a good portion of the place before leaving for the afternoon.
The rest of the day was spent checking out local bookstores and historic sites and then after dinner, I returned to my hotel for some rest. I had a long night ahead of me and this would be my last chance to sleep for about 36 hours.
Later that night, the entire group of investigators returned to the prison (or came there for the first time) to get set up for the night ahead. Members of the crew had already arrived and had set up a “safe area” for equipment storage, food and coffee, just off the rotunda at the center of the prison. Here, we became acclimated with maps of the prison and instructions on what we would be doing for the night ahead. Michael Brockhoff had asked me to coordinate everyone as much as possible and had assigned me a couple of tasks for the night. In addition to photographing the prison as thoroughly as possible, he also wanted me to supervise the investigations and to rotate among the different groups as much as I could. This would give me an opportunity to not only explore the prison but to perhaps see what sort of activity the various groups and individuals might be picking up.
To start with though, I was supposed to take everyone on a historical tour through the prison and to explain what was located where and when it was all used. I had pretty thoroughly researched the site and had been filling in my information after I had arrived so, accompanied by the researchers and a camera and sound crew, we covered a large portion of the penitentiary. After that, we were ready to begin our investigations.
Split up into different groups, everyone went their separate directions and started setting up for the night. My job was to “float” between then as much as possible but this was not an easy job since oftentimes, the various experiments that were being conducted had to be run without any interference. This was notably the case with the EVP recordings that were being done by Tonya Hacker and Tammy Wilson. I went to speak with them as they were setting up and we discussed their methods for finding legitimate recordings. Both of them were using external microphones that night (so as to avoid sounds from the recorder itself) and were willing to admit that it was going to be tough to try and set up units to record without them being monitored at all times. Between the researchers and the crew, there were quite a few people moving around inside of the buildings and so voices on the tapes might not necessarily be ghostly, they realized. They finally decided to try “interactive recording”, meaning that they would ask questions on tape and then pause for replies, hoping that they might get more answers that way than with simply leaving the recorders set up in different parts of the prison. The evening would prove to be interesting for them and while both told me the following morning that the results of their recordings were “inconclusive” without further study, they did feel that they had captured some fairly mysterious sounds on tape, including voices that came from otherwise empty parts of the building.
A couple of sections of the prison seemed to be more active than others that night and one of them was the central guard tower, which traditionally had long been haunted by a spectral guard from years before. I returned to the guard tower several times throughout the evening and spent one prolonged period there of about an hour. I did not experience anything unusual but members of the Seven Paranormal Research team, including Jim Hall, certainly did. While exploring the area, their trained dog detected a very strong presence -- one that was verified by more than one electromagnetic field meter. I can vouch for the fact that there were no artificial fields in the tower that night, so what the dog may have been sensing is unknown. I asked Jim and Kady Harrington how exactly the dog was able to assist them with their investigations and they explained what turned out to be a fairly simple method to me. They began bringing the to their investigations and he began to react in an erratic manner while in the presence of electromagnetic fields that could be verified with equipment. Eventually, he began to lead the investigators to these fields and has been doing so ever since. I asked them if the dog could simply be behaving in a away that would earn him a reward and they told me that they had considered this and so they never reward him for his work. In that way, they do not get any false reactions from him. He certainly seemed to know what he was doing that night. I had the chance to observe him a couple of times and despite a number of things that might have set off a less focused animal, the only time that he ever reacted in the way that he did in investigation situations was in the guard tower. Interestingly, the equipment also picked up readings here and one of their teams members reported the uncomfortable presence of a man on the stairs.
Aside from the guard tower, the most active location that we experienced and investigated that night was for the former “Death Row” section of the prison. To be honest, this section was only somewhat accurately named. It was used as an incarceration unit for Pennsylvania prisoners who had been sentenced to death but no executions were actually carried out here. This cell block was the last addition made to the prison and it was completed in 1959 and became the only block in the prison with electronic doors. The lower level was used to house dangerous prisoners, who were placed here as punishment, and the upstairs held those sentenced to death. When their execution dates came about, the prisoners were then transferred to the State Correctional Institution at Rockville for their date with “Old Sparky”. Because the prisoners in the lower level of the block were so dangerous, a separate row of bars was installed down the center of the corridor. The guards were supposed to walk behind the second section so that they would be out of reach of the inmates, but one of the staff members here told me that they rarely do this because it showed weakness to the prisoners. This was the section of the prison that held the worst of the worst -- and so it was no surprise to me to learn that there had been a number of paranormals happenings reported here over the years.
Because most of this building is not open to the general public, most of the reports of unidentified sounds, cold chills and voices have been reported by staff members and paranormal investigators. According to my friend Kriss Stevens, who is the paranormal consultant for the show, during filming that was done by the MTV show “Fear”, a producer claimed to be pushed down the stairs that go from the first level to the upper one. It was in the upper cell block that Ross Allison and Dutch Jackson, from the AGHOST group in Seattle, decided to place their electronic testing equipment at the beginning of the night. The equipment used a laptop computer to measure any fluctuations that might take place in the energy field of the building. Over a two hour period, they picked up not only changes in the electromagnetic field but also almost constant movement that was detected by motion detectors. At the time, the entire block was sealed off and no one was inside. Even before they had set up, tests of the equipment picked up moving and changing magnetic fields --- where there was no electricity --- inside of several cells.
And as it turned out the only paranormal encounter that I experienced for myself also occurred that night in the Death Row cell block. I had no idea at the time that anything out of the ordinary was occurring however. I would not discover this until after I returned home and had the film in my cameras developed. Of all of the eerie photos taken that night, only one of them remains unexplained. It was number 12 on the roll and was taken merely as a documentation of the location, using Kodak 800 ASA color film. There was no strap on the camera and nothing in front of me that would have caused the anomaly to appear. After the photo was developed, the negative and the print were studied by author and spirit photography expert Dale Kaczmarek and two independent photographers with no connection to the paranormal field. No one could provide any explanation as to what the image in the photo might be.
The unexplained photo taken by
Troy Taylor in the Death Row Block at Eastern State. There was nothing in
front of the camera at the time it was taken.
So, is the Eastern State Penitentiary haunted? In the end, that must be up to the reader (and the viewer of the television show) to decide but I have always been of the opinion that in locations where violent and traumatic events take place, those events often leave an impression behind. In no place, would this be more true that at Eastern State, a place with a long, rich history of violence, bloodshed and terror. If the events of the past really do create the hauntings of today -- Eastern State Penitentiary is a very haunted place.
© Copyright 2003 by Troy Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
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SOURCES & BIBLIOGRAPHY
ADAMS, CHARLES J. III - Philadelphia Ghost Stories (1998)
ASFAR, DAN - Ghost Stories of Pennsylvania (2002)
EASTERN STATE PENITENTIARY (www.eastern state.org)
JOHNSTON, NORMAN - Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions (1994)
NIGHT VISITORS (Documentary - Impact TV / 2000)
PERROT, MARK - Hope Abandoned: Eastern State Penitentiary (1992)
PHILLIPS, BEN - Eastern State Penitentiary: 140 Years of Reform (1996)
SIFAKIS, CARL - Encyclopedia of American Crime (1982)
TAYLOR, TROY - Haunted Chicago (2003)
TAYLOR, TROY - Haunting of America (History & Hauntings Series) (2001)
TAYLOR, TROY - No Rest for the Wicked (2001)
Personal Interviews and Correspondence