Haunted by the Past

This time of year, the Fairmount neighborhood in Philadelphia is dominated by Eastern State Penitentiary. The prison is always a strong presence, but when thoughts turn to ghosts and things that go bump in the night, those tall walls loom ominous and foreboding. The site does a great job of using this to their advantage; their popular haunted house, “Terror Behind the Walls,” turns 20 this year. I’m easily scared, so I avoid Eastern State around Halloween. Nonetheless, it is one of my favorite historic sites on the East Coast – absolutely worth it, whether you decide to go for the thrills or the rest of the tour.

Eastern State Penitentiary opened in 1829 to much fanfare. It was the first true penitentiary, designed to encourage  remorse and repentance in the criminals it housed. From the very beginning, it was a unique institution; officials from across Europe and the United States came to see its distinctive architectural plan and individual cells built to house prisoners in solitary confinement. Today, you can wander through the long corridors and peek into the same cells, guided by an audio tour recorded by Steve Buscemi. (Creepily appropriate, right?) The site isn’t fully restored, and there is something evocative, haunting, about the crumbling walls and remnants of jail cell artifacts.

"A cell on the oldest block at Eastern State Penitentiary."

The prison officially closed in 1971. Over the course of its history, it held thousands of prisoners in many different kinds of prison environments. (Al Capone spent eight months at Eastern State; his luxury cell is a popular stop on the tour.) Although prison sites regularly draw tourists – think Alcatraz – Eastern State Penitentiary is unique because of the sheer length of time it was in operation. Visitors begin by contemplating the prison experience in the 19th century; the Pennsylvania System, piloted at Eastern State, focused on solitary confinement, labor, and exercise as the path to reforming inmates. Later on the tour, visitors come face to face with the 20th century: the fully mechanized death row cellblock is a stark example of changing attitudes towards criminals.

And so, Eastern State Penitentiary explores its past within a larger context of punishment and imprisonment. The prison population in America is growing exponentially and inequitably, and capital punishment remains a hot-button issue. Yet there are few forums in which to explore where we’ve come from and where we are going. What is our responsibility to those who break the law? Eastern State Penitentiary, by virtue of its own history, has an important role to play in this discussion. Historic sites are valuable because they help us understand important topics by historicizing them, by providing the perspective of the past, and by tracing that trajectory into our own future.

Eastern State Penitentiary
2027 Fairmount Avenue
Philadelphia, PA 19130

Terror Behind the Walls,” September 23 through November 12