This Will Scare You More Than the Election…. Haunted Philly

I don’t know if it was the first presidential debate or the appearance of 10 Pound packs of fun sized candy at Target that scared us all into Halloween season, but here it is. Regardless of your candidate choice, there are plenty of boos to go around here in Philadelphia. So let’s free the skeletons locked in the Philly closet.

By US standards, Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities, founded in 1682. Philadelphia has the makings of a steroid infused, marathon- style school trip. Independence Hall (that housed the continental congress and saw the signing of the Declaration of Independence), the Liberty Bell, and the birthplace of Mother’s Day are all walking distance from each other. The first HBCU, Cheyney University, saw its founding here in 1837 as “The Institute for Colored Youth.” If doing an audio tour of the Constitution Center armed with a water bottle and fanny pack is your version of a nightmare, I’ve got something for you.

Since 1821 one of the main tourist attractions in Philadelphia also happens to be its scariest.

The Eastern State Penitentiary.

The architect, John Haviland, postulated that a building which instilled fear in the hearts of those that gazed upon it’s imposing Gothic castle inspired walls, was in itself, a deterrent to crime. At the time, it was located two miles outside of the city. No one could really see it in this remote and isolated location which perhaps prevented would be criminals from being scared straight.

It filled up immediately.

It wasn’t long before it got the attention of that Metrosexual man about about town, Benjamin Franklin. He and Dr. Benjamin Rush formed the “Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons” which is still in tact today as the “Pennsylvania Prison Society’ which promotes correctional reform and social justice. Back then it was more about keeping them alive in prison long enough to fulfill their sentences.

In its day ESP was a tourist attraction. In 1836, it had sophisticated plumbing and sewage systems, and was equipped with the latest rage in building- central heating. It was an equal opportunity place to get locked up housing men, women, and children. A dog, Pep, was even incarcerated for killing a chicken owned by the governor’s wife. Other than the fact that prisoners were basically kept in isolation and not allowed to talk, this was the swankiest apartment building in town. Each cell had a personal gym known then as an “exercise patio.” 

In 1858, 10,000 visitors came to gawk at the inmates. I find this fact fascinating given that travel at the time involved loading a wagon and buckling in the horses for a five day journey.  Of course, they didn’t have iPhones to keep themselves entertained so it makes sense.

Word spread among the French that the sophisticated US penal system had advantages over rounding people up and chopping off their heads. Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville visited in 1831 with much pomp and circumstance. A humorous fictionary telling of their visit is in the book ” Parrot and Olivier in America” by Peter Carey.

Charles Dickens, a man who’s ideal vacation consisted of visiting insane asylums and prisons, claimed seeing the  Eastern State Pen and Niagara Falls were his two reasons for coming to the US in 1842.

It was all fun and games until around 1900. Al Capone’s visit lasting from 1929-1930 created a more menacing culture inside the walls. Scarface had an office cell next to the guard station yet separate from the other inmates. This is what is believed to be the VIP cell.img_7787

The layers of paint reflect the tastes of the various occupants.

It closed in 1970 and was literally left to rot. It looks today like the last guard locked the door with everything still inside and walked off whistling. Nature took over as the caretaker, ceilings fell in, and trees grew in the cells. No sound except the shuffling of ghosts in black striped outfits.

The current fright meter for the Eastern State Penitentiary is somewhere between spending the night in the Amityville horror house and taking my mother to the knit shop. “Terror Behind the Walls” has been a Philadelphia Halloween staple for years, scaring teenagers in to sleeping with the lights on for a month or so. COVID has robbed me of this parental pleasure. 

I went on a Friday morning. It was just me and two other couples that day. Gave it that “Don’t accidentally get locked in – no one will hear your screams” vibe.

So, turn off the lights, light a candle, and let’s go…..


The view.
Counting paint chips is one way to fall asleep.

One of the blocks has several artist installations.

Lots of time for doodling.
Feels just like Westminster.
“I think some plants would liven this place up, what do you think?”
Gives a whole new meaning to the term “safety net”
No razor wire needed. Although there was an escape aided by a stone cutter who fashioned a tunnel. It took two years to make and the escapees were out for 10 minutes before they were caught.
It just looked like a hand coming out of the ground….
When I say it was just me and two other couples, I’m not exaggerating.
One guy liked it so much he spent time as a guard and an inmate.
This is the morgue. Bodies would be on the “mattress” to the left and then popped into the crematorium on the right. Although the fact that bed sheets are in it makes me think the temperature wasn’t right.
I do think some of my rock climbing friends could have some fun here.

Two blocks away from the Pen I ran across this beautiful haunted house mansion. I guess land must have been pretty cheap. Probably nouveau riche. SMH.

Click here for Virtual Tour info- make a reservation for a group tour.

For a feel of the place,  link to the Online tour here 

Ok sidenote- have any of you done a live virtual tour? I’ve seen some offered for many of the historical European sites and am thinking about doing one….. Please let me know if you’ve got a recommendation!

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19 Responses to This Will Scare You More Than the Election…. Haunted Philly

  1. lisaakramer says:

    I did a virtual tour of the Winchester House early on in this chaos, and a couple of museums. My problem was with the interface, but I got to see some amazing things. I kind of want to do a virtual ghost hunt this weekend.


    • I’m really liking the idea of the virtual tour. I haven’t been but it’s def a place I would not spend the night! When I’ve got more time I want to do some…. Enjoy the ghost hunt!


  2. #emptynestnyc says:

    Wow. Another place on my Philadelphia to do list! I’m going to suggest it to my daughter at Penn!


  3. maristravels says:

    Creepy, makes me shiver, I hate flaking walls and rusty bits. I used to help prisoners with their literature work (I wasn’t a teacher, just a sort of back-up) and the ones I met were of course, the ‘good’ ones. One in particular, I remember, was an ex-spy (this was during the period of the Cold War) who had had an affair with a foreign agent, confessed to his superiors when he came to his senses to let them know he’d been compromised, but he was jailed anyway “as an example to others”. He got 30 years, was a lovely man, helped all the other prisoners and wrote some beautiful poetry. I never forgotten him and it has prejudiced my view of the secret service ever since. Your prison sounds par for the course, apart from the isolation, but I bet it held its horrors.


  4. Sue Stugan says:

    Fun memories. When I went to vet school we lived right past the prison on 22nd street. Walked my dogs around it every day. Loved giving directions to our apartment. “It’s just past the Prison!”


  5. aFrankAngle says:

    Perfect post for the season. Although I’m in Cincinnati, I have heard about this prison – It’s legendary. I wonder how long it will stay up? … that is, not leveled for development. Have you heard about the Mansfield Reformatory in Ohio? Thanks for stopping by Beach Walk Reflections.


  6. restlessjo says:

    Like Mari I get the heebie jeebies just looking 😦 😦


  7. I did a live tour of Osaka Castle, but I’m guessing you don’t need a virtual tour when you’ve seen the real deal. I will say it left me sighing for actual travel. I never thought I would say this, but I almost miss flying now. Admittedly my brain has forgotten the hours stuck in an airport after your flight has been canceled, more hours stuck in those itty bitty seats with leg room for a small child, and climbing over strangers to use the restroom (followed by the line in the aisle, and trying to stay on your feet when the plane hits turbulence and starts bucking like a rodeo bull).

    Anyway! Eastern State Penitentiary has been on my bucket list of things to do in North America once the pandemic has…lifted? disappeared? vaccinated away? I’ve never been to Philadelphia, and I love creepy old buildings. As long as I don’t take a tumble down a creepy crumbling staircase, like I did in Italy many years ago when my vision and balance were a lot better!


    • I’m going to take that tour- just to remind myself of the places beyond…. Philly is full of historical places. Edgar Allen Poe lived here, UPenn looks like it was built by a family of gothic ghosts, first bank in the US… def worth a stop! And of course you’ve already got a tour guide!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I went at the beginning of the Pandemic and it was closed. I have been hoping to get there but I think it is closed again,


  9. Philly is filled with do much history. So many stories to be shared


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