Eastern State Penitentiary

by Shelly Gatto

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The average person would most likely feel fear at some level when encountering paranormal activity. The concept of a criminal turned ghost seems even more unsettling. These are primarily people who were bad in life, and many of us would assume that behavior would carry over after death. What are the chances of encountering this type of deceased individual? That really depends on where you look.

The Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is believed to be the home of a great deal of paranormal activity. Those who believe the penitentiary is haunted tend to think that the spirits are those of inmates that lived and died there.

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Haunted History: Life at the Penitentiary
The first “true” penitentiary opened its doors on October 25th, 1829. At the time, the imposing, gothic structure was a corrections breakthrough. The system of incarceration implemented was deemed the “Pennsylvania System” (also called “Separate System”). This new approach to incarceration focused on separate confinement for inmates. Quaker ideas were used, based on the belief that the isolation of each inmate would have a positive influence on their mental state and behavior, encouraging them to open up to God. The reality was this new approach actually had a very negative effect, often leading to serious mental illness.
The new penitentiary became a tourist attraction as well as a correctional facility. Among the ranks of visitors that toured the prison were French historian Alexis de Tocqueville and British novelist Charles Dickens. Dickens, who visited in the 1840s, stated that the conditions were deplorable and that the inmates underwent horrendous psychological torture during their time there.
The people most often associated with the penitentiary today are its inmates. Infamous gangster Al Capone spent time at the Eastern State Penitentiary along with bank robber Willie Sutton. Curiously, there is a rumor that Al Capone was haunted by the spirit of one of his St. Valentine’s Day murder victims, James Clark, during his 1929 stay.

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Torture at the Penitentiary
Even during its time as an active prison, the Eastern State Penitentiary was the setting for many horror stories, instigated by the authorities that oversaw the facility. The penitentiary was intended to be a place where inmates would change their ways by finding God. The isolated incarceration approach was thought to encourage inmates to follow a spiritual path, without the influence of others. The only daily interaction inmates had during their stay was with a guard or prison authority.
While so much isolation sounds bad enough, the inmates that misbehaved were subject to extremely cruel punishment. It was later stated that individuals working at the penitentiary were the ones responsible for coming up with the torture methods and not the Quakers that believed in the religious aspect of incarceration
The Water Bath method was used on inmates who misbehaved. This approach had the inmate dunked in icy water. They were then hung from a wall and left alone for the night. Inmates that were punished during the winter months would suffer even more, with ice forming on their skin as the evening grew colder.
Inmates that ignored the penitentiary’s “no communication” policy were subject to the Iron Gag. This punishment called for an iron collar secured around the tongue. Chains were attached that were shackled to each wrist, with the hands placed high on the back. If the inmate moved too much, their tongue would be ripped. There were many cases where the inmate bled so much, they did not survive long enough to have the iron collar removed.
Another devious torture device was the Mad Chair. The inmate would be strapped in to a chair, held by strong leather straps. These straps were unbearably tight. The unfortunate victim would be unable to move at all. Prison guards would leave the inmate in this position for days, without rations. Eventually, circulation would nearly stop due to the suffocating straps.
Finally, there was the Hole. This was perhaps the simplest of Eastern State Penitentiary torture methods. It was nothing more than a lightless, airless pit that was dug under block #14.  The inmate would be left in the Hole for days and sometimes weeks. They were fed a slice of bread and some water to survive, however they had to contend with rats and other pests to eat it.

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A History of the Paranormal
There have been many reports of possible paranormal activity at the Eastern State Penitentiary. One story places the beginning of the haunting to the work of a locksmith, who was brought in to Cell Block 4 during restoration efforts. While working with the cell door, an overpowering energy overcame him and he was immobilized. Many believe this is the event that opened a gateway, allowing ghosts to return to the penitentiary.
Strange occurrences range from horrifying faces inexplicably appearing on walls in cell block 4 to a dark form that stands in the guard tower. Others have reported hearing a disembodied sound, reminiscent of a chilling cackle, in cell block 12. More dark figures have been seen moving through cell block 6.

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The Eastern State Penitentiary Today
The Eastern State Penitentiary still stands today and is open for public tours. Visitors come from all around, including members of ghost hunting groups. Those who investigate the penitentiary almost always return home with some strange or unsettling evidence.  Such a large, historic location is bound to have odd sounds and other things that could be mistaken as paranormal. However, there are some occurrences that seem too real to be easily explained.

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Video Part 1

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Video Part 2

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I am the Director of Fringe Paranormal based in Toledo, Ohio.

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