A 140-Year-Old Key Unlocks Tortured Spirts
Known as being the most expensive building built in the U.S. at the time, the Eastern State Penitentiary became a prototype in design to 300 prisons.
The facility was operated under the Pennsylvania System from 1829 to 1913. This system, used by the Quakers, was designed to force the incorrigibles sent there to look inside themselves and find God. In reality, the system which placed inmates in complete solitude, drove many a sane man to madness.
Prisoners at Eastern State had a toilet, table, bunk and Bible in their cells, in which they were locked all but one hour a day. When the prisoners did leave their cells, a black hood would be placed over their head so they could not see any other prisoners as they were guided through the halls of the prison. Interaction and any form of communication between inmates was forbidden.
Inmates lived a life in mundane solitude and would only get a glimpse of sunlight, known as “The Eye of God” which came through a slit in the prison ceiling. In desperate need of human interaction, prisoners would tap on pipes or whisper through vents to each other. If caught, the penalty was brutal.
- The Water BathThe inmates who broke the rules risked being dunked in a bath of ice-cold water then hung from a wall for the night. During the winter months, when this punishment was most popular, the water on the inmates’s skin would form into a layer of ice before morning.
- The Mad ChairThe Mad Chair was named such because it was not uncommon for an inmate to go mad before his punishment ended. Inmates would be strapped into the chair with leather strips, so tightly that it was impossible for them to make the smallest of movements. They would sit for days, without food, until the circulation in their body almost stopped from the tightness of the straps and the lack of movement.
- Iron GagThe most deadly punishment was known as the Iron Gag and specifically designed for those inmates who refused to obey the no communication policies. An iron collar was clamped onto the tongue of the inmate, and then chained to his wrists which were strapped high behind their back. Any movement resulted in a tearing of the tongue and severe bleeding. Many inmates who suffered this torture died from loss of blood before their torment ended.
- The HoleDug under Block #14, the hole was nothing but a pit in the ground where incorrigible inmates would stay locked, sometimes for weeks. There was no light, little air, and those thrown into its tortuous grip would receive water and a slice of bread, if they got to it before the rats and roaches.
It has been reported that the Quakers were not responsible for the punishments the inmates were forced to endure. The extreme penitence was something the hired staff in the prison designed and enforced.
Charles Dickens visited the prison in the 1840s and found the conditions appalling. He described the inmates at Eastern Penn as being “buried alive…” and wrote about the psychological torture the inmates suffered at the hands of their captors.
Prior to its reform in 1913, the prison which was designed to house 250 inmates had over 1700 prisoners jammed into tiny makeshift cells where there was little light and even less ventilation.
Finding the conditions of the prison unacceptable, the prison was taken over and reformed and the Pennsylvania System was abolished. Finally, in 1971, the sprawling monstrous prison was closed.
Ghost Stories of Eastern State Penitentiary
Since its closure visitors, employees and those researching paranormal activity have reportedly heard unexplained eerie sounds throughout the prison.
- The Locksmith
One major paranormal episode reported occurred to a locksmith doing restoration work in Cell Block #4. According to the tale, he was working to remove a 140-year-old lock from the cell door when a massive force overcame him so powerfully he was unable to move.Some believe when he removed the key it opened a gateway to the horrific past and offered the spirits caught behind its bars a pathway out. The man spoke of experiencing an out-of-body state as he was drawn toward the negative energy which burst through the cell.Anguished faces appeared on the cell wall, hundreds of distorted forms swirled around the cellblock and one dominating form seemed to beckon the locksmith to him. The man’s experience was so vivid, years after he would shudder in fear when he talked about it.
Today the penitentiary is opened to the public. In a typical year, maybe two dozen paranormal investigations take place in the cell blocks, and according to Assistant Program Director Brett Bertolino, they almost always find evidence of activity.
Tourists and employees have reported hearing weeping, giggling and whispering coming from inside the prison walls.