Fortnight of Fright: Eastern State Penitentiary by Kathleen

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Hi friends!! Today we have Kathleen chatting all about her trip to Eastern State Penitentiary!! This is a place dear to my heart, it is in Pennsylvania and I cannot tell you how many ghost tours I have read and watched that went to ESP (see below for basically every single one that they have shown, and that I have seen!) So jealous of your trip, Kathleen! Take it away, girl!

Hi my name is Kathleen, I live in Delaware, and I love all things scary, especially with a historical twist. I first visited Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) in Philadelphia when I was a freshman in college. We took a “class trip” there as part of our First Year Experience class. We went during the day and got a full tour of the first ever US penitentiary. We were shown Al Capone’s cell, death row, a regular prisoner’s cell, and everything in between.

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Outside of ESP

First I wanted to give you some background and history about this amazing place. Some very important people supported it; Ben Franklin was one. In 1787, a group of men got together and said we need get rid of the overcrowding in prisons. So they came up with the idea of a penitentiary, a place designed to create penitence. The state didn’t want to fund the building of ESP and instead built small penitentiaries. However, they were not adequate for the growing population and in 1822, construction on ESP finally started. The layout of the penitentiary was unique in that it had a central hub and then seven cellblocks that branched off of it (this grew as the years went on). There was a recreational yard, running water, flush toilet, central heating and a skylight for each cell. This was more than the White House had at the time. When it first opened, solitary was taken very seriously and inmates wore masks over their head when being transported so they couldn’t see anything but their cell. Things change drastically with the growing population and the number of cells increased from 250 to 980 with two to three men in a cell. By the 20th century, the idea of a penitentiary was left in the dust and some of the most violent offenders and those sentenced to execution were housed at ESP. The last cellblock to be built in 1959, was number 15 and that was considered death row.

One of ESP’s big claims to fame was to be the first prison to house Al Capone. He was arrested for carrying a concealed gun and served eight months of his one-year sentence. When you visit ESP, they have Capone’s cell furnished like it was back in 1929 when he was an inmate. He had a single cell and lived in luxury while there. Many tried to escape from ESP, but only one was successful and got away. Leo Callahan and other inmates built a ladder to scale the walls of the penitentiary. Five of his accomplices were captured, but Leo was never found. The penitentiary has had an interesting past and in the 142 years it was open, it housed around 75,000 men and women. It was closed in 1971, purchased by the city in 1980, and opened for tours in 1994.

Now on to the scary stuff! ESP has been the host to Terror Behind the Walls (TBTW) for 25 seasons. TBTW takes over the penitentiary at night and creates the best haunted house you’ve ever been to. Since the 1940’s there have been reports by guards and inmates about supernatural occurrences in ESP. According to TBTW’s site, over 60 paranormal investigations have been conducted at ESP. A few paranormal hunting TV shows have also filmed at ESP, SyFy’s Ghost Hunters; the Travel Channel’s Ghost Adventures, Paranormal Challenge, and Most Haunted Live; Fox Television’s World’s Scariest Places; TLC’s America’s Ghost Hunters; and MTV’s FEAR. If you want to watch clips from the shows, they’re available on ESP’s website (I’ll include links at the end).

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Part of ESP that has deteriorated over the years

I went to TBTW last year and while I didn’t experience anything paranormal, I did get scared a few times. The people I went with, were scared s***less, which had me laughing and made the experience that much more enjoyable. When you enter the prison grounds, workers in costumes meet you. They aren’t anything terrifying, but the makeup is amazing. After they scan your ticket you’re taken through metal detectors and then get in line. They then corral groups and give the safety spiel and give you the option to walk through untouched or to be part of the experience by wearing a light up necklace. If you opt to wear the necklace, not only can the actors touch you, but they drag you through secret passages and can use you as props. They then return you to your group before you go to the next building. Now the people I went with were already scared, but my friend Kathy and I decided we’d wear the necklace for the last of the six attractions that we went through.

I don’t want to give too many details away and ruin the experience in case someone decides they want to go, but I will talk about some of my favorite parts. My favorite part overall was when they had us walk down a long cellblock. Strobe lights were going off all around us and actors were on each side of you dressed like the prisoners with masks over their heads (like I mentioned earlier). When I first walked in it freaked me out. There was also something huge behind us, but I can’t remember what the actor was dressed as. But the strobe lights made it look like they were coming closer and closer to us. Some did move but for the most part they stayed still. It was just a creepy experience. You think they’re going to come out and grab you and on the other hand you imagine the prisoners walking down that same hall. I also loved being able to go to the main surveillance hub and look down each of the seven original cellblocks.

Each of the six attractions is unique and allows you to see a different part of the penitentiary. They don’t have themes per se, but they aren’t randomly put together. The attractions flow well and each have a different scare factor. My friend and I couldn’t keep proper count and were through the sixth attraction before we were able to put on our necklaces. However, the group in front of us had people who wore their necklaces the entire time. We saw the actors steal them and take them through secret passages, use them as props, and scare the crap out of them. If you don’t scare as easily, I definitely recommend wearing your necklace and getting that extra experience, I know I’m upset I didn’t, but plan to the next time I go.

After you’re through the six attractions they allow you to walk around part of the grounds, get pictures with some of the actors, buy souvenirs, and eat. I highly recommend the deep fried Oreos with powdered sugar as you walk around. Cellblock one is open for people to go into and see. You are allowed to fully walk into one of the open cells and take pictures. Workers are in cellblock one to also answer any questions you may have about the prison. ESP also allows guests to go into what was formerly the “no-contact visitation room” to watch a video and read about the site. I love all things that go bump in the night, but I know not everyone does; therefore, I suggest taking a day trip to ESP and getting the full tour, if you don’t enjoy scary things. It is well worth it. Or if you’re up for a scare, go to TBTW and with each ticket they give you a $5 off coupon for a daytime tour. I hope this post gave you a little history about ESP and made you want to visit. Below are links to ESP’s website as well as TBTW.

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Cellblock One

Eastern State Site: http://www.easternstate.org/home

Terror Behind the Wall: http://www.easternstate.org/halloween

TBTW on TV: http://www.easternstate.org/halloween/ghosts

Thank you so much, Kathleen!! I HAD NO IDEA THAT THEY DID HAUNTED TOURS HERE!! I NEED TO GOOOOOOOOOO OMG *flails*

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One thought on “Fortnight of Fright: Eastern State Penitentiary by Kathleen

  1. Dear Kathleen!
    I have to tell you a story about ESP. I have lived right outside of philly my whole life so ESP was like a Halloween tradition. I will admit I am a bit of scaredy cat but not normally when I know things are productions. In fact that is very much how I would calm my self down by looking strait at the person.
    I have been on that tour probably 10-12 times but it was the last time that freakin rocked me to the core. We were heading through a portion i think it was right after Al Capone’s cell where you had to wait outside to go into the next part when my knees buckled, i dropped to the ground in a crouch and covered my ears and shut eyes… I felt something there. I don;t know how to describe this to you but all I could do was curl into a ball on the ground rick back and forth and cry. I know by now your like “okay crazy bitch” but i have never felt that level of sheer body numbing terror just take me over. My body was reacting to something I could not see im sure of it. At the same time 2 girls in front of me started screaming hysterically non stop. They were inconsolable. Mind you we are outside waiting in line to move to the next part, not in any of the attractions, we were waiting to enter. My ex BF was with me and although he didn’t go totally postal like I did he was incredibly unsettled. This was a tough 30 year old mofo from Queens, NY. NOT someone who can be shaken. He was so unsettled and I was was still rocking crying on the ground with my hands over my ears and my eyes squeezed shut. We stopped and were escorted out and left as soon as we could. I didn’t sleep for 2 days cause I would horrible nightmares. I was so desperate that I went to psychic to cleanse my energy. In all reality she probably just took my $50 and didn’t do shit but it made me feel better and the dreams stopped. I WILL NEVER set foot on that property again or come within a mile of it. There is something incredibly wrong there. I guess its perfect for a hunted jail but that is just way to close for comfort for me. To me that place in cursed with something freakin evil.
    Please don’t ever go there again!!
    ~ Britt

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