Eastern State Penitentiary was once the most famous and expensive prison in the world. Today, it stands today in ruin; its grounds offer glimpses into a haunting world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers. The lonely corridors and vaulted sky-lit cells at one time held many of America’s most notorious criminals, including “Slick Willie” Sutton and “Scarface” Al Capone. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1965.
Eastern Penitentiary quickly became a model for more than 300 prisons worldwide. As news of its notoriety spread, foreign dignitaries that included the famous writer Charles Dickens as well as the French General Lafayette.
Originally designed by John Haviland, Eastern State opened on October 25, 1829. Considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary, its revolutionary system of incarceration, dubbed the “Pennsylvania system” or “separate system” encouraged separate confinement (the warden was legally required to visit every inmate every day, and the overseers were mandated to see each inmate three times a day) as a form of rehabilitation.
The Pennsylvania System was opposed contemporaneously by the Auburn system (also known as the New York system), which held that prisoners should be forced to work together in silence, and could be subjected to physical punishment (Sing Sing prison was an example of the Auburn system). Although the Auburn system was favored in the United States, Eastern State’s radical radial floor plan and system of solitary confinement became a model for prisons worldwide.
Inmates were housed in cells that could only be accessed by entering through a small exercise yard attached to the back of the prison; a small portal, just large enough to pass meals, opened onto the cell blocks. This design proved impractical, and in the middle of construction, cells were constructed that allowed prisoners to enter and leave the cell blocks through small metal doors that were covered by a heavy wooden door to filter out the noise (like the one pictured above).
It was no coincidence that the halls of Eastern State were designed to evoke the feeling of being in church. Vaulted ceilings, arched windows, and light portals that filtered light into the prisoners’ cells were all designed with this purpose in mind.
Some believe that the doors were small so prisoners would have a harder time getting out, minimizing an attack on a security guard. Others have explained the small doors forced the prisoners to bow while entering their cell. This design is related to penance and ties to the religious inspiration of the prison. The cells made of concrete featured a single glass skylight that represented the “Eye of God,” which was intended to suggest to the prisoners that God was always watching them.
Cell accommodations were advanced for their time, as each included a faucet with running water over a flush toilet. Curved pipes along part of one wall served as central heating during the winter months where hot water would be run through the pipes to keep the cells reasonably heated. Toilets were remotely flushed twice a week by the guards of the cellblock.
Pep the Cat-Murdering Dog
In 1924, Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep “The Cat-Murdering Dog” – yes, he was a real dog – to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A contemporary newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.
On April 3, 1945, a major escape was carried out by twelve inmates (including the infamous Willie Sutton), who over the course of a year managed to dig an undiscovered 97-foot (30 m) tunnel under the prison wall. During renovations in the 1930’s an additional 30 incomplete inmate-dug tunnels were discovered.
End of an Era
The prison was closed in 1971. Many prisoners and guards were transferred to Graterford Prison, located about 31 miles northwest of Eastern State. During the abandoned era (from its closing until the late 1980’s) a “forest” grew in the cell blocks and outside within the walls. The prison also became home to many stray cats.
In 1988, the Eastern State Penitentiary Task Force successfully petitioned Mayor Wilson Goode to halt plans for commercial redevelopment. Later, in 1994, Eastern State opened to the public for historic tours.