The opening of Eastern State Penitentiary in 1829 heralded a new dawn for prisons across the world. Designed to revolutionise incarceration, Eastern State Penitentiary was segregated. Prisoners spent most of their days in solitary confinement in an attempt to encourage reflection and rehabilitation.
Whilst this was the aim, it was far from the reality. Prisoners were often subjected to physical and psychological torture and kept in solitary confinement for weeks on end. This cruelty, along with the imposing neo-Gothic exterior, high walls and tiny windows, helped generate the prison’s fearsome reputation.
Eastern State’s system of brutal isolation eventually collapsed in the early 20th century due to overcrowding, but the prison remained in operation until 1971. During its existence, some of America’s most infamous criminals, gangsters and law-breakers passed through Eastern State Penitentiary’s walls. Here are 6 of its most infamous prisoners.
Perhaps America’s most notorious gangster of the 20th century, Al ‘Scarface’ Capone spent his first-ever prison spell at Eastern State Penitentiary where he was incarcerated for 7 months in 1929-30 after being found guilty of carrying and concealing a deadly weapon.
The Philadelphia courts had handed Capone the toughest sentence they could for his crime (he was a known mob boss in Chicago by this point), but corruption and fear meant that Capone spent his time at Eastern State Penitentiary in relative luxury, enjoying luxurious rugs, paintings and a radio in his cell.
‘Slick Willie’ Sutton
Willie Sutton is one of America’s most famous bank robbers. He developed a reputation for being something of a ‘gentleman thief’, robbing only the rich and never killing anyone during his robberies. He was friends with some of the leading Mafia members of the day, many of whom enjoyed Sutton’s company socially as well as purely for business reasons.
He was imprisoned in Eastern State Penitentiary in 1934 after the machine gun robbery of the Corn Exchange Bank, sentenced to serve between 25 and 50 years there. 11 years into his sentence, he escaped, along with 11 other convicts, through a tunnel dug 100 feet underground.
They were caught almost immediately, having broken out in broad daylight. Sutton was moved to the Philadelphia County Prison, which he successfully escaped from in 1950, before being recaptured 2 weeks later. In total, Sutton is thought to have spent 30 years behind bars, escaped 3 times from prison and robbed over 50 banks.
Callahan was the only inmate to successfully escape Eastern State Penitentiary out of well over 100 who tried. Incarcerated for assault and battery with intent to kill, Callahan and 5 other inmates scaled the 30-foot east wall of the prison with a homemade ladder.
They escaped, but Callahan’s five accomplices were all captured and brought back to prison. Callahan remains the only inmate who escaped Eastern State Penitentiary and got away with it. He never resurfaced and was never caught, making him technically still at large.
Pep ‘The Cat-Murdering Dog’
Legend has it that in 1924, the dog of the Governor of Pennsylvania, Pep, was sentenced to life in Eastern State after ‘murdering’ the governor’s wife’s cat. He was given an inmate number and publicity photos were taken of him.
The reality was more prosaic: the governor gave Pep to the prison as a means of boosting inmate morale after the dog began to chew the governor’s wife’s cushions, much to the family’s annoyance. Pep was buried on prison grounds after his death.
Morris ‘The Rabbi’ Bolber
A member of the so-called Philadelphia poison ring, a murder-for-hire gang, Bolber was the cousin of the group’s leader, Paul Petrillo, and one of the group’s higher-ranking members.
The group’s normal plan was to offer their services to unhappily married or murderous women who wanted their husbands out of the way, provided they would get a cut of the money from their life insurance policies. They cleaned up on this scheme for nearly 6 years, murdering at least 30 people, but possibly up to 100, predominantly using arsenic.
Bolber was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment in 1939. He arrived at Eastern State in 1942 and became deeply involved with the Jewish community in the prison’s synagogue. He died in prison in 1954, with many of his fellow inmates describing his ‘acts of kindness’ whilst incarcerated.
Believed to be Eastern State Penitentiary’s last death-row inmate, Barlow was incarcerated as a teenager for his role in the 1968 robbery of the Dauphin Deposit Trust Co., which he acted as a lookout for.
He spent less than two years at Eastern State: the prison was closed down in 1970 and inmates moved elsewhere. Their death sentences were commuted to life imprisonment in 1972, and in 2019, Barlow was released, having served 48 years without parole. The same year, he returned to Eastern State Penitentiary to be awarded the ‘incarcerated person of the year award’ by the Pennsylvania Prison Society.