Eastern State Penitentiary - History and Facts | History Hit

Eastern State Penitentiary

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States

The stunning Gothic Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia set a new standard in prison design and ideology when it opened in 1829, leaning on the principles of reform over punishment. Today the National Historic Landmark is a museum with year-round guided tours (and an audio guide narrated by Steve Buscemi!)

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About Eastern State Penitentiary

Over two hundred thousand visitors flock to Eastern State Penitentiary in the historic neighbourhood of Fairmount in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania every year to see one of the most historically-important buildings in the entire United States.

History of Eastern State Penitentiary

After the American Revolution in 1776, the newly-formed nation set out to provide an example to the world in terms of social development and this included prison reform. 18th century prisons were little more than free-for-all holding pens but in 1787, the ambitiously-named Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons proposed a radical, Quaker-inspired idea – ‘to build a true penitentiary, a prison designed to create genuine regret and penitence in the criminal’s heart.’

Designed by English-born architect John Haviland (for which he was paid $100) to resemble a church in a wagon-wheel design with each wing emanating from a central hub allowing the guards to see all seven wings. ESP was one of the first proponents of solitary confinement with the founding fathers believing that isolated incarceration led to ‘reflection and ultimately penitence.’ It was so far ahead of its time it had central heating, running water and flush toilets before the White House. It was also, at the time, the largest and most expensive public building in the US.

The first prisoner to arrive in October 1829 at ESP – Prisoner No 1 – was a man called Charles Williams, who was convicted of theft. At first, ESP held short-sentence criminals such as horse thieves and pickpockets but like most prisons of the time, it grew into a maximum security prison holding notable names such as infamous bank robber Willie Sutton and the King of the Underworld, Al Capone serving his first ever prison sentence who furnished his cell with antiques and oil paintings!

By 1913, the ‘Pennsylvania System’ of solitary confinement was formally scrapped. By the 1960s, the prison was in need of massive investment and 142 years after opening, ESP closed its doors for good in 1971. ESP quickly fell into disrepair, and was practically reclaimed by nature, becoming something of an urban jungle. Today, after hundreds of stray cats were removed and the site was stabilised, it’s one of Philadelphia’s most-visited museums and a US National Historic Landmark.

Eastern State Penitentiary today

Today, the prison is accessible via tour only, and tickets must be prebooked. They run throughout the day, as well as at night, and encompass cell blocks, Al Capone’s cell, art installations and amazing stories of inmate escapes. There is also ‘Terror Behind The Walls’, a serious scarefest normally held around Halloween, which includes Hollywood-style sets and 200 actors that’s consistently ranked amongst the top haunted attractions in America.

Getting to Eastern State Penitentiary

ESP is in the historic Fairmount district of Philadelphia. It’s about a 15 minute walk from Fairmount Station, or a 10 minute walk to Girard Av & Corinthian Av light rail station. Bus routes 49, 48, 43, 33, 32, and 7 are all located conveniently close by. There’s ample parking in the surrounding streets, although ESP itself doesn’t have parking facilities.

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