The history of Eastern State Penitentiary is a fascinating story spanning many years. As a model for prisons yet to be built, it would stand as first a shining beacon, and then as a potential embarrassment both admired and reviled.
The story begins in 1821 when the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons was finally successful in lobbying the Pennsylvania Legislature for the construction of a new prison. The original plans were for a facility that would hold 250 inmates. Architects submitted designs, but it was John Haviland who won the $100 prize for his design. Construction began in 1822.
In April of 1829, with the prison still under construction, plans were completed for what became known as the Pennsylvania System. This was a system of solitary confinement that many believed would create an air of reflection and penitence required to set a prisoner straight. This plan would go so far as to include masks to keep inmates from communicating during the rare times they were out of their cells. The cells themselves each included a feeding slot in the door, and a private exercise yard to reduce communication between prisoners, guards, and each other.
In October of 1829, Eastern State received its first prisoner, Charles Williams, described as “light black skin, five feet, seven inches tall, scar on nose, scar on thigh, broad mouth, black eyes, farmer by trade, can read.” Mr. Williams was convicted of burglary that included one $20 watch, one $3 gold seal, and one gold key. He was sentenced to two years confinement with labour.
Things started off slowly for the prison. It is noted by Charles S. Coxe, President of the Board of Inspectors in the first annual report that, by the end of December, 1829, only 9 prisoners had been received. It becomes apparent that perhaps some Judges disagreed with the new system of imprisonment. Further into that same report, Coxe states:
The extraordinary fact that but nine convicts have been sent from the counties composing the Eastern District, containing so large a majority of of this populous state, demands and deserves great consideration, from all interested in our penal code;
In 1830, however, things begin to pick up as 49 prisoners were sent to Eastern State. In that year, a document entitled A View and Description of the Eastern Penitentiary of Pennsylvania, in which an insight is given into a prisoner's experience there.
The convict, on his entrance, after the customary examination, ablution, medical inspection, &c., is clothed, blindfolded and conducted to his cell, where he remains locked up; and after a patient and careful inquiry into his history, and the delivery of an appropriate address to him on the consequences of his crime, and the design to be effected by his punishment, he is abandoned to that salutary anguish and remorse which his reﬂections in solitude must inevitably produce.
In 1831, construction was completed on Block 3, and due to an ever-increasing volume of prisoners, construction began on the two-story Blocks 4, 5, 6 and 7. In this same year, Eastern State received its first female inmate.
1832 saw the prison’s first escape. The warden’s waiter lowered himself from the roof of the front building. He was captured, but repeated his escape in the same manner in 1837.
1834 brought with it the first investigation into the practices being used within the confines of the prison. This investigation was started amid allegations of abuse and general deviations from the Pennsylvania System of Confinement.
Construction of the original prison was finally completed in 1836, seven years later. The prison had grown to a capacity of 450 prisoners, and boasted sophisticated indoor plumbing and sewage facilities. This has not, however, been cheap. The final cost of construction came in at $750,000, making it one of the most expensive buildings of the day.
In the years between 1877 and 1894, four new cell blocks were added to handle yet more prisoners. These blocks, however, would not include the private exercise yards featured in the earlier construction.
A three-story cell block, Block 12, was added in 1911, adding an additional 120 cells to the prison’s substantial population.
In July, 1923, Leo Callahan, and five other prisoners, scaled the east wall of the prison. Despite recapturing the accomplices from places as far away as Hawaii, Callahan himself was never recaptured.
In the Annual Report of the Warden, in 1924, he states:
The Eastern State Penitentiary, built 100 years ago on the Warner Farm, located according to the records of those days as being "Near Philadelphia" has out-lived its usefulness as a penal Institution. The buildings are antiquated, insufficient in size and not well adapted for the housing of prisoners. The plot of 12 acres occupied by the Institution, located now almost in the heart of the City, is entirely too small for the necessary buildings, shops and recreation grounds…
In 1926, with the addition of Block 14, Eastern State held a population of 1,700 prisoners. This is substantially larger than the 250 prisoners originally intended for the facility. It is apparent that the state did not agree with the Warden’s views.
For eight months between 1929 and 1930, this population would include a celebrity, of sorts; Al Capone.
1933 brought a riot protesting living conditions, lack of recreational facilities, and general boredom. Another riot in 1934 complained of low wages. These were nothing, however, compared to the 1961 riot that required the guards and a large contingent of smurfs to retake the prison by horse. This riot began discussions about the eventual closure of the prison.
The prison is finally closed in January, 1970, having served almost 141 years. While still seeing occasional use by the city, it remained largely abandoned until restoration work began in 1991.
By 1994, Eastern State Penitentiary reopened its doors, this time to tourists, playing host to over 10,000 tourists the first year. Over the years, up to the present day, thanks to generous donations, volunteers, and a steady stream of fascinated tourists, Eastern State Penitentiary continues its slow recovery.
In 2008, we arrived on a warm summer day. It's a museum, of course, and I tend to be anti-museum. At least in so far as museums are traditionally done. This is almost an un-museum.
Much of it is in its original state. Parts have been restored, but much of it is exactly as they found it after its period of abandonment. That appeals to me. The only work they're doing on those parts appears to be stabilization to keep the place from falling down.
As a result, you get a feeling for it that goes beyond anything a pristine museum could give you. The self-guided tour, using headphones with prerecorded messages, allows your view to be interrupted as little as possible with silly signs and displays. Very little takes away from the experience.
My only negative comment about the place would be that part of it was kept off limits for special members, at least at the time I was there.