Overnight at Eastern State Penitentiary: true stories from my years on the ghost-hunt

A view through the gate of Eastern State Penitentiary.

You’ve probably seen it on TV, but as the dusk in the cell blocks deepened to a humid, cavernous black, bats began to swoop in and out of the yawning doorways, and the dark turned crumbling plaster into whispers and dripping water into footsteps, I often wondered what strange twist of fate left me in charge of one of the world’s most notorious haunted places when the paranormal investigators arrived.

In honor of Halloween, the following is the first post in a special three-part series about my nighttime experiences while on-staff at  Eastern State Penitentiary. The photographs, unless otherwise noted, are the work of Baltimore-based photographer Patricia Leeb, and are used by permission of the artist.

The original wood-and-iron doors (the ones that are left from the early 1800’s, anyway) were permanently rolled back. Many of the cells still had bed-frames and wooden stools, and these empty spaces tugged constantly at the corner of your eyes as you walked down the old cell blocks. One cell block that was closed to the public still had prisoners’ shoes, magazines and even decades-old toilet paper.

A view of one of Eastern State’s oldest cells.

I worked as a tour guide at Philadelphia’s historic Eastern State Penitentiary for almost three years, between 2008 and 2010.

“Where’s the haunted section?” was often the first thing visitors asked me. I began to consider greeting ticket-buyers like a restaurant hostess in the days before cigarette bans: “Welcome to Eastern State, haunted or non?”

The problem with that (besides any potential handbook violation) was that most visitors would’ve refused to believe there was any such thing as a non-haunted section of Eastern State. “What’s the freakiest thing that you ever saw here?” was another common question, as if I’d seen so many terrifying apparitions that it’d be hard to pick just one.

Dozens of sensational TV shows filmed at Eastern State – from reality TV episodes to documentaries – have left viewers with one impression over all others. That place is haunted: if ghosts exist, they have to be at Eastern State.

I tried to see ghosts as a good gateway drug – people who came to search for the specter of Al Capone (imprisoned there for eight months in 1929-1930) might end up appreciating an extraordinary piece of American history with powerful ties to modern criminal justice issues.

It’s interesting to consider that though we take the use of incarceration for granted today, this method of punishment, deterrence and rehabilitation is a new idea, relatively speaking. Across Europe and the early United States, wrong-doers might face the stocks, whipping or the gallows. Til then, jails often housed offenders all in one room, including men, women and children.

Look carefully at the word “penitentiary,” and you can see the intentions of the Quakers who developed the philosophy of inmates’ treatment at Eastern State. Forbidding as the penitentiary looks today, with its massive, castle-like gatehouse and thirty-foot stone walls, it was designed make its inmates penitent: to rehabilitate them.

For almost a hundred years, Eastern State’s policy called for solitary confinement of all its inmates. Its founders believed that lonely, silent reflection was a humane and effective way to reform its residents. Instead of the horrific landmark it seems to be today, the penitentiary was actually conceived as a radical social experiment that, for good or ill, would revolutionize our methods of coping with crime.

Early in the 20th century, the solitary confinement principle that had faltered due to overcrowding from the very start was officially abolished. The original seven cell blocks, designed around a single rotunda in a wagon-wheel shape that was copied in prisons all over the world, would see eight additional blocks (one of them designed by an inmate) squeezed onto the 11-acre property.

An image of Eastern State’s original design, as completed in the 1830s.

Upon learning that Cell Block 15 (built in the 1950’s) was known as Death Row, tourists would seek me out with a morbid gleam in their eyes. “How many people died here, altogether?” they asked. “Where’s the room where they killed them?” “The hospital – is that where the electric chair was?”

They were invariably disappointed to hear that while Death Row inmates did live there, these men were transferred to another state facility for their executions.

Of course, much to the relief of America’s ghost-hunters, this doesn’t mean that no-one ever died inside the prison. How many died, exactly? No-one knows for sure. But for almost 150 years, violence, riots, illness, suicide, old age, and (in at least one probable case) torture took inmates’ lives.

Eastern State didn’t stop operating until 1971. Inmates working and exercising could hear the children at the school next door, and more than one escape attempt – including ladders and, in the 1940’s, a spectacular tunnel – resulted in inmates scattering into the neighborhood.

For about twenty years, the penitentiary was left to rot, inhabited by nobody but a pride of stray cats. But in the 1990s, the museum was born, and now people can tour the old penitentiary, now a “stabilized ruin,” to learn about its history. (Each autumn, a top-rated haunted house built right into the old cell blocks, Terror Behind the Walls, provides the majority of the funding to support the historic site).

True to the penitentiary’s reputation as a hotbed of paranormal experiences, a few of my Eastern State co-workers admitted strange experiences. One used to tell a story about seeing all the iron doors on the empty third floor of Cell Block Twelve closed, and then, just a moment later, returning to see them all open. There were a few tour guides who were afraid to stay in the prison after dark – it may have had something to do with picking up noises that couldn’t be un-heard on a ghost-hunting radio device we called the “squawk-box.”

Others reported hearing weird noises and jiggling door-handles after-hours that drove them to abandon their paperwork til daylight returned. Another claimed that he ran out after hearing voices while working alone one night, unable to locate the voices’ source after multiple searches of the apparently deserted facility.

One of the nineteenth-century cell blocks on the penitentiary’s west side, as seen from the rotunda.

“Make sure to bring your Proton Pack,” my co-worker Bryan said in the staff-room before our first nighttime shift. We all fantasized about greeting paranormal investigators shoulder to shoulder in full Ghostbusters regalia. Who would be Egon and who would be Dr. Venkman was a hot topic of conversation.

“Don’t laugh, guys.” The Site Manager looked up from his lunch. “You wait – tour guides have been seriously creeped out working these things. You’ll see, when they start with that radio to the dead.”

Some tour guides, like a young man named Jesse whom I often worked with, toyed shamelessly with visitors.

“Sometimes, down in Cell Block Seven,” he’d whisper to wide-eyed tourists, “you can hear babies crying.”

When a TV show host with a loose grip on the truth declared that inmates had been tortured in this particular seat, this old barber-chair was known forever after as “the torture chair” to tourists with an over-developed sense of the macabre.

There was one person associated with Eastern State who avidly claimed that he’d met a ghost.

Gary the Locksmith, known to all concerned only as Gary the Locksmith, was known to possess a sort of extra-sensory perception that led him onsite precisely when any of the prison’s ancient locks went awry. The Site Manager claimed that he did not even have Gary the Locksmith’s phone number, but that the man magically appeared with the correct equipment to finesse any offending lock.

Over the years, the length of the Locksmith’s ghostly tale (shared repeatedly not just with ESP staff and guests but also various TV networks) increased until it took the better part of an hour to hear it all.

The short version is that once, while working alone on a lock in the last cell on the right in Cell Block Four, Gary the Locksmith was suddenly gripped by acute physical discomfort and anxiety, as if someone grabbed him around the chest.

Some actively debunk this experience as a minor heart attack, but learning that an inmate once murdered a guard close to that very cell does not dampen anyone’s enthusiasm for the Locksmith’s story – especially since the TV show Ghosthunters filmed an episode at the prison, and one of the hosts, startled by some unseen presence in CB 4, screamed “dude, run!” and fled the block in terror.

Years later, vacationing families visit the prison so that they can film themselves running down the block yelling, “dude, run!” In fact, over time, CB 4 ceased to be called CB 4 by a majority of the public, and simply became known as “Dude Run,” as in, “Hey, you work here? Where’s Dude Run?”

My own relationship with Dude Run was more complicated than I cared to admit. It was a corridor tour guides often passed through in the course of their duties, and I never got over a desire to hurry when I walked through it at night.

Early one July evening, as I entered the empty CB 4 from the rotunda and began walking down to make sure all guests were clear before closing, I saw something strange down at the end of the block, between the open door to the outside and the last cell on the right.

It looked like a heat mirage – a large, shimmering upright blob that was moving slowly to the right. I stopped to watch it. In about five seconds, the blob seemed to disappear into the last cell.

I resumed my walk and peered in there when I got to the end, but saw nothing out of the ordinary.

You should know that this is about the time in my life that I began to get migraines, which sometimes manifested as flashing blobs in my peripheral vision. I don’t recall any other migraine symptoms on that particular evening, but doesn’t a migraine make more sense than the idea that I glimpsed a ghost?

Make of it what you will.

After I began working at Eastern State, I didn’t wait long to sign up for what we called a “ghost group.”

At about 9pm on that summer Saturday, a minor setback occurred as tour guides Gage, Susan, Bryan and I discovered that every battery in every staff flashlight was dead. We clocked in and surveyed a group of about forty people. It was hard to make out their faces in the evening gloom, but they were saddled and ready, bristling with digital cameras, electro-magnetic frequency (EMF) detectors, electronic voice phenomenon (EVP) recorders, blinding flashlights mounted like coal-miners’ helmets, and the squawk-box.

They were ready. We led them inside.

Part 2 awaits…

Photographer Patricia Leeb can be reached at tripod_chronicles@yahoo.com

Click here for part 2.

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13 Comments

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  1. Haunted or not, it is a creepy place – glad you don’t work there anymore.

  2. Save this one up and pitch it somewhere in advance of Halloween next year — it’d make a great essay!

    • Yes – lots more to come. This is kind of a test-run of some content I’ve been sitting on for awhile, I’m hoping it has a future somewhere!

      • Pitch it as a destination travel story to a non-Philly pub. The fact that you worked there gives you an awesome in for an article, and you’ve got tons of the historical background. The piece would probably write itself…

      • yeah – I think what I’ll do is keep this series live only for a limited time, then bring back into the vault to re-work for possible publication next year.

        When I originally wanted to write this, I thought the piece would “write itself” but it’s actually challenging (albeit fun) to condense so much material and get across a sense of the place and its history. I used to carry a notebook around with me all the time even before I was a reporter – so glad I saved these details/dialogues!

    • Just read the last one — great stuff. It could probably be a stand-alone too, not just a travel piece… although it would work perfectly in an airlines mag in the essay section, or really any lifestyle pub. Trying to think what I’d pull out as the hook… hmm. If you’re gonna go for a mag, polish it up in like Feb and let me know how it goes!

      • Cool, thanks for weighing in and glad you enjoyed. I am also thinking it doesn’t necessarily have to be travel – after all, this is not an experience that the average tourist can pursue. Good to know I’m not the only one who thinks this stuff has a future.

  3. this is a creepy place i would stay overnight there if i could i love the paranormal

  4. I was there recently got a strange feeling as i went into the area sectioned #7.. the guide told me it was one of the oldest parts, and that one of the guides had seen some thing there in the past. I’m very interested in the paranormal and consider myself sensitive to certain things. This is an amazing place and such a part of history that I’m not surprised there are un-rested souls still there ..

  5. Curious if you got the cellblock black and white photo from ESP contest webpage? If so that was my winning photo haha

    • Alaina Mabaso May 19, 2016 — 4:05 pm

      Hi, your photo is strikingly similar to the one in this blog post, but they’re not the same photo. As I note in the post, the photos are the work of Patricia Leeb, used by the artist’s permission. Thanks for stopping by!

  6. The black and white photo of the cellblock with the caption

    [ One of the nineteenth-century cell blocks on the penitentiary’s west side, as seen from the rotunda. ]

    with the tire in the side is my contest winning photo from a few years back haha. The uncropped photo is on [ https://www.flickr.com/photos/cookphotography215/10230453813/in/album-72157634342468679/ ]

    • Alaina Mabaso May 25, 2016 — 6:04 pm

      The picture used in this post, as noted, is the work of photographer Patricia Leeb, used with permission. It is amazing how similar different artists’ images of ESP can look.

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