Overnight at Eastern State Penitentiary: true stories from my years on the ghost hunt (Part 2)

The two-story Cell Block Seven at Eastern State Penitentiary, completed in 1836.

I would soon learn that since paranormal investigators were always looking for something called “shadow figures,” the first order of business would always be turning out all the lights.

In honor of Halloween, the following is the second 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. (Missed the first installment? Catch up here.)  

As long as I worked at Eastern State, I could never quite figure out the logic of turning out the lights to look for shadows. It made ghosts seem like more of a needle in a haystack than ever, but difficult as glimpsing black forms in dark hallways is, the popular imagination knows that no spirit worth his salt would dream of coming out until you kill the lights.

Since these “ghost groups” were paying a prime rental rate to conduct their investigations, we politely did whatever they asked, within the rules, even though turning off the lights in the dripping, sighing nighttime prison wasn’t a matter of tugging a ceiling cord.

There was a single rusty circuit box in the abandoned room above the prison’s rotunda. To reach it, we walked up a narrow flight of stairs that dated to 1836. We arrived on the balcony at the top of Cell Block Seven, with its giant glass skylights and spectacular barrel-arched ceiling whose peeling paint gleamed dully in the moonlight.

There was an ancient wooden door on the left, coated in decades of flaking green paint and sporting broken window-panes beside a single small padlock. On this particular night, without a working flashlight, I used the brief, dim shine of my old cell phone’s screen to get my key in the lock and jimmied the door open.

I made a hard left through a small room piled with debris I could never make out in the gloom. Tour guides’ footprints had worn a path through the carpet of plaster dust that coated the rotting floorboards. I stepped into the upper room of the rotunda – it had once been an apothecary room, and later a library. The glass from the large windows was long gone, and the breeze whispered over the voices of the investigators below my feet. I picked my way past more piles of debris and stood on a large, wobbling rock that served as our step-stool to reach the electric panel, a long double row of switches.

Chunk. Chunk. I flipped the switches that plunged the prison into darkness. The return trip to the ground-floor rotunda was even more hazardous with the lights extinguished.

I wish I had taken more photos during my tenure at Eastern State. This is the only one I ever took while on the job during a ghost group, with the help of the only light that remained on for the night. Would you enjoy walking down that black hallway?

That night’s investigators were an experienced crew and they wasted no time. They split into groups on the order of a forceful woman named Rosemary, whose devotees I accompanied into CB 7 a few minutes later.

Rosemary laid her EVP recorder reverently on the stone floor.

“I would like to have a conversation with the shadow figures on this cell block,” she intoned. “I won’t hurt you. I’d like to talk to you.” Pause. “Are there any shadow figures who would like to speak?” Pause. “What is your name?” Pause. “How many of you are there?”

As I’d learn over many more nights, most paranormal investigators took the ghosts well in hand from the start.

“This is a device called an Electronic Voice Phenomenon recorder,” they’d say. “It’s not going to hurt you. If you speak into the red light, we may not be able to hear your voice now, but when we play it back later, we may hear you.”

However, the lessons were superfluous at best. In an average summer week, we’d see as many as five different groups of investigators. Therefore, if ghosts do roam Eastern State, they are far from needing an introduction to the EVP recorder.

What makes a shadow figure, I wondered as Rosemary spoke. Are they different from ghosts? Are they friendly? How can a shadow talk? Why would they want to talk to us?

Already a little bit bored with almost five hours of investigating to go, I was relieved when one group needed to be escorted through the gates for a smoke. Under the street lights, the bar across the street was hopping. Music blared out across the street and I could finally see my charges, three rotund middle-aged women.

“Are you feeling better, Barb?” the short one inquired solicitously of the one with long, straggling black hair.

“Ugh,” said Barb. “I almost threw up in there. But I think I’ll make it.”

“Barb feels the presences,” the short one offered by way of explanation.

“When I saw my first apparition, I vomited,” Barb volunteered pleasantly.

“How did you know you weren’t sick?” the question slipped out before I could help it.

Barb eyed me with incredulous resentment. I fell silent and slipped back into the peaceful, shadowy gatehouse.

Later I sat down with a young couple in the gloom of Cell Block Four.

“Do any animals ever walk in here?” the woman asked.

“Yeah, pigeons and mice and stuff,” I said.

“People aren’t allowed to walk up there, right?” the man asked, pointing to the wooden walkways of the deserted gallery level.

“No,” I said.

“We heard footsteps up there just now.” The man’s voice was slightly unnerved in the dark. “Some kind of bang,” his wife agreed. “And then footsteps, right up there.”

Over the next two years or so, my silence on these topics would increase in direct proportion to my knowledge of the nighttime prison. Those who heard bangs and rattling chains in CB 4 were actually hearing large, chain-mounted signage, invisible in the dark, stirring in the breeze. The footsteps in Cell Block Two were actually a steady chorus of drips in an old laundry facility that was perpetually flooded. An inexplicable whoosh in front of your face was a close encounter with one of the prison’s bats. The whispers in the dark were actually bits of plaster crumbling to the floor, as if exhausted by the day’s heat. The glowing orbs captured on camera in Cell Block 12 were a 40-year case of rampant dust reflecting the flash.

But as I began working ghost groups almost every week, I saw no point in mentioning any of this. When you pay hundreds of dollars to have a haunted building to yourself for a few hours, the one thing you don’t want to hear is that there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that noise. Sometimes the ultimate in customer service is keeping your mouth shut.

After Rosemary finished in CB 7, I took a crew to Death Row and then the Hole, both of which seemed full of promise, paranormally speaking, but which were disappointingly peaceful.

“The Hole” at Eastern State, down beneath Cell Block 14, about a hundred years old. There are five tiny cells set in the concrete, out of sight on the left. These barrels may have held water at some time, but no-one’s really sure.

(On another night, a welter of squeals in Death Row startled me as I waited outside, reading a book by flashlight. A man had proposed to his girlfriend in there.)

I crossed the silent, moonlit ball field alone, the loosened metal roofing of Cell Block Three creaking in the breeze. I took a post back in the rotunda for a while, within earshot of some hunters in CB 4, reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by the light of my cell phone.

Rosemary reappeared, her crew gathered around her. “It’s our turn for Cell Block Twelve,” she announced. The excitement was palpable. Due to some TV show or other, CB 12 is widely known to be teeming with ghosts.

“I’d be happy to take you,” I said. “Follow me. Can someone lend me a flashlight, please?”

I unlocked a metal gate and led a group of about ten people, weighted down with every conceivable hand-held audio and visual recording device, up one narrow concrete stairway and then another. The third floor of CB 12 spread out before us, a few thin concrete walkways connecting the long row of cells on either side.

The only light came from the dilapidated skylights, and the empty second floor loomed black through the strip of empty space at the center of the block. Each dusty cell seemed to harbor a spirit.

This photo, helpfully pointing out what is either paranormal phenomena or a floating bit of dust, was taken in CB 12 by the South Jersey Ghost Research group.

“Happy hunting,” I said

They spread down the block, fixing cameras, swinging EMF detectors (said to signify the energy fluctuations of manifesting spirits) and offering various verbal gambits to the ghosts. After a few moments I paused outside cell 12, where two men conversed with an unseen presence.

“We know you’re in here,” a man said with the infinite patience and reasonableness of someone dealing with a reluctant child. “We just saw you go past the window! We know you’re still here – we can feel you.” I settled silently in the corridor to eavesdrop.

“Can you make Steve’s light blink again? Don’t worry, we’re just here to talk.”

A few more hunters gathered in the doorway with video cameras, blocking my view.

“There he goes, Steve!” the first speaker suddenly crowed. “Did you see that?” “Yep, I saw his head. Right by the window…shhh, Tom, oh, oh, wow, did you see that?” A light blinked orange in the darkness.

“What a spike!”

“What’s your name? Was this your cell?” Tom asked. “Don’t pretend that you can’t speak up.”

“How long have you been here?” pressed Steve. The spirit declined to answer.

Rosemary was unpacking something at the top of the stairs – a small box, like a truck’s CB radio, attached to a small digital recorder. The most unsettling sounds began to ruffle the silent gloom, as if someone had turned on the radio but was spinning the tuning knob back and forth at high speed.

“What’s this?” I asked Rosemary.

“It’s a radio-wave receiver that picks up all FM radio waves in the area,” she explained, “but just flips through them at top speed.” Garbled, unintelligible voices crackled out of the static.

“So what does it do?” I asked.

“It creates an electronic sound matrix that spirits can sometimes use as a canvas to express themselves,” she explained.

(Here’s a video that shows some other ghost-hunters using a device like this in CB 12.)

She placed the device in a shallow drift of plaster, and we spread in an expectant circle around it.

“Is there anyone who would like to speak with us, using this device?” Rosemary began. “My name is Rosemary. Is there someone who would like to speak?”

I had a distinct flashback to grade school, wondering who would have to present their book report first.

“What’s your name?” Static. “How many of you are there?” Static. “Ok, we heard you that time, but what’s your name?” I strained my ears, having missed the spectral communication.

“I just heard your name again,” a woman with a video camera said.

“I know, I often get my name,” Rosemary replied impatiently – clearly someone would have to volunteer soon or she would just call on someone in the front row. Then, splashing up through the static, a man’s voice: “my name is….”

“I heard that,” I said. Everyone ignored me.

“Can you please say that again?” Rosemary requested. “We didn’t hear your name.” But whoever it was declined to speak up, and Rosemary turned the thing off. The silence was a relief after the scrabble of nameless jabbering and static, with those scratchy, disembodied words swimming up to my ears. With the squawk-box off, it was easier to convince myself that I’d heard a snatch of radio conversation that happened to coincide with Rosemary’s questions.

“I’d like to just sit for a while,” Rosemary decreed. “See what we can feel – see what we sense in the quiet and the dark.”

So we grouped companionably about halfway down the cell block, and peered down towards the end. Three narrow vertical windows, nearly opaque with dust at the end of the block, let the weak moonlight in. “Watch those windows,” Rosemary instructed. “It’s the perfect way to see them.”

Them who?

A self-appointed spokesman broke off from the group, marching resolutely towards the end of the cell block. He laid an EVP recorder tenderly in the dust – its tiny green light shone steadily back at us.

“Is there someone here who would like to speak with us?” he began, fearlessly swallowed in the darkness, alone at the end of the corridor. “We just want to talk to you,” he wheedled.

Silence.

“Ok, obviously there’s no-one here,” he called blithely. “No-one’s here who is able to talk to us. Boy, I heard this place was full of ghosts, but obviously everyone was wrong. This place is empty.”

Silence.

“I know what it is,” he bellowed. “You’re too weak to speak to me. You’re just a wimp, too afraid and too weak to say anything to us. You’re just a big pansy, aren’t you?”

There was a quiet thump from a cell on the left.

“There you are!” He dove into the cell. “There’s a desk in there,” he called to the rest of us. “I shoved it and it made a similar noise.” When it came to ghost hunting, I found that this was the usual extent of the scientific method.

The man stepped into an adjacent shower cell and his voice echoed off the old tiles.

“Is this where you got screwed up the ass?” he bawled.

Here’s a toilet from a cell in one of the oldest blocks, updated for the early 20th century with a thick rim of concrete to prevent inmates’ tampering.

“It’s the witching hour,” Rosemary whispered, glancing at her illuminated watch. Even the rude ambassador in the shower fell silent and returned to the group.

“Oh, look at that,” a woman said. “Something just passed in front of the recorder light.”

“Everyone watch the light!” Rosemary commanded, and addressed the presence.

“Can you do that again, please? Make the light blink? Is there someone here? Blink twice for yes and…” her voice trailed away before she could ask everyone who was not there to raise their hands.

I stared absently at the dim gray rectangles that were the windows at the far end of the block.

A dark shape slid past the windows.

“Did anybody see that?” I said.

Continued in Part 3…

One of the corner towers at Eastern State, seen from ouside the wall. Special thanks to photographer Patricia Leeb, who can be reached at tripod_chronicles@yahoo.com
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4 Comments

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  1. I wonder why they never paid attention to your sighting. This is a great write up of your experience – not something many people get to do.

  2. Love these posts! And the pictures are fantastic too. It’s very American Horror Story.

  3. This is great stuff to follow, thanks Alaina!

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