Overnight at Eastern State Penitentiary: true stories from my years on the ghost hunt (Part 3)

The wall is toppling backward from this cell in Block 14, leaving the old room open to the elements.

It was an important moment, and I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I had just seen a brief but unmistakable interruption of the moonlight filtering through the third-floor cell block’s narrow windows.

In honor of Halloween, the following is the third and final post in a special series about my nighttime experiences while on-staff at  Eastern State Penitentiary. The photographs are the work of Baltimore-based photographer Patricia Leeb, and are used by permission of the artist. (Missed installments one and two? Catch up here and here.)  

“Did anybody see that?” I said.

We were looking at the green light,” Rosemary answered, referring to the digital recorder her ghost-hunters had placed at the end of the cell block.

“I saw something pass in front of the windows,” I said. Since no-one else had been prepared to flout Rosemary and her interest in the green light, I had no corroborators. However, no-one voiced the slightest doubt that I had witnessed a shadow figure. In fact, they were disappointingly blasé.

“Ghosthunters sees that all the time,” Rosemary informed me as I led the group back down the stairs.

As I began to get used to working until 2:00 or 3:00 AM about once a week in the spring and summer, I had ample time to think about my sighting. Was it a resident of another realm?

Or did a large bird fly past the windows just as I was looking? The prison was home to an army of pigeons, a few surly crows, and one hawk notable for once beheading a pigeon outside of Cell Block 8. He often surveyed the facility from the topmost point of the center tower.

As time went on, the prison that grips its TV viewers with terror became my friend. The noises that electrified paranormal investigators were a familiar soundtrack to me. I knew the sticky locks, the doors that always escaped their stoppers in the wind, and where the beautiful breezes were.

On oppressive summer nights when the prison was unbearably humid, I would whisper to the ghost hunters’ leader that earlier in the day, a self-professed psychic had told me she’d sensed a presence in a particular area. The area I mentioned always happened to be in a comfortable outdoor spot where I preferred to sit. I tried to sound nervous and reluctant to return to the site.

This was not a total pack of lies. In any given day on the job, someone was bound to tell me that he or she sensed a presence somewhere. The only real lie was the implication that I feared the site in question – it was just a personal flourish designed to make sure everyone got what they wanted: the investigators got to creep around the old greenhouse for an hour calling out “is that you, Margaret? Why are you still here?” and I got to sit on an empty bench in a delicious summer evening breeze and read a book with my little flashlight.

Once the ghost hunters were happily occupied, my nights inside the walls, far from being scary, actually were some of the most peaceful times I’ve ever had while on the clock, punctuated with many enjoyable moments.

Some hard-core ghost hunters brought curious family members along. These loved ones, though they would never admit it, were usually terrified, and I enjoyed escorting them to the bathrooms without letting on that I knew they had invited me to walk with them because they were scared to go alone.

At least one ghost-hunter was visibly pregnant, and others brought their kids. I spent one hilarious night listening to a ten-year-old boy ruin his family’s EVP recordings by belching in the cell blocks (until a pigeon pooped on his head).

Some family members were clearly disenchanted with the whole process, including one man who lay down full-length on the rotunda’s stone floor and slept there for the duration of the investigation.

Once, as I sat a few feet away from a particularly silent and intense circle in Cell Block 4, my stomach growled.

“Did you hear that?” they whispered. “What was that?”

A view of Eastern State’s central observation tower, built in the 1950’s.

Ultimately, my favorite thing about the ghost groups was meeting the characters who came from all over the country.

Mikael extended a rotund, tattooed forearm to shake my hand as Susan (my fellow tour-guide) and I unlocked the front gate. We helped Mikael, Kelly, Ryan and Dan carry their gear to the rotunda: computers, cameras, miles of extension cords and a banquet of Wawa iced tea quarts, Pringles, and Danish.

Mikael sounded almost tearful as he began to unroll electric cord toward Cell Block Twelve. “I never thought….I never thought that at this point in my life, I’d be here…really here at Eastern State.”

He rooted through a pile of equipment and held out a small taser.

(I had quickly learned to expect anything in the way of ghost-hunting devices – everything from infrared cameras to divining rods. You know those flashlights that turn on and off when you twist their heads? One group twisted it until it almost turned off, stood it on its end on the floor, and yelled questions into the dark. If the light flickered, they assumed the spirits were answering them. Other groups brought playing cards, cigarettes and porn to lay out for the ghosts.)

While Dan leaned against a window sill, swigging a plastic jug of iced tea, Mikael explained to me that the spirits would use the electric energy from the taser to manifest themselves.

The potential risks of the taser blossomed in my mind. “Is there, uh, a safety risk there?” I asked.

“Oh, no, no,” said Mikael. “I won’t use it on anyone. Except maybe Ryan.  Where you going with my good flashlight, Ryan?”

“I told you – Cell Block 2, then 12.”

“Well, that’s my flashlight.”

“How do you know?”

“Because all the nice, new working stuff is mine and the crappy, non-working stuff is yours.”

Mikael addressed me again while he hooked up a large laptop. “I’ve actually had that taser for way longer than I’ve been hunting ghosts,” he confided. “In college we used to tape the ‘on’ button down and play Hot P’taser.”

Later, I  led Mikael and Kelly up the stairs to CB 12. They got right down to business, creeping back and forth along the dark cell block, waving EVP recorders. Feeling sociable, I trailed in their wake.

“Is there anyone with us tonight?” Mikael whispered. “We’re not here to hurt you – we want to talk to you. What is your name?”


“I’m holding a special recorder,” Mikael explained to the ghost[s]. “If you speak, we may not hear you now, but when I play back the tape, we will be able to hear your voice. Is there anything special you’d like to say, to a loved one?” He swung the recorder in a gentle arc.

“Why are you still here – if you’re here,” asked Kelly. “Is there anyone here with us?” He looked at me. “You must have heard this a thousand times, huh?” He sounded sheepish in the dark.

“Who knows – you could find the big evidence,” I said.

“Did you hear the tone of her voice?” Kelly suddenly bellowed. “She doesn’t believe in you guys! Why don’t you come out, right here, right now, and prove to Alaina that you’re here! She works here all the time, day and night, and she doesn’t even believe you’re there!”

My lungs tightened uncomfortably. Maybe ghosts exist and maybe they don’t, but I was there to do my job, not commune with the dead.

“Can’t you prove Alaina wrong and show her that you’re really here?” Kelly pleaded. I kept quiet. I felt a gentle touch on my shoulder. Kelly loomed close out of the dark. “Do you mind language?” he asked.

“It’s your investigation,” I said.

“Fucking wimps! Why won’t you show yourselves?” he shouted with a sudden reedy bravado.

In ghost-hunting parlance, this is known as “provoking.” The scientific theory is that a quiet ghost will manifest if you can just offend him enough.

“Whoa!” cried Mikael.

“Huh? What, what?”

“Kelly – right down there – down there on the second floor!” Mikael was hanging over the central railing. “A shadow, just – just literally jumped from there to there, like, ‘whoosh!’ from there to there!”

“Come on, gentlemen, up and at ‘em!” Kelly yelled with fresh inspiration. “Come on gents, move! Roll out!”

“Yeah, yeah, that’s good, Kel,” said Mikael.

“Come on ladies, let’s go, last warning you ladies, step on out!” The orders died away into eerie silence.

“Hey Kel, did you hear that?” Mikael burst out.

I strained my ears.

“Uh, yeah, yeah, I think I did!”

“I thought it sounded like a man’s…no! Wait! Hold on, Kelly, don’t tell me what you heard, you tell Alaina what you heard, and then I’ll tell her what I heard, and then we’ll see if they match!”

“Ok,” replied Kelly. He turned to me. “I heard a man’s voice-”

“No, Kelly! Not so I can hear you!”

“Oh. Right. Sorry.”

“Never mind, you ruined it now.”

“But I did hear a man’s voice!”

“Me too! Sort of…over there…I don’t really know what it said, but it was definitely… a sentence, definitely I heard a sentence.”

“Me too! I heard a sentence too!”

Contrary to many facilities of its day and even now, Eastern State had its own fully-equipped hospital that was built into one of its oldest cell blocks in the early 20th century – a hospital best known as the place Al Capone had his tonsils removed.

Much later, in Cell Block 10, Mikael and Ryan decided it was time for the taser – Mikael raised it above his head like a light saber. A blinding light flashed in the cell and the sound razzed in my ear like a panicked cicada. But no spirit availed itself of the electronic surge.

Ryan lost interest and I escorted him back to the empty rotunda. As we entered from CB 2, something small and brown streaked across the doorway to Cell Block Six, opposite us.

“Did you see that?” Ryan gasped.

“It was a bat,” I opined. When I had been working from 9:30am to 2:00am, sometimes my usual customer-service policies slipped ever so slightly.

“But are you sure? How could a bat have flown in right there? Quick, find out where the others are.”

I hoisted my radio up from my belt. “Alaina to Susan.”

“Susan here.”

“What’s your twenty?”

“Cell Block 4.  Why?”

“Uh, we had a…potential phenomena…in center.”

“Mmm, copy that.”

An apoplectic Mikael reappeared in time to hear this.

“What was it? Did you get it on film? This is what I was telling you, Ryan – we should have set up cameras in center!”

“I’m about 99% percent sure that was a bat,” I offered. (There was a one percent chance it was a very large bug.)

“How could a bat have gotten there?” Ryan demanded.

Just then, a little brown bat flapped in one of the yawning doorways and made a single lap of the rotunda.

We watched it solemnly until it fluttered back outside.

“Ok, it was a bat,” Ryan conceded with good grace. “But you have to admit: for about four seconds, you didn’t say anything. So for four seconds, you weren’t sure if it was a bat or not.”

“I didn’t say anything because I was so sure it was a bat I didn’t think there was any point in saying it was a bat,” I replied.

After seven and a half hours, the men finally began to pack up their equipment. They did the math, and declared that between their many cameras, they had fifty-five hours of video footage to scrutinize for shadow figures when they got home.  No fast-forwarding allowed.

“You have the coolest job in the world,” Mikael told me before he left.

Indeed, one might wonder why someone would leave a job like the one I had. The truth is that I may have worked one too many ghost groups. After I had been at the penitentiary for almost three years and was beginning to fill in for my managers, I was fired quite suddenly. I’d had no complaints or warnings, so it was hard to accept. My manager told me I was a good tour guide, but that I had a negative attitude about paranormal investigators.

That meeting was the start of my full-time writing career, so I have no regrets.

A typical pane of glass at Eastern State. I don’t know what broke this particular window in the years the prison was abandoned, but some places in the prison still bear the scars of a massive 1961 riot.

My feelings about the paranormal investigators were certainly mixed, but I approached each night committed to letting my charges have the best experience possible for their money. I listened to their stories, looked at their photos, answered their questions, and kept them safe in the old buildings.

And the ghosts?

Working in such an ancient, sprawling, atmospheric setting affords you plenty of chances for double-takes and ears tipped curiously toward strange sounds. But there is only one incident that I really can’t explain.

I was supervising a crew whose names never made my notes. We had just ventured outside Cell Block 2 in the wake of a midsummer storm, and the receding clouds reflected the last bit of sunlight over the southeast corner of the wall.

One of the hunters pointed his digital camera down the prison’s empty east side to capture the rapidly fading sunset.

“Hey! Hey, look at this!” he said when he glanced at the picture on his screen.

It’s amazing how many shadows, reflections, floating dust flecks and tricks of the lens are mistaken for what’s known as “orbs” in ghost-hunting speak.

But they all seemed so excited that I strolled to their group and looked at the image.

There was a perfect, life-sized, transparent silhouette of a person in what had definitely been a deserted frame. I could see the outline of a head, neck, shoulders and torso as if someone were standing a few feet from the camera. The scenery the photographer had wanted to capture was visible through the body.

If you have an explanation for this image (other than declaring that I’m stark raving mad), by all means, let us know in the comments. I have been trying to mentally debunk this for years.

But I wasn’t the least bit scared. The group decided to investigate the end of CB 10, but I preferred to stay outside. I dragged my chair so that I could keep an eye on them, down the block, and slipped off my shoes so I could enjoy a fresh puddle of rainwater. If I was alone in the dark with the ghost, I didn’t care. In fact, by that time, I was ready to see any specter hanging around Eastern State as a long-suffering pal.

So I guess the only other thing I can tell you is the same thing I told every tour group who asked me if there really are ghosts at Eastern State.

If the prison is haunted, it should be a reminder that real people lived and died here, I’d say. So whether or not we believe in ghosts, let’s honor that history.

Special thanks to Patricia Leeb for providing some great images to accompany these posts! You can reach her at  tripod_chronicles@yahoo.com



Add yours →

  1. Did your mom ever say there’s no such thing as ghosts? Thanks for the stories!

  2. Cool read a very well written and interesting story you told. Thanks

    Ps my dad had a ghost encounter as a child…he made me absolutely terrified of ghosts growing up!

  3. i am a 16 year old and i am deeply interested in paranormal activity and i am actually a paranormal investigator also and i would like to learn more about eastern state penatentary specifically cell block 12 and cell block 4 so if you will please reply

    • Hi, thank for reading. If you really are interested in ghosts, my experience would tell you to pursue investigations other than Eastern State – even if for no other reason than to give any ghosts that might be there a rest. In the summertime, at least when I was working there, there were as many as five or six “investigations” a week. Sensational TV shows have convinced people that cell block four and cell block twelve at ESP are super-haunted. So folks who want to investigate there can suit themselves, but they’re in for a long, dusty night without much to show for it. I have seen pretty much every kind of ghost-hunting there is, and most of it ranges from pretty silly to downright dangerous and rude, without producing any results. But compared to some hobbies, especially for youngsters, ghost-hunting is not hurting anyone, so if you’re into it, knock yourself out. Just don’t go to ESP and try to hunt ghosts while you’re on a tour – it’s really rude to everyone around you (trust me, I’ve seen it).

  4. Hello! I’m an undergrad student doing a research essay on Eastern State and the history of it’s inmates. Would I be able to interview you at any point?

    • I’d rather not do an interview about Eastern State, but their PR folks are good, so check out their website and maybe they can hook you up with someone on staff who can help. Thanks for reading!

  5. I have had personal experiences of things I can not explain my whole life. I went to ESP and I really love the building it is beautiful . I didn’t have any experiences that I couldn’t explain away. I agree, I feel like for the most part I was very comfortable and peaceful there. The only building I felt any different in was Death row. It may have been implied, it is just a feeling so there is no science to back it up. I understand your thoughts on “investigators”. Some of us are actually scientific about the process. I also hate provoking. I look at ghosts as people and I feel if they don’t want to talk they don’t have to. You had me laughing quite a few times about your experiences with the tour groups. Thank you for sharing.

  6. First let me thank you for a well-written and thought-provoking piece. Like you, I can recall things from my past that felt weird but ultimately had sound explanations and other things I have not yet been able to explain. As a result I have changed my opinion on the validity of the paranormal, becoming less of a believer as time goes on. Currently, I would say I don’t buy into any of it and suspect that the tiny percentage I can’t account for probably still has a good explanation that just hasn’t been revealed. I have recently visited ESP and as a self-professed “open-minded skeptic”, I wanted to mention something that has been bothering me. Five of us went during the day and our group split up several times allowing for several of us the experience the place on our own terms and at our own pace.

    On the ride home we discussed the experience mostly from historic and sociological perspectives. However, I did mention feeling an overwhelming feeling of “oh, this is a bad room” in one particular location. Now, as you are much more aware than me……ESP is a giant collection of locations where “bad things happened”, but I was in all of the places one would typically expect to generate such a reaction……….and had none. Not in the hole, not in Death Row, and not even in the areas so generally thought to be haunted.

    What made this even more interesting is that my Fiance admitted that she experienced the same “ugh….this is a BAD room” thing. She photographed every interesting spot she could get to and never felt anything especially odd……….except in the same place I did. My step-daughter then admitted the same thing. Maybe we were influencing each other….maybe not. We all admitted that objectively there was nothing particularly exceptional about the location. It looked very much like the rest of the site. Why did this area provoke the same feeling for us?

    After getting home I began to look up experiences on the Internet (that’s how I found your article) but while i got the history of the location, no one mentioned the spot being particularly known for generating this feeling more than the other places you mentioned.

    I was wondering if as a skeptic and past employee you might be able to share anything on it? It was Cell block 13.
    Almost innocently located behind the peaceful greenhouse. The day was sunny and bright and I had been through places with equally ugly histories alone. It wasn’t crowded so I actually walked through several locations alone. Why did this one place end up being the only place to leave me feeling so ………..affected? And then find out it did the same to two other people that I love and trust…..who also said no other location affected them the same way?

    Weird huh?

    • Thanks for reading and sharing your experience. I’m not sure what accounts for your family’s experiences. When I worked at ESP, CB 13 wasn’t an area that was open to the public for historic tours, so it wasn’t a place we spent time in.

      Like I probably wrote in these pieces, after a while, the whole ESP site feels pretty friendly. I spend many peaceful nights there at work (as long as the ghost-hunters behaved themselves).

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