I caught this episode on reruns. Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829, making it 180 years old and one of the oldest prisons in the United States. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania it was a social experiment gone horribly wrong. Reportedly the idea of solitary confinement for each and every prisoner was hatched by Quakers during a meeting at the Philly home of none other than Benjamin Franklin. The idea was that solitary confinement would force the violent criminals housed there into a penitent frame of mind in which they would turn to God and reform their ways. This is why the prison was built with skylights, for the moments when hardened criminals turned to God.
Every cell had an inner metal door and and outer wood door to prevent prisoner’s from talking to each other. Prisoners being transferred from cell to cell were obliged to wear a mask over their entire head, preventing any interaction with others.
Despite good intentions, complete solitary confinement didn’t turn inmates to God, rather drove them insane. Many were mentally ill by the time they were incarcerated for murder, rape and other horrific crimes.
Stories and eyewitness accounts abound. Eastern State was the site of many deaths from a variety of causes including the wretched epidemics of 1829. Hundreds died of TB. The concept of a life sentence didn’t come into play until the 20th century. A life in Eastern State often meant death from the common disease of old age, cancer, diabetes, kidney failure etc…
Every prison has it’s share of suicides, but Eastern State seemed to have more than most according to the Deaths ledger Zak looked at during the walk through. Many hung themselves, some cut their own throats. One entry listed death by masturbation. At the time it was honestly thought that overstimulation could kill. After looking at the Deaths ledger Zak put his hand on it for a moment. He didn’t comment on what he felt, but I heard multiple screams come out of the ledger. Sheer rage, terror, pain… everything at once.
By 1913 ideas about prisoner rehabilitation had changed and most cells were enlarged and held two inmates per cell. This boosted the population at Eastern State to about 1700 inmates. One thing that didn’t change was the rule against talking to fellow inmates. Brutal consequences for violating this rule remained. One frequent punishment was taking a prisoner outside in the winter and soaking them with ice water. Then they were forced to stay outside overnight.
Something called an iron gag was also used to punish talkers. It was a metal contraption that was inserted in the mouth and attached to chains that bound a prisoner’s hands behind their back. The slightest movement would cause the iron gag to lacerate the prisoner’s tongue. I got some graphic and bloody images of tongues badly chewed, almost shredded by this device.
The mad chair was pretty bad too. A prisoner would be strapped into the chair with leather bindings which nearly cut off circulation through the body. Then they would be left there, for days, without food. Not surprisingly many prisoner’s went mad under such conditions. There is a story that a mid-1940’s bank robber named Slick Willy Sutton was subjected to the mad chair and his ghost remains with it today.
Author Katherine Driver talked about a number of experiences during past investigations. Walking along Cell Block 4 she felt an overwhelming wave of sadness that left her and others with her in tears. At this time a cold blast of air passed by this group, presumably a ghost rushing by. In the men’s shower she was slapped on the backside by a ghostly hand.
Tourists have had their fair share of run-ins with Eastern State ghosts. One young man on tour was rudely commenting on the names of the prisoner’s posted outside the cells they once resided in. He was pushed out of the cell by an unseen presence. A former tour guide once had a straggler in his group who turned out to be a ghost. A modern day visitor named Andrew Knapp was making fun of a former prisoner’s name on Death Row The guy was named Elmo Smith. Andrew made some comments about the “Tickle Me Elmo” toy that was all the rage with tots a few years ago. He was hit hard. I am sure it was Smith, because he was snarling, “I will show you tickling…..” as he hit Andrew.
Zak, Aaron and Nick started their lockdown facing a central hub with doors that led to Cell Blocks 1-4. As usual Zak was provoking, asking them to come out. Boy did the ghost come out! I saw hundreds of ghosts leaning out of their cell doors to peer at Zak. They blocked every cell doorway and all of them regarded him with curiosity at best.
In Cell Block 12 Zak produced a guard key and did some typical provoking by telling the ghosts he was going to unlock all their cells and he wanted them to come get him. This was either brave or foolhardy depending on your perspective as Cell Block 12 was infamous for having guards pushed over the railings by inmates reaching out through the metal grills of their cell doors. So many guards died this way a set of metal bars was put in the space between levels so they wouldn’t have so far to fall. When Zak started provoking in this way I heard a canphony of jeering from every direction. As far as I could tell every ghost in the block started yelling, catcalling etc….
Keeping up this line of provacation, Zak invited the ghosts to take aim at his exposed neck. Nothing happened. I got the distinct impression the ghosts had decided to bide their time and attack him when he wasn’t expecting it.
Zak opened a small hatch in a larger solid door cell. I saw a man’s face peer out at him, wondering what was going on. The face was pale, pasty like people get when they have no exposure to sunlight. Not surprisingly about this time Zak started getting chills. He challenged the biggest, toughest guy/ghost in the place to come attack him. No attack was shown on the episode, but I got a vivid image of a barrel chested man with shaggy black hair and beard heading for Zak with great relish.
While inside this cell the EMF detector started showing fluctuations. Zak asked the former occupant(s) if they had been imprisoned for murder. I heard a clear male voice respond, “Yes.”
Zak also asked the ghostly inmates if they thought it was fair they had been locked up in the prison. The most chilling EVP of the episode answered, “I knew God…. God.” Zak and most other posters on this EVP had the impression perhaps this particular inmate turned to or denied God in prison. I got a completely different vibe off the EVP. I think the comment was related to the former inmate knowing something about the murder before it happened and not doing anything to stop it. Consequently they ended up in Eastern State. Invoking God was more of an expression of despair, they knew what was going to happen but they didn’t stop it and look where they ended up. When people are startled or overwhelmed it is common to say, “Oh God, oh God, oh God….” because they are at their limit. The other EVP in this cell was a voice saying, “hungry”. Zak commented the voice sounded almost alien. I got more of an impression of the weakness that would result from starvation.
Of course Zak sat in the mad chair and had his buddies strap at least his wrists down. All kinds of noises started up. There was the metallic sound of a jail cell opening up and some scratching sounds. All the cells echoed with ghostly jeering again. Shortly thereafter an EVP advised Zak to “get out” of the mad chair. Like at Waverly I got the impression the ghosts were not happy with his high jinks where so many had suffered. There was a strong feeling of collective anger that he was making fun of those who suffered and died in that chair. I think some prisoner’s died of blood clots due to the leather straps being so tight. At least several others died of starvation. One ate his own tongue. No attacks were shown on the episode, but there was this convergence of sheer rage focused on Zak at this time. I saw some ghosts who wanted to shred him with their bare hands. It was a combination of anger at what was perceived as disrespect and a general urge to lash out.
Near the front entrance Zak, Nick and Aaron got a highly responsive ghost who answered their questions with a series of double knocks. Zak asked the ghost if they were in the room the knocks were coming from. I heard a clear “Yes” although nothing was picked up by their equipment. The guys attempted to get into the room the knocks were coming from but instead found themselves in an eerie room sporting several empty coffins. The responses stooped. However they were not alone in the coffin room. I saw an old man, a carpenter whose job at one point was to make coffins for the prison. He was short, stooped, with gnarled but skilled hands. He was wearing civilian clothing, black slacks, a light dress shirt open at the throat, no tie and a black vest over the shirt. He had a classic comb over going to try and hide his encroaching baldness. I had the impression he was a first generation immigrant to the United States from Europe. I didn’t get a name.
The still image of a brightly lit door with a mist exiting it at apparently high speed was cool. Other than the impression of speed and escape, I don’t know who or what it was.
Things got the most interesting with the guys split up. Zak headed to Al Capone’s cell where the famous Mafia boss spent eight months in relative comfort on a concealed weapons charge in 1929. Guards at the time claimed that Capone was haunted by the ghost of James “Jimmy” Clark one of the victims of the St. Valentines Day Massacre. Guards said they heard screams from Capone telling Clark to go away and leave him alone. Clark was there with Zak although Zak didn’t have any observable experiences with him. Zak asked Clark to show him whatever it was Clark showed Capone to make the legendary tough guy “scream like a girl”. Clark showed me and it was quite simply hell. Clark would advance towards Capone as a twisted black shadow. He would then quite literally show Capone visions of hell straight out of Old Testament lore. (I should note I see hell as being blocked from the presence of God, our creator, not really hellfire and brimstone in nature.) However Capone was Italian Catholic and would have been familiar and likely frightened by such images. I think Clark did his level best to drive Capone mad in prison. It didn’t work, but not for lack of effort.
During the split up Aaron headed to the infirmary, widely regarded as the most haunted part of Eastern State. He felt cold and heard footsteps heading down the hall toward him. I saw an orderly or nurse dressed in a white medical uniform of some sort as the cause of the footsteps Aaron heard. The medic stopped in front of Aaron and asked him, “Why are you here?” Kinda like, you don’t belong, what are you doing here? Not hostile, but definitely a challenge to his presence in the infirmary.
Nick headed off to the infamous metal door where inmate Joseph Taylor waited for the guard to open it allowing Taylor into the solitary confinement yard. Instead of taking some air, Taylor took a part he had taken off a sewing machine and beat the guard to death with it. Following the murder Taylor went back into his cell and took a nap. It was creepy because I saw Taylor as he was in the moments before the guard opened the door. He was on the right side of the door, waiting quietly with the metal from the sewing machine concealed behind his pant leg. I couldn’t tell where the hinges on the door were. I would be interested to know if the right side of the door would make sense or not depending on how it opened.
Nick got an EVP of an unexplained scream at the door to the solitary yard. I believe the scream was from the murdered guard. The scream sounded surprised not enraged. If it had come from the murderer Taylor I would have expected more rage in it. I saw this scene playing out as an imprint haunting.
Then Nick heard his name being called by a ghost. A ghost who knew his name… well I guess that answers Zak’s question from earlier in the episode wondering if they were dealing with intelligent or residual hauntings. At least some of them were intelligent and observing what was happening in the prison in real time.
Eastern State reminded me strongly of the ghosts at Waverly TB Sanatorium. The sheer number, the rage, despair but a little worse due to the rampant insanity of the prisoner’s from the solitary confinement era. Little wonder Eastern State is considered one of the most haunted buildings in America. I would agree with that!
Lynne Olson can be contacted for private readings via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org
(C) 2010 Lynne Olson. All rights reserved.