Eastern State Penitentiary Tours
Eastern State Penitentiary was the largest building in America when it opened in 1829. Its grounds still cover a dozen acres; its 30-foot-high walls extend for nearly a mile.
At the time, the prison site was just outside of Philadelphia (which has since grown up around it). A brooding and looming pile at the top of a hill, grim and castle-like, it was purposefully designed to inspire dread.
It was also a tourist attraction, even back then.
In fact, by the mid-1800s the Penitentiary boasted that it was the second most popular tourist attraction in America, trailing only Niagara Falls.
Mingling convicts and tourists may not seem wise, but it worked because the convicts didn't mingle with anyone. They spent 23 hours a day locked in isolation cells -- which were as spacious as some modern efficiency apartments -- and the other hour they spent outdoors, alone, with leather bags over their heads. Guards wore socks over their shoes to hear any attempts to communicate between cells. Visitors often remarked on the unearthly silence of the place.
This monkish system, designed to inspire penitence (hence the word Penitentiary), was unique in the U.S. -- and it led to charges that Eastern State was a "maniac-maker." "Inmates were going insane in their cells," conceded tour guide April. "This was like something out of Europe."
Crowding eventually closed the Penitentiary in 1971. For 20 years it sat abandoned, overrun by weeds and feral cats. The city boldly talked of turning it into a shopping mall or condos.
But in 1992 Eastern State Penitentiary reopened as a wild and woolly tourist attraction. Visitors had to sign safety waivers and wear hardhats. April reassured us that those days are over, and that the Penitentiary is now a "stabilized ruin."
Wooden 2x4 arches and netting keep the ceiling from collapsing on the guests. April said the goal is to keep the Penitentiary as a ruin ("We're not looking to restore it") and that it's really a safe place to be, since it's so old that it has no lead paint or asbestos.
Eastern State Penitentiary is unlike any other prison-turned-tourist-attraction in America. There are no clanging metal doors, no tiers of tiny cells stacked atop each other.
The barrel-vaulted ceilings suggest a cathedral, while the long halls lined with wooden doors reminded us of a stable. Formerly whitewashed walls have blackened with age; stalactites hang from the ceilings; crumbling plaster and big chunks of flaking paint are everywhere, as if the building had leprosy.
"Unstabilized" wings can be glimpsed through metal gates, and resemble the rotting interiors of a sunken ocean liner.
The Penitentiary provides guided tours, self-guided audio tours, or you can just walk around and read the signs and ask questions of the seated guides, who occupy strategic spots formerly used by guards. People on audio tours always seem zombie-like to us, but here it's especially noticeable, as people stare, glassy-eyed, and bump into you in the half-darkness.
The place is still eerily silent.
April offered many prison wonders for our inspection. There's second floor view from Cell Block 7 ("one of the most beautiful cell blocks"), and the well-appointed cell of former star prisoner Al Capone, and Cell Block 12, "the haunted cell block" where people pay to be locked in overnight to see ghosts (It's also the location for "Terror Behind The Walls," one of America's creepier Halloween attractions.)
The gift shop at Eastern State Penitentiary is amply stocked, with Al Capone shot glasses and Hooded Prisoner coffee mugs, iron duplicates of the Penitentiary's original giant keys, and copies of Going to Prison?, "A practical guide for the first-time offender."
Asked if she actually enjoyed working at Eastern State Penitentiary, April's answer echoed the lure of horror that's drawn people here for over 150 years.
"Being here, for me, it's just the scariest thing," she said. "This is the awesome-ist place ever."