Eastern State Penitentiary Ghosts

Eastern State Penitentiary Ghosts

If you follow the ghost programs on TV, you have most likely heard of the Eastern State Penitentiary Ghosts. Opened in 1829, Eastern State Penitentiary was the first proper holding facility for criminals.

It was built to serve as a guide to over 300 future prisons, and is considered a revolutionary development at that time.

Before, criminals were held in makeshift pens where there were no proper cells and mistreatment is rife.

The penitentiary took a sharp departure from corporal punishment, giving inmates instead the light from heaven, honest work, and the word of God, to guide them towards penitence, or remorse.

Hence, the idea behind its conception was to serve as a place where criminals can seek god for themselves and hence undergo self-reform.

Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1890's
Eastern State Penitentiary in the 1890’s

Each cell was designed to have its own exercise station and food door to cut off any source of social interaction, and prisoners are expected to wear a hood when moving around the facility.

However, the years of complete isolation, initially believed to elicit feelings of regret, instead led prisoners spiraling down towards insanity.

Soon after its closure, the penitentiary would go on to become known as one of the most haunted buildings in America.

The Punishment

The stone-walled structure’s cold, utilitarian exterior belies a darker truth. Within its chambers, many a prisoner has been subjected to tormentation harsh enough to drive any reasonable man insane.

On a famous punishment device known as “the mad chair”, prisoners who went insane (which is not uncommon) were strapped with excruciating tightness and forced to sit for days. Circulation to their limbs were severely impeded to the point of needing amputations.

In another punishment coined the “Iron Gag”, prisoners’ hands were tied behind their backs in an unnatural position, with a lead from their hands to a clamp on their tongues.

As you might have imagined, the slightest movement will cause the tongue to tear and bleed.

Iron Gag in Prison

Later, to cope with misbehaving prisoners, “The Hole” was introduced. It refers to a hole dug in the ground, where prisoners are left with little air and near zero light.

The origins of these punishments are unconfirmed, but it is often said that the staff were the inventors of the torture techniques.

Due to misbehaving inmates, they resorted to using brute force to demand compliance and enforce discipline.

This led to the ethically questionable practiced which has been described as similar to “burying the inmates alive” by Charles Dickens, when he visited the compound.

The Haunting

With punishments akin to burying the inmates alive, it is no wonder that the site soon became a place famous for its ghosts.

Many tourists and tour guides have reported sounds of weeping and whispering. More specifically, Cellblock 12 has laughter and voices Cellblock 6 has seen unidentified shadows and Cellblock 4 is said to produce ghost-like faces.

One particularly well known incident was that of Gary Johnson’s recount. As a locksmith, he would show up whenever a lock needs servicing, even without prior contact.

Once, while he was working on a lock of the extreme right cell in Cellblock 4, he was overcome strongly by an unknown force, and saw faces and shadows darting about. The cell is also the place where a guard was murdered.

Eastern State Penitentiary Painting

In another incident, a shadow figure was caught on tape during the filming of Ghost Hunters. Where it was filmed at the “catwalk area”, many have reportedly captured strong EVPs, or electronic voice phenomenon, and felt quick temperature changes.

This has now become a popular spot for ghost hunters and paranormal investigators due to the likeliness of registering EVPs at the area. Cellblock 12, a restricted area, is constantly brought up as an area where true haunting events are common.

The Inmates

Among the seventy-thousand or so who were imprisoned there, a few notable prisoners stand out. Leo Callahan was the only prisoner ever to escape its stone-walled confines, using a makeshift ladder. After vaulting over the East wall, he went missing and has not been recaptured since.

Another inmate, Joe Buzzard, made himself known as the youngest among all five brothers who have served at the prison. He was convicted for horse theft.

Alphonse Capone, a well-heeled inmate who lived in the Penitentiary for 8 months, claims that he is constantly tortured by James Clark.

Al Capone
Al Capone

Al Capone was convicted for concealing a lethal weapon, and was given a luxury cell for his social status. The cell is well furnished and decorated.

Al Capone would scream every night at James, who was killed during the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. The tormentation is believed to arise from the rivalry between Capone and James’ brother-in-law.


Whether the Eastern State Penitentiary ghosts exist is ambiguous. Many visitors who have passed by its ground reported sensations of being watched and various ghostly noises.

Several staff members at the Penitentiary, which is now a museum, have also admitted to experiencing paranormal behaviour.

But at the same time, many visitors have claimed otherwise, and even the non-profit organisation backing it sees it as a haunted “attraction”.

Today, haunted house events have been held there, and several cells have been made into a museum. Ghost tours by experienced guided are available as well.

For historians and researchers, this is one of the most architecturally and historical significant locations and is well worth a look.

10 thoughts on “Eastern State Penitentiary Ghosts

  1. This is creepy – sounds like a horrible place to have to prisoned there. It’s so sad to hear what torture the inmates went through – even though they were criminals no one deserves that kind of thing. What channel does the Ghost Hunters Show air on? Have you had any experiences with paranormal activity?

  2. Hi,
    Having worked at an old hospital after it closed down, we regularly went to visit the old mortuary. It’s funny how all these places has very long, dark halls with no windows.
    I love ghost stories and your website. I bookmarked it to come visit often.
    I love the YouTube videos you added too, creepy.
    Watch out for cell block 7 and the infirmary – no wait, watch out for Eastern State Penitentiary Ghosts.
    Thank you for sharing

  3. Hi Chris,

    This is really a scaring article. When I saw the SAW movies, I always used to think from where they get such an ideas and now I know their inspirations. About ghosts, different people have different point of views and most of them don’t believe in ghosts. Paranormal has been a fascinating topic for human beings and highly exploited in Movies but still it depends on the experiences of individuals whether they believe it or not. I must say very nicely written and detailed article. however I would like to know whether you believe that a ghost can kill a person?

    1. Well there are many different types of ‘ghosts’ Chandler – some a lot more dangerous then others! Take a little look around the site and see if you can answer that question yourself…

  4. This is very scary to me, but you managed to capture my attention without scaring the bejesus out of me! I thank you for that. Your website is very well illustrated with some awesome information. I have bookmarked it for future reverence and to share with my son who is an actor/director/writer in the field of horror. Thank you for such a well written and interesting website about ghost. Due to these happenings we now have humane treatment for prisoners.

  5. This is a great write-up and you have a knack for making this seem really spooky! I am somebody who happens to watch a lot of those ghost specials on television so for that reason I have heard of the Eastern State Penitentiary Ghost. I’m not sure if I believe in ghosts or not, but I don’t think I’d like to stay there to find out!

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