Eastern State Penitentiary: Pity Party or Penitence In Philadelphia

All people are inherently good, or all people are inherently evil. What’s the consensus? If you ask me it’s the latter…. but I am as cynical as heck. Back in the late 1700’s though, there was a group of influential people in Philadelphia who thought otherwise. They believed that all people are inherently good, and upon this construct they created the very first reform-based prison known as the Eastern  State Penitentiary (ESP)……. which is where I find myself on this rainy summer day. 

Thus it was, in that era of the 1700’s, that prisons were essentially holding pens for criminals, where they were held before they received their punishment. You know, punishment like lashings, or getting rotten tomatoes thrown at them. The prisoners were all lumped together in one area…. men…. women….. children…… There was a lot of fighting, and life in prisons was very dangerous, as you may well imagine! Pity the children…..  

Now, these “influential people” of which I speak formed an organization in 1787 called the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, of which Benjamin Franklin was a member. Indeed, this was the very first prison reform group in the world, and still exists today under the name of the Pennsylvania Prison Society. That’s not quite the mouthful as the earlier name. 
This “misery alleviating society” came up with a new model for prisons based upon their premise that all people are inherently good, and that, by the way, includes criminals. The idea was that you could take a prisoner, subject them to solitary confinement where they would have time for reflection, help them realize their mistakes in life, and they subsequently would become penitent for their evil deeds – hence the birth of what is known as the “penitentiary”! Yes indeed, if you’ll forgive my cynicism, the derivative of the word is “penitent”. 

Perhaps one may wonder, at least if you’re cynical like me, if this whole solitary confinement plan might have created a big pity party in the mind of the prisoner, rather than the intended penitence. But who am I to say? I am not an expert on criminal minds and justice served. The main idea of the penitentiary is to reform people, as opposed to punish, but one may ask what could be more punishing that solitary confinement? But, perhaps spiritual regeneration is just the answer to quell the urges of a criminal mind. 

So, first I guess you start with an impenetrable brick wall with strategically located guard towers that surround the prison complex. Then plant some bushes and flowers on the exterior to make it appear less imposing to passersby. 

You will also need a foreboding entrance to deter criminality and to make people penitent! ESP kind of looks like a castle in a way, but maybe they torture people in dungeons there! Who knows? Maybe a passerby in the 1800s might have looked upon this facade and imagined that whoever was behind these princely walls were receiving “royal” treatment! 

I am not too sure though. To me this place is kind of creepy and I can feel in my bones that something is not right. The creep factor is huge, but simultaneously enthralling to me. 

I would like to explain a thing or two about Eastern State beginning with the design. The original architecture called for a wagon wheel shape. In the center of the wagon wheel there’s a central guard station. Then all around the hub there are long hallways, like the spokes of a ginormous wheel stretching out, which is where the prisoners were housed. The guards stationed in the central hub could readily hear and see the goings on in each spoke of the wagon. Incidentally, by design there was to be very little ‘goings on’ for the guards to hear and see, for such was the intent of solitary confinement! No one was supposed to see anyone else, much less talk! The prisoners even had special hoods they wore to conceal their faces when out of their cells. The guards wore socks over their shoes to keep down the noise. 

The original plan consisted of simply a small pass-through window in each cell, which was connected to the main hallway. Through this window the guards would deliver food to the prisoners. 

Behind Kristoff in this picture is a door that exits this cell into a small courtyard with tall wallls. Each prisoner had their own private courtyard, so that they should not see anyone when they were allowed outside of their cells. Remember….. the solitary confinement was to foster penitence in the criminal! It was a time for spiritual regeneration, a time for sobriety and good conduct, to reform one’s mind and spirit. 

The prison cells were designed with a high pitched cathedral ceiling, so as to resemble a church or chapel. The idea was that in such a place, which resembles a house of worship, the prisoner would reflect upon their sinfulness and come upon penitence. The door was intentionally low, as to require the prisoner upon entering to stoop low, to bow down, to humble themselves. 

Each of the cathedral shaped cells had a small window to the sky, to serve as a reminder to the prisoner that God was looking in upon them, that this was indeed the “Eye of God” trained upon them as they served their sentence and sought penitence….. or not…..

It’s very interesting to note that ESP had central heating and running water even before the White House, making it a true architectural marvel in its day. 

In 1829 even the President of the United States, Andrew Jackson, used a chamber pot, but not the prisoners at ESP! The prisoners here were held in strict isolation, and that meant they needed a place to relieve themselves that didn’t involve exiting their cells. Imagine how challenging it was for the architect who was tasked with creating an environment of strict isolation! Each cell was equipped with a toilet hooked to a central drainage plumbing. Once a day the guards would flush the contents of the toilet away. 

Even the hallways were built with high arches as to resemble cathedrals. 
The original plan of having only small pass-through windows into the main corridor was quickly deemed impractical, and soon each prison cell was fitted with a metal door that was covered with wood. The wood shell served as a sound barrier. After all, nobody would repent of their misdeeds and reform their ways if they were allowed to communicate with their neighbors, God forbid! 

The penitentiary was used as a model for over 300 similar prisons around the world. People came to visit from all over the world. In 1858 there was over 10,000 tourists who came to see the penitentiary! One such famous tourist in 1842, believe it or not, was Charles Dickens. The two must sees on his visit to the United States were Niagara Falls and Eastern State Penitentiary.  He later wrote, “The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong….”

I think he was right…..

The door slide mechanism is gorgeous! 

Now what’s super cool about Eastern State Penitentiary is that this historic relic has been allowed to remain in a state of “preserved ruin”, which makes the experience of touring this incredible historic facility a uniquely amazing experience….. and a fantastic photo op!

1829 October 25
Eastern State Penitentiary opens. Its first inmate: “…Charles Williams, Prisoner Number One. Burglar. Light Black Skin. Five feet seven inches tall. Foot: eleven inches. Scar on nose. Scar on Thigh. Broad Mouth. Black eyes. Farmer by trade. Can read. Theft included one twenty-dollar watch, one three-dollar gold seal, one, a gold key. Sentenced to two years confinement with labor. Received by Samuel R. Wood, first Warden, Eastern State Penitentiary….”

Can you imagine if this was your home for two years for stealing a watch? Good lord! I should be so bitter! How could such punishment foster penitence? I would have such a huge pity party! I would cry myself to sleep each day. I should wish ill upon my captors. I should feel my heart harden with each day. My entire being should fill with such hatred for humanity that I should be beyond redeemable. 

I am not sure where they kept finding so many criminals from suddenly, but before long the concept of solitary confinement with private courtyards at ESP had to be scrapped altogether due to overcrowding. The original design called for housing 250 prisoners in private cells, but after only three spokes of the wheel had been completed, the design was changed into a multiple story concept – with no private courtyards. They had to create more cells to accommodate all the prisoners, so the remaining cell blocks 3 to 7 were all built with two stories.  

The new design still maintained a 30 foot high cathedral-like ceiling in the main hallway, and the same low doorways, but lacked the cathedral-like ceilings inside the cells. And of all horrors, the “Eye of God” windows to the sky, which served as such a crucial reminder that God was watching their every move…. those windows were replaced with nondescript and non-penitence-provoking slit windows in the walls! 

At one point this prison housed over 1700 inmates. The inmates were housed two to a cell in bunk beds when there wasn’t enough rooms in the inn. 

I can’t help but notice such a delicate railing for such a harsh place! 

Son, is that you in there behind the iron door? Don’t ever…… don’t ever put yourself in a place like this, I pray!! Gulp…. how my heart should ache if any one of my children were ever in such a horrific place…. surely I would offer to take their place. 

The guards in the tower kept watch over all the prisoners, who in the meantime were busying themselves becoming penitent. There was a few escaped inmates over the years, the most famous involving a tunnel. 

In later years, after the penitentiary stopped isolating all prisoners, this yard was used for exercise. 

While most of the prisoners were in ESP for fairly minor offenses in today’s standards, there were some murderers in their midst. 

The first murderer incarcerated at ESP, Joseph Taylor, was actually already a prisoner there when he committed murder. In 1884 (approximately 50 years after the prison opened) he killed a prison guard, Michael Duran, with a shank he had crafted from a wooden yarn bobbin.

An artist named Cindy Stockton-Moore created this amazing art display in one of the cells at ESP.  She researched murder victims of the inmates who were incarcerated here. She discovered hundreds of incidences, but could find only 50 photos of the murder victims. She then painted their portraits on semi-transparent dura-lar fabric, and hung them in this cell. 

I have to say that when I enter herein I feel my pity for the prisoners dissolving, and a new pity forming for the victims of brutal murders, and their families who were left behind to grieve their untimely deaths. 

The most recent murder victim depicted in the “Other Abcenses” display is Patricia Sholley, a 23-year-old nurse who disappeared in 1968 after her shift at Reading Hospital. Her body was discovered a few days later in a culvert, with bludgeons to the head. She had been raped and brutally murdered by a fellow coworker. The evidence against him was unmistakable, having been seen with her after her shift ended, and having her nursing equipment found in his home along with his own blood stained clothing.  

The story of her death had dominated news at the time, but just a few decades later we have all forgotten her, just another absence that today scarcely leaves a blip on the radar screen called life.  

How terrified she must have been when she realized that things had gone awry. Had she suspected his motives? How would a nurse suspect a fellow coworker? I wouldn’t! Maybe he asked her for a ride home after a long hard shift. Perhaps she was exhausted and regretted agreeing to drive him home. 

How sad that the life of a young nurse was snuffed out in cold blood, a young woman who had committed her life to helping the sick and the ailing, the vulnerable and those in great need of nurturing. There she had lain for days, her lifeless body cruelly stuffed into a culvert, her family and friends and coworkers desperate as to her whereabouts and well being. 

That evil man, Maurice Talley, who had perpetrated this horrible murder, had walked these halls, these very same halls wherein I walk today. In fact, many a murderer had been imprisoned here. Hundreds of them. Hundreds of them. But were they really so evil? Or did they succumb to forces that each one of us might be susceptible to given the right circumstances? 

I want to leave this horrible place!

My emotions confuse me as I look upon the photos of the victims, the “other abscences” – those whose lives were ended too soon at the hands of evil perpetrators. Could those vile murderers ever have been reformed? I doubt it. Did they deserve harsh punishment? Indeed, one should think so! Even strict isolation? Perhaps! My heart cries out in grief for those who were murdered. My heart cries out in anger at the murderers. Why did you do it, I want to scream! Why would you kill another human being? How disgusting! I don’t have the ability to understand. 

Perhaps this photo depicts how I feel. Empty. Broken. Crumbling. Crushed. A need to escape. 

I have to say I have had virtually no experience with prisons, although I have had experiences with criminals. When I was in nursing school I was doing my psych rotation at the county psychiatric ward. One of the patients asked me if I was married, and when I answered in the affirmative he asked if I had any sisters, because he has “friends who have been looking for Finnish girls all their lives”. He wore a starched white collared shirt and pressed black dress pants, which he smoothed as he talked to me. He told me that he was a banker (hence the preppy clothes). After a while I decided to check his chart, and come to find out that he had been jailed previously because he was actually a bank robber – and not a banker as he erroneously claimed. Furthermore, he had restraining orders against him multiple times for stalking women.

Later when I worked graveyard shift at the county hospital as an LPN they floated me from my geriatric ward to the unit where they cared for patients from the county jail. It was one of the scariest times of my life. To get into the unit you had to pass through a guard station that had a window looking out towards the unit. That’s where the guards sat. I could hear them all night talking and laughing. I was the only nurse on the unit caring for five men…. convicted criminals…..  convicts….. the patient rooms were huge. I remember feeling lost in the large space, alone with a prisoner in a poorly lit room, in the middle of the night. It was very eerie in my sleep deprived state. I had no idea what their crimes were, but here I was….. young…. innocent…. naive…. I suppose beautiful in a way that every young person is beautiful….. boldly walking into each room to take care of their needs when they were sick and vulnerable. I supposed that if I was attacked and screamed loudly the guards would come to help, but I couldn’t be too sure. As I worked I was hyper vigilant for danger and said a silent prayer for my safety. Needless to say no one threatened me. 

 Just as inmates need medical attention, I suppose an inmate at ESP might have the need of a dentist’s services. But can you imagine coming here to have your tooth extracted? 

I can envision the prisoner gripping the arms of the chair, head thrust back, a blood curling scream escaping from behind the huge pliers and dentist’s thick hands as the tooth is pulled out by the roots….. the taste of blood as it drips into the back of his throat…. the rough cloth the dentist uses to dab at the blood that is dripping off his chin…. some of the blood drips into the chair, blending in with the bright red plastic cover….. the sweat as it trickles down his back….. the rapid pounding of his heart in his chest….. the light feeling in his head as he begins to pass out….. the scream that fades away to silence as his body slumps over….. the dentist holding the tooth up in the pliers towards the light to make sure that all the roots are there…..

I am not sure if this one is a dentist chair or a barber chair. Perhaps it’s a barber’s chair, because I should think that if you want your prisoners to reform they really need to be clean shaven and well coiffed. 

If I should have been a prisoner, and been allowed into this chair for a haircut, how I would have poured my heart out to the barber. I should have so yearned for human contact, a hand smoothing my hair, fingertips brushing gently across my face to push away a stray strand of my disheveled locks…. someone to share my innermost thoughts and feelings…. my bitterness about being confined to a life of strictest isolation….. my fears about how I would integrate into society after I leave here….. the pain of my loneliness….. the emptiness….. the heartache….. the fear that enveloped my soul….. the pity party that consumed me every moment…..

I think the barber might listen with a fragment of pity in his own heart. Or perhaps not. Maybe he had become hardened in his job, lost all hope for humanity, become jaded. Maybe he was rough. When he combed my hair he would intentionally dig the teeth of the comb into my scalp, drawing blood in the process. When he came upon a snag, as he invariably would in my unkept matted locks, he would tug sharply and pull out a clump of my hair in the process. He would impatiently pluck the clump of hair away from the teeth of the comb, and with an exaggerated flick of his wrist thrust the clump onto the floor. 

I would fight back tears, a lump forming in the back of my throat, so that I could no longer speak. A stream of blinding sunlight would filter through the small window in the ceiling and I would be forced to squeeze my eyes tight. That’s when the tears would splash uncontrollably down my face, splashing onto the arms of the chair, rolling down onto the floor, mixing with clump of hair that had just been so brutally ripped from my scalp. 

Did the barber feel pity now? No. He would grimace, his face would be as cold as stone, and he would dig the comb harder and more purposefully into my scalp, the scissors clicking mechanically in time to some music only he could hear. By now my tears would have turned into sobs. 

I think you can see it inscribed on my kids’ faces…. this place is eerily haunting. 

Before we can leave we have one more thing to see. Eastern State Penitentiary housed a very famous criminal in this cell, none less notorious than Al Capone himself! But even in the midst of human suffering, Al had his cell decked with plush furniture and silken linens. I guess in this way he was afforded special privileges. 

But if you ask me, plush furniture or not, you’re still a prisoner! To have been trapped behind these iron grates can’t have been a pleasant feeling.  I highly doubt that his visit to the penitentiary made Al Capone penitent. Probably quite the opposite….. bitter….. vindictive….. vengeful…..  angry…. resentful….. probably somewhere in the dark seedy world of organized crime somebody paid with their life for Capone’s incarceration!

Mirror, mirror on the wall…. is there a prisoner on the loose? Or perhaps a ghost of prisoners past? 

The ceiling structure in the central rotunda of ESP is incredible. The mirrors in this hallway are strategically placed to allow guards to see down into this corridor. Four extra cell blocks were added in later years alongside the original structures, and the mirrors were placed to allow the guards to see into the corridors from the central rotunda. 

I think we are all a little spooked out by now. Are you guys ready to clear out of here? From what I understand if you really want to get creeped out you should come here at Halloween when they deck this place out in the craziest and scariest manner. I am freaked out enough so I will skip that! 


Before we can leave we pass by this large bar graph. I don’t know what is wrong with humanity. The State of Pennsylvania has less people today than it did in the 1800s, and yet the prison population has grown by 800%! Considering that when ESP was established you could get two years of solitary confinement for stealing a watch….. I don’t know what it takes to get two years behind bars today, but definitely more than stealing a watch, I should think! 

This huge bar graph in the exercise yard shows the incredible growth of incarceration! 

I can’t be here anymore. 

I don’t understand what it is that drives the human spirit to such a point that a person would perpetrate crime against their fellow humans – their brothers and sisters in humanity! The weight of all these transgressions oppresses me, weighs upon my spirit like a heavy anvil draped about my neck. 

When I walk towards the front door of the penitentiary, it’s as though a weight is being lifted off my back. When I step outside the massive front door, it’s as though my chest can rise and fall with greater ease. Each breath fills my lungs to bursting. 

I can’t help but think of all the years these heavy doors were closed tight to keep the prisoners in, and how in 1971 the massive front door of this behemoth crumbling penitentiary was closed indefinitely…. except this time to keep people out instead of in. 

But the stories still lurk herein, even once the prisoners are gone, including the stories that were never recorded. The mossy crumbling walls and bits of plaster and broken furniture, the cobwebs and dust and cracked windows…. they all have stories to tell of the human condition in its height of hopelessness and despair in this dismal place.  

Should but one prisoner have been penitent after submission to strict isolation at Eastern State, then perhaps the experiment of this “penitent”-iary could be deemed a success. But alas, on the other hand, if even one prisoner had pity upon themselves, then perhaps we could say that the experiment was a failure. Whether pity or penitence, perhaps either could provoke regret within the criminal for their evil deeds. 

But I digress, for what do I know about the criminal mind. Nothing. It is far beyond the farthest reaches of my comprehension. As I walk away from the penitentiary at an ever quickening pace, I can feel the oppressive cobwebs of confusing emotions fade away from my mind. 

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