Charles Williams was the first inmate admitted to Eastern State Penitentiary. The year was 1829 and Charles, a poor farmer, was sentenced there for stealing a horse. He spent two years of his life in the controversial Pennsylvania System. The institution was designed to bring out the “inner light” of the men and women sentenced to serve time here, according to author Francis X. Dolan. (Images of American Eastern State Penitentiary)
The institution was designed by an Englishman by the name of John Haviland and his design was one of most creative that the world had ever seen. Covering a total of 12 acres, the land was purchased for $800.000 and construction took 14 years to complete. The institution was built as an alternative to the over crowded and disease riddled 18th century prisons. Each cell was lit only by skylights or windows, considered to be the “Window of God.” The Church considered this part of the mission for redemption. The institution was eventually noted for cruelty by use of solitary confinement and the draping of hoods on the inmates. This treatment was intentional and thought to be the cure all for man’s misdeeds.The hoods were also used to protect the identity of the inmates from each other and with the hopes of being given a fair chance at reentering society. At the same time, inmates were taught trades with the hopes of reentering society. The doors of Eastern State Penitentiary closed in 1971 after 142 years of operation. It reopened to visitors in 1994 as a museum and is also considerate a haunted landmark. Eastern State has been investigated by many paranormal research groups. If you are road touring in Pennsylvania, this stop is highly recommended.
In 1924 Eastern State Penitentiary received a black Labrador retriever named Pep, Inmate No. C2559. The dog was sentenced to life for murder: Pep killed a house cat. Pep eventually became a companion for the guards and also brought a little bit of joy to inmates. Several years later Pep was followed by Lady, a beagle who belonged to the captain of the guards. Other pets at the prison included birds and cats and one prisoner was allowed to keep a rabbit in his cell.
- In 1842 Charles Dickens visited the institution and wrote his book American Notes.
- The youngest inmate was 12 year-old Wilmer Jackson, sentenced in 1934 for second-degree murder.
- Notorious gangster Al Capone (Scarface) arrived at Eastern State Penitentiary in 1929 to serve an 8 month sentence for carrying a concealed weapon
- Corporal punishment was not allowed at Eastern State Penitentiary. Instead loss of exercise time and a reduction is food was the chosen method of discipline. However one inmate, later deemed incurably insane was subjected to a shower bath where buckets of water were repeatedly dumped on him in the hopes of a cure.
- There was a scandal and investigation in 1835 when a prisoner died from a device called the iron gag. A mental brace was inserted into the mouth with chains also attached to the inmate’s wrists. The device would become tighter the more the inmate struggled. All prison officials were exonerated.
The Kindness of People
I recently found this information about staff at Eastern State and wanted to share this short story as presented by the original author. (Originally Posted: May 11, 2012)
As we said goodbye to 2011, we also said goodbye to one of Eastern State’s most beloved artist installations. Linda Brenner’ “Ghost Cats” were created in 2005 and became one of ESP’s longest-running installations.They were meant to represent the colony of feral cats that inhabited Eastern State in its period of abandonment from 1971-1991.A city worker named Dan McCloud was assigned to watch over the site, which had mainly become a storage facility for the city of Philadelphia. He took it upon himself to watch over the cats that had made ESP their home. Dan McCloud fed the cats a few times a week for the duration of his time here. When Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. took over the management of the prison complex, the cats were all spayed and neutered and eventually all passed on. Linda Brenner’s installation, entitled “Ghost Cats,” was a tribute to the cats and to the man who so graciously took care of them.We will miss having the ghost cats around the site. But, they were designed to fade away over time, and now that time has come. We look forward to this 2012 season and to all of the new things on site – four new artist installations, four new Hands-On History tours, and lots of special events.
As a final tribute to the Ghost Cats, I invite you to browse the photos I’ve taken (shown right) of their departure from the penitentiary.(Tracy Lynn Kendig, Programs and Operations Supervisor)
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