During a recent trip and first time visit to Philadelphia, we made a special stop at the Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP)
. It seems a bit of an oxymoron to call a penitentiary a sunny place, but for the record, the sun was out the day we visited ESP. If you can't tell by the photo on your left, the place was fascinating and uber-creepy.
ESP is where the movie 12 Monkeys
was filmed, where Al Capone was imprisoned and one of the first places Charles Dickens came to visit when he came to America. ESP also made an appearance on Ghost Hunters.
ESP sticks out like a medieval sore thumb in the contemporary urban landscape of today's Philadelphia. It's haunting facade serves as a distinctive relic of a different time and place. Built in 1829, ESP was the world's very first prison and remained an active penitentiary for 142 years.
The first thing you notice from the outside is the ominous castle-like presence which, we learned, was an intentional part of the design aesthetic. It was meant to evoke fear and dread much like the castles of old. When the prison was first built, it sat by itself atop a hill, its 40-foot walls a cautionary image built to remind citizens to abide the law. Today, ESP sits smack dab in the center of one of Philly's distinct neighborhoods on Fairmount Avenue.
At ESP, they give free one-hour long guided tours of the facility which sounded like the most informative way to go about the property. Hmmm....not so much. Maybe it was the day, maybe our tour guide was new or maybe she was hungover, I'm not sure. Whatever the reason, our tour lasted about 20 minutes and covered a fraction of the grounds.
When asked if our group had any questions, I piped up and asked about a picture of a man that listed him as one of ESP's "Most Notorious Criminals." That question led to a lengthy silence followed by more awkward and uncomfortable silence. We never did get an answer and soon after that, the "one-hour" tour was over.
Not to worry, we jumped on the audio tour which turned out to be THE way to go. The audio tour was narrated by Steve Buscemi, one of my favorite actors and led to a three-hour exploration of ESP. We had an amazing time walking the grounds and seeing this established ruin in all its ghostly glory.
Definitely, the audio tour
ESP was America's very first prison and quite state-of the-art for its time. It even had heated and running water before the White House did. I learned that when the prison first opened in 1829, every inmate was placed in solitary confinement. Each inmate had his own individual cell and small exercise yard. The goal of solitary confinement was penitence or regret for harms done. The prison was designed with sky-lit vaulted ceilings to evoke the feeling of a church or monastery where quiet reflection was the norm. ESP is touted as an established ruin today and inspires a sort of shock and awe as you take a look around and learn about its history.
Inmates were often subject to cruel punishments and stints in solitary confinement so restrictive, it would make them go mad or blind. When unruly inmates were placed in the "hole" they were often supplied only with a metal rack for a bed, no mattress and a bucket to use as a toilet. Prison guards would often serve only bread and water as meals to those inmates. We got to climb down into the dank "hole" and have a look. It almost makes prison life today look like a room at the Ritz. One time in the "hole" on a guided tour was enough for me. Just sayin.
Creepy Barber's Chair, top left
In addition to the stunning grounds and well-kept ruins, ESP hosts a seasonal haunted house that would most likely make me pee my pants and had art installations weaved throughout the property. Well worth the meager $12 admission price. I didn't expect to enjoy going to prison as much as I did, but I'm so glad I decided to check it out. It was an unexpected bright spot on our vacation.