If you’re looking for something slightly macabre to do in Philadelphia, check out Eastern State Penitentiary at 22nd Street and Fairmount Avenue. ESP, a hulking, haunting, crumbling prison turned tourist destination, will open its recently discovered and restored 1924 synagogue, probably the first built in an American prison, to the public the weekend of April 4 & 5.
At one time among the most infamous and expensive prisons in the world, ESP opened in 1829 and remained in operation for 142 years, closing in 1971. Its radiating, spoke-like panopticon design of individual cell blocks guarded by a central rotunda kept its prisoners in near-constant solitary confinement (but for light work and their Bibles) and was based on the Quaker notion of penitence, and the assumption that once so confined, criminals would revert to a stage of “natural” innocence. The prisoners housed at ESP faced sentences of very little human interaction and most turned mad as a result.
A National Historic Landmark since 1965, ESP has raised eyebrows since its inception. When Charles Dickens visited the U.S., the two sites he most wanted to visit were Niagara Falls and ESP. DeTocqueville also stopped by. French philosopher Michel Foucault wrote about ESP and its “Pennsylvania system” of imprisonment in Discipline and Punish; he considered the prison not a place of detention but a space in which people were made into subjects.
Al Capone was the prison’s most famous inmate; he was housed at ESP for eight months in 1929. You can visit his poshly furnished restored cell.
Pep, the cat-murdering dog, was another notorious inmate.
After the prison closed in 1971, it crumbled into an urban forest that sprouted within its 30-foot walls. In 1991 the buildings were stabilized and tours of the facility started in 1994 with 10,000 visitors the first year. ESP has served as a set for several films including Terry Gilliam’s time-shifting sci-fi flick Twelve Monkeys, starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis. It stood in, fittingly, for a mental institution.
ESP introduced 40-minute audio tours of the facilities in 2003. Summer twilight tours and haunted tours for Halloween came a bit later. ESP is now open seven days a week. Children under seven aren’t admitted to the site due to its condition.
When I toured ESP in 2001, I enjoyed wearing the yellow hard hat required to tour the cell blocks, solitary confinement cells, and Death Row. If you do stop by ESP for the opening and dedication of the synagogue or any other time, be sure to dress comfortably, wear walking shoes, and bring your camera.
Photos: Top, nighttime facade, Tom Bernard; Lower, Cellblock 5 gallery, Elena Bouvier