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Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of inmates through "confinement in solitude with labor," Eastern State Penitentiary quickly became one of the most expensive and most copied buildings in the young United States. It is estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide are based on the Penitentiary's wagon-wheel, or "radial" floor plan.

Some of America's most notorious criminals were held in the Penitentiary's vaulted, sky-lit cells, including bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone. After 142 years of consecutive use, Eastern State Penitentiary was completely abandoned in 1971, and now stands, a lost world of crumbling cellblocks and empty guard towers.

  • 1700s
  • 1800s
  • 1900s
  • 2000s
1776

1776

Walnut Street Jail, built to relieve the overcrowding and scandalous conditions at Philadelphia's Old Stone Jail, receives its first prisoners.

Engraving: Jail in Walnut Street, Philadelphia, 1800. William Birch (1755 - 1834).

1787

1787

Dr. Benjamin Rush (left) founds the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the first prison reform group in the world. Benjamin Franklin (below) joined the group on August 13, 1787. This group survives today, more than two centuries later. Now called the Pennsylvania Prison Society, it promotes correctional reform and social justice.

Photo: Portrait of Benjamin Rush by Charles Willson Peale, 1818.

1790

1790

A "Penitentiary House," with a capacity of 16 single cells, is built in the Walnut Street Jail, and an experiment with day and night solitary confinement begins.

Photo: Portrait of Benjamin Franklin. Engraved by J. Thomson, 1805. From an Original Picture by J.A. Duplessis.

1821

1821

After many years of lobbying from the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the Pennsylvania Legislature approves funding to build the Eastern State Penitentiary. The new prison will hold 250 inmates.

Four architects submit designs for the massive new prison. John Haviland (left), a British architect who had settled in Philadelphia, wins the commission. He receives a $100 prize for his design. For more information on John Haviland, read Pioneers in Criminology: John Haviland or contact The Independence Hall Association.

Rival architect William Strickland (below), whose design had been rejected, is chosen to oversee the construction.

Photo: Portrait of John Haviland. John Neagle, (1796 - 1865).

1822

1822

Construction begins on the foundations and walls. William Strickland (left) is fired and John Haviland is appointed to oversee the construction.

Photo: Portrait of William Strickland, 1829. John Neagle, (1796 - 1865).

1826

1826

The Marquis de La Fayette (left) visits the unfinished Penitentiary.

1829

1829 April 23

Legislation specifying "separate or solitary confinement at labor" is passed.

Many leaders believe that crime is the result of environment, and that solitude will make the criminal regretful and penitent (hence the new word, penitentiary). This correctional theory, as practiced in Philadelphia, will become known as the Pennsylvania System.

Plans are finalized to prohibit all contact between prisoners at Eastern State, the world's most ambitious penitentiary, now nearly ready for its first inmates.

Masks are fabricated to keep the inmates from communicating during rare trips outside their cells. Cells are equipped with feed doors and individual exercise yards to prevent contact between inmates, and minimize contact between inmates and guards.

1829-oct23

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...."

Photo: Original feeding aperture for an individual cell in Cellblock 3.

1831

1831

Work completed on Block Three, the last of the original single-story cellblocks. Work begins on Blocks Four, Five, Six and Seven, all two stories to accommodate the increasing number of convicts. Block Seven (left) completed in 1835.

First female prisoner is received.

French Commissioners Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville visit to study the new correctional system.

Photo: Cellblock 7 corridor at Eastern State Penitentiary, 1890s. From Warden Cassidy on Prisons and Convicts, 1897.

1832

1832

First Escape. An inmate, who served as the warden's waiter, lowers himself from the roof of the front building. Once captured, this inmate will escape in the same manner in 1837.

Photo: Plate showing Eastern State Penitentiary, from a dessert service, c. 1838-42, with views of Philadelphia. Made at the Rihouet factory, Paris (1818-89).

1834

1834

First of several investigations into the prison's finances, punishment practices, and deviations from the Pennsylvania System of confinement.

1836

1836

Original prison completed under the supervision of its architect, John Haviland. Covering an area of eleven acres, with state-of-the-art plumbing, sewage systems, and 450 centrally-heated cells, Eastern State Penitentiary is an architectural marvel.

Governments throughout the world model prisons after Eastern State. Tourists travel by horse and buggy from Philadelphia, more than a mile away, to see the building.

Samuel Cowperthwaite, Convict No. 2954, created this lithograph (left) in 1855 depicting the building from above. Note that Philadelphia has not yet grown to reach the Penitentiary.

Eastern State Penitentiary has cost nearly $780,000, one of the most expensive buildings of its day in the United States.

1842

1842

Charles Dickens visits the United States to see Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary. He will later write, "The System is rigid, strict and hopeless solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong...."

Engraving: The Solitary Prisoner, 1870s. From Charles Dickens' Pictures from Italy and American Notes for General Circulation.

1854

1854

First full-time school teacher hired. The central rotunda is photographed by William Langenheim and Frederick Langenheim in 1855 (left). Note the change in the central tower in later years (see 1958).

1858

1858

Over 10,000 tourists visit Eastern State Penitentiary, the most in a single year (until historic tours begin in 1994).

Photo: Admission ticket for Eastern State Penitentiary, c. 1835.

1877

1877

Four new cellblocks, without attached exercise yards, are constructed in the spaces between existing cellblocks.

Photo: Cellblocks 8 and 9.

1911

1911

Completed in 1911, Cellblock 12 (left), wedged between Blocks 6 and 7, is drastically different from the blocks that preceded it. Built of light colored reinforced concrete, this block consists of three floors with 40 cells each. There are no arched ceilings and, instead of sky lights, each cell has a narrow window.

Photo: Cellblock 12. From Annual Report, 1912.

1913

1913

The Pennsylvania System of confinement with solitude is officially abandoned at Eastern State. The system had actually broken down decades earlier. Photo: Inmates making shoes in a cell at Eastern State Penitentiary, late nineteenth century.

Photo: From Warden Cassidy on Prisons and Convicts, 1897.

1923

1923

Female prisoners removed to new prison at Muncy.

In July, inmate Leo Callahan (left) and five accomplices armed with pistols successfully scale the east wall after holding up a group of unarmed guards. More than one hundred inmates escaped from Eastern State during its 142 years of active use. Callahan is the only one never to be recaptured. All of Callahan’s accomplices were apprehended, including one that made it as far as Honolulu, Hawaii.

1924 January

1924 January

Inmates eat for first time in group dining halls. Tablecloths were provided on Sundays and holidays, and the holiday decorations were described as a "morale building factor."

Photo: Interior of one of the two dining halls adapted from former exercise yards.

Pep the Dog

1924 August 12

Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot allegedly sentenced Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" to a life sentence at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an inmate number (no. C-2559), which is seen in his mug shot. However, the reason for Pep’s incarceration remains a subject of some debate. A newspaper article reported that the governor donated his own dog to the prison to increase inmate morale.

1926

1926

Construction begins on Cellblock 14 (left), Eastern State’s second three-story cellblock. Any space between the cellblocks is now nearly gone. The Penitentiary, intended to hold 250 inmates, now holds 1,700.

Photo: Prisoners constructing the third floor of Cellblock 14. From Annual Report, 1926.

Inmates from Eastern State are bussed to work on a new "farm branch" of the prison at Graterford, Pennsylvania.

capone

1929-1930

Chicago gangster Al Capone spends eight months at Eastern State Penitentiary. The Philadelphia Bulletin snapped this photo (left) as Capone was led away.

An article in the Philadelphia Public Ledger, August 20, 1929, describes Capone's cell: "The whole room was suffused in the glow of a desk lamp which stood on a polished desk.... On the once-grim walls of the penal chamber hung tasteful paintings, and the strains of a waltz were being emitted by a powerful cabinet radio receiver of handsome design and fine finish..." (See 2000 for a picture of the restored cell).

1933

1933

Inmates set fires in their cells and destroy workshops in a riot over insufficient recreational facilities, overcrowding, and idleness.

Photo: Front gate surrounded by police officers in 1933.

Herbert Smith

1934

Inmates at Eastern State riot over low wages. Prisoners short-circuit electrical outlets, start fires, and cause other disturbances. Warden Smith puts down the riot with a strong show of force.

Photo: Portrait of Warden Herbert "Hardboiled" Smith.

1945

1945

Twelve men escape through a tunnel that emerges at Fairmount Avenue and 22nd Street. Prison plaster worker Clarence Klinedinst designed and built most of the tunnel. At the time of the escape Klinedinst had only two years left to serve. Most of the men are caught within minutes.

Klinedinst (after re-arrest, left) is out for two hours, and has ten years added to his sentence for prison break. Bank robber Willie Sutton (below) takes credit for planning the tunnel.

Pennsylvania Legislature recommends abandoning Eastern State Penitentiary.

1953

1953

Eastern State Penitentiary becomes the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia, or SCI-PHA.

1958

1958

The City of Philadelphia certifies Eastern State Penitentiary an historic property.

1961

1961

Cellblocks are desegregated.

1961

1961

Inmate John Klausenberg tricks a guard into opening the cell of another inmate. With the cells open, the inmates overpower the guard and begin the largest riot in the prison's history. Several hours later, a large force of police, guards, and state troopers reclaim the prison. The riot fuels discussions to close Eastern State.

Photo: Central Rotunda following the riot in 1961. Gift of the Biedermann Family.

1965

1965

Federal Government designates Eastern State Penitentiary a National Historic Landmark.

1970 January

1970 January

Eastern State Penitentiary closes.
Most inmates are sent to the State Correctional Institution at Graterford. While the Penitentiary's electrical and mechancial systems are in terrible shape, its walls and paint are in perfect condition.

Photo, 1971, Dr. Norman Johnston.

1970 and 1971

1970 & 1971

City of Philadelphia uses Eastern State to house prisoners from the county prison at Holmesburg, following a riot there.

1971 to mid-1980s

1971 to mid-1980s

Eastern State is all but totally abandoned. Philadelphia Streets Department uses grounds for storage. Vandals smash skylights and windows. An urban forest grows in the halls and cells.

Dan McCloud, the last city caretaker, continues to feed a family of stray cats on the property.

1974

Mayor Frank Rizzo suggests demolishing Eastern State to construct a criminal justice center.

1980

1980

City of Philadelphia takes title to the building, paying the State of Pennsylvania just over $400,000.

1984

1984

The city transfers Eastern State Penitentiary to the Redevelopment Authority to seek proposals for commercial use.

1988

1988

Eastern State Task Force, a group of architects, preservationists and historians, is formed. Mayor Wilson Goode urges the Redevelopment Authority to reject all proposals for commercial use of the property.

First limited group tours of the building.

1991

1991

With generous funding from The Pew Charitable Trusts, stabilization and preservation efforts begin.

The first Halloween fundraiser takes place on Halloween night to raise money to create a daytime tour program. A few hundred people attended that first year. Since then, a Halloween fundraiser has been held at the Penitentiary each fall and attendance increased each subsequent year. Today, Terror Behind the Walls is one of the largest and most successful haunted attractions in the county.

1994

1994

Eastern State Penitentiary opens for historic tours on a daily basis. Visitors are required to wear hard hats and sign liability waivers. More than 10,000 visitors attend in the first year.

1996

1996

With funding from the William Penn Foundation, permanent museum exhibits are constructed and a marketing campaign begins. An on-site art exhibition, Prison Sentences (left), receives international attention. The site is featured in The New York Times, Art in America and on the BBC, C-SPAN and PBS. Attendance nearly doubles.

Eastern State’s arched cellblocks and central rotunda are transformed into a mental institution in the movie 12 Monkeys, with Bruce Willis (below).

Photo: Virgil Marti For Oscar Wilde, Prison Sentences, 1995.

1996

1996

The World Monument Fund includes Eastern State Penitentiary on its list of the one hundred most important endangered landmarks in the world.

1998

1998

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc., a nonprofit organization with the sole purpose of preserving the Penitentiary and opening it for tours, is formed. Eastern State portrays a Southeast Asian prison in the movie Return to Paradise.

2001

Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. assumes the Prison Society's Concession Agreement with the City of Philadelphia.

2003

2003

The tenth season of public tours marked with introduction of "The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by Steve Buscemi.

Several dramatic new vistas in the prison’s cathedral–like cellblocks open. After extensive stabilization, visitors are no longer required to wear hardhats.

2005

2005

Cellblock 7 opens to the public for the first time.

"Pandemonium," a site specific art installation by audio artists Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller opens in Cellblock 7.

Photo: George Bures Miller (front) Carolo Crovato (in red) and Richard Harrod installing Padnemonium in Cellblock Seven.

2007

2007

Winter Adventure Tours begin. Eastern State Penitentiary is now open for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year.

2008

Visitors are no longer required to sign liability waivers upon entry.

2010

2010

Eastern State Penitentiary introduces an exciting year of new exhibits, tours, and events including:

Towercam! – a new exhibit showcasing the spectacular view from the top of the guard tower.

Two new guided tours – Prison Inside a Prison takes visitors into the Cellblock 14 punishment cells and 142 Years of Architecture illustrates the grand and small architectural details of ESP.

Four new artist installations (and five returning) – New installations include Release, a site–specific film by Bill Morrison and Vijay Iyer. Curated by Julie Courtney.

Construction continues on new roofs for six cellblocks.