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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.

  • 1776

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

  • 1787

    Dr. Benjamin Rush founds the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons, the first prison reform group in the world. Benjamin Franklin 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.

  • 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.

  • 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, a British architect who had settled in Philadelphia, wins the commission. He receives a $100 prize for his design.

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

  • 1822

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

  • 1826

    The Marquis de La Fayette visits the unfinished Penitentiary.

  • 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 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...."

  • 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 completed in 1835.

    First female prisoner is received.

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

  • 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.

  • 1834

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

  • 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 a lithograph in 1855 depicting the building from above, showing 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

    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...."

  • 1854

    First full-time school teacher hired. The central rotunda is photographed by William Langenheim and Frederick Langenheim in 1855. 

  • 1858

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

  • 1877

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

  • 1911

    Completed in 1911, Cellblock 12, 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.

  • 1913

    The Pennsylvania System of confinement with solitude is officially abandoned at Eastern State. The system had actually broken down decades earlier.

  • 1923

    Female prisoners removed to new prison at Muncy.

    In July, inmate Leo Callahan 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

    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."

  • 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

    Construction begins on Cellblock 14, 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.

  • 1929 - 1930

    Chicago gangster Al Capone spends eight months at Eastern State Penitentiary. 

    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..."

  • 1933

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

  • 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.

  • 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 is out for two hours, and has ten years added to his sentence for prison break. Bank robber Willie Sutton takes credit for planning the tunnel.

    Pennsylvania Legislature recommends abandoning Eastern State Penitentiary.

  • 1953

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

  • 1958

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

  • 1961

    Cellblocks are desegregated.

  • 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.

  • 1965

    Federal Government designates Eastern State Penitentiary a National Historic Landmark.

  • 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.

  • 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

    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

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

  • 1984

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

  • 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

    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, once Terror Behind the Walls and now Halloween Nights at Eastern State Penitentiary, has been held at the penitentiary each fall.

  • 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

    With funding from the William Penn Foundation, permanent museum exhibits are constructed and a marketing campaign begins. An on-site art exhibition, Prison Sentences, 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.

  • 1996

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

  • 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

    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

    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.

  • 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.

  • 2014

    The Big Graph is unveiled on the prison’s baseball diamond.

  • 2016

    Prisons Today: Questions in the Age of Mass Incarceration opens. It will eventually win the highest award in the museum field, the Excellence in Exhibitions Award Overall Winner from the American Alliance of Museums.

  • 2017

    Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site adopts a new mission statement, with a focus on interpreting criminal justice reform.

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner