Opened in 1829 as part of a controversial movement to change the behavior of people convicted of crimes 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.
Walnut Street Jail, built to relieve the overcrowding and scandalous conditions at Philadelphia's Old Stone Jail, receives its first prisoners.
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.
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.
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 people.
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.
Construction begins on the foundations and walls. William Strickland is fired and John Haviland is appointed to oversee the construction.
The Marquis de Lafayette 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 person convicted of a crime 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 people incarcerated at Eastern State, the world's most ambitious penitentiary, now nearly ready to receive its first prisoners.
Masks are fabricated to keep the prisoners from communicating during rare trips outside their cells. Cells are equipped with feed doors and individual exercise yards to prevent contact between prisoners, and minimize contact between prisoners and guards.
1829 October 25
Eastern State Penitentiary opens and receives its first prisoner: "...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...."
Work is completed on Cellblock Three, the last of the original single-story cellblocks. Work begins on Cellblocks Four, Five, Six and Seven, all two stories to accommodate the increasing number of people incarcerated at Eastern State. Cellblock Seven completed in 1835.
Eastern State receives its first female prisoner.
French Commissioners Gustave de Beaumont and Alexis de Tocqueville visit to study the new correctional system.
Eastern State sees its first escape. William Hamilton (No. 94), who served as the warden's waiter, lowers himself from the roof of the front building. Once captured, Hamilton will escape in the same manner in 1837.
The first of several investigations into the prison's finances, punishment practices, and deviations from the Pennsylvania System of confinement takes place.
The original prison is 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, (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.
Charles Dickens visits the United States to see Niagara Falls and 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...."
Eastern State hires its first full-time school teacher.
The penitentiary's central rotunda is photographed by William Langenheim and Frederick Langenheim.
Over 10,000 tourists visit Eastern State Penitentiary, the most in a single year (until historic tours begin in 1994).
Four new cellblocks, without attached exercise yards, are constructed in the spaces between existing cellblocks.
Completed in 1911, Cellblock 12, wedged between Cellblocks 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.
The Pennsylvania System of confinement with solitude is officially abandoned at Eastern State. The system had actually broken down decades earlier.
Female prisoners are removed to a new prison at Muncy.
In July, Leo Callahan (C-566) and five accomplices armed with pistols successfully scale the east wall after holding up a group of unarmed guards. More than one hundred people escaped from Eastern State during its 142 years of active use. Callahan is one of just four people who escaped and remained permanently at large. All of Callahan’s accomplices were apprehended, including one that made it as far as Honolulu, Hawaii.
Prisoners 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 "sentences" Pep "The Cat-Murdering Dog" to life at Eastern State. Pep allegedly murdered the governor’s wife’s cherished cat. Prison records reflect that Pep was assigned an prisoner number (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 morale.
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 people, 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..."
Prisoners set fires in their cells and destroy workshops in a riot over insufficient recreational facilities, overcrowding, and idleness.
Prisoners riot over low wages. They short-circuit electrical outlets, start fires, and cause other disturbances. Warden Smith puts down the riot with a strong show of force.
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 the prison break. Bank robber Willie Sutton takes credit for planning the tunnel.
The Pennsylvania Legislature recommends abandoning Eastern State Penitentiary.
Eastern State Penitentiary becomes the State Correctional Institution at Philadelphia, or SCI-PHA.
The City of Philadelphia certifies Eastern State Penitentiary as a historic property.
Cellblocks are desegregated.
John Klausenberg tricks a guard into opening the cell of another prisoner, Manual Madronal. With their cells open, Klausenberg and Madronal 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.
The federal government designates Eastern State Penitentiary a National Historic Landmark.
Eastern State Penitentiary closes.
Most prisoners 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
The 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. The Philadelphia Streets Department uses the penitentiary 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.
Mayor Frank Rizzo suggests demolishing Eastern State to construct a criminal justice center.
The City of Philadelphia takes title to the building, paying the State of Pennsylvania just over $400,000.
The city transfers Eastern State Penitentiary to the Redevelopment Authority to seek proposals for commercial use.
The 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.
The first limited group tours of the building begin.
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.
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.
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.
The World Monument Fund includes Eastern State Penitentiary on its list of the one hundred most important endangered landmarks in the world.
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.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Inc. assumes the Prison Society's Concession Agreement with the City of Philadelphia.
The tenth season of public tours is marked with introduction of "The Voices of Eastern State" Audio Tour, narrated by actor 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.
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.
Winter Adventure Tours begin. Eastern State Penitentiary is now open for tours seven days a week, twelve months a year.
Visitors are no longer required to sign liability waivers upon entry.
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.
Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site adopts a new mission statement, with a focus on interpreting the legacy of criminal justice reform.