Historic Sites

Eastern State Penitentiary

In the early 19th century, a system of punishment was created that could be traced back to the Quakers. Called the Pennsylvania system because it was first used here, this method involved the use of solitary confinement to rehabilitate criminals sent to prison. The underlying belief of the Pennsylvania System was that solitary confinement would give prisoners time to reflect on their lives and change the wrongs within it. In other words, if prisoners were forced to think about their crimes, they would become penitent (this is also the origin of the word “penitentiary”).

By 1821, the Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (founded in 1787 by Benjamin Rush) had successfully lobbied the state legislature for funding to build Eastern State Penitentiary, where this Pennsylvania System of treatment could be tried. Here mingling among prisoners was avoided, so much so that inmates were hooded when they went outside their cells. The Pennsylvania System as it was enacted had some opponents however, who believed this method of punishment caused mental illness among the prisoners. One such opponent, Charles Dickens, wrote: “I hold this slow and daily tampering with the mysteries of the brain to be immeasurably worse than any torture of the body.”

Eastern State Penitentiary was built in 1829 to architect John Haviland’s design. As it was originally built, the prison would hold 250 inmates. Haviland chose a radial layout, finding inspiration in criminologist Jeremy Bentham’s 1791 circular prism plan. He included many details that made Eastern State one of the more secure prisons of its time. It was the first to use a central rotunda as the prison’s “communications hub and nerve center” (Haviland 8). By the time the prison closed in 1970, ESP had expanded to provide for as many as 900 prisoners.

Finally, on October 23 1829, prisoner number one was admitted. Charles Williams was sentenced to two years with labor for the crime of burglary. Several infamous criminals would follow him to becoming inmates at ESP, including Al Capone, bank robber Willie Sutton, and Pep “the Cat-Murdering Dog.” Pep was allegedly sentenced to life in prison in August of 1924 by then-governor Gifford Pinchot. The dog, inmate number C2559, was in for murdering Pinchot’s wife’s cat.

After its closure in 1970, Eastern State Penitentiary sat largely as a ruin. However, in 1988 efforts to preserve the site began. The site was also used as a set for movies such as “12 Monkeys.” Since 1996, efforts to stabilize the site have been made to preserve the site as a ruin and to ensure it may continue to be open for public tours.


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