Dating back to 1829, the Eastern State Penitentiary has housed some of America's most dangerous criminals including Al Capone and Willie Sutton, but its grim history goes further than a list of inmates.
It was here that the concept of solitary confinement as a form of punishment and rehabilitation was first put into practise, and although it may have seemed like a sign of progress at the time in comparison with the preceding methods, which involved a great deal of severe physical punishment, it quickly became apparent that those placed in solitary confinement faced substantial risk to their mental health.
The idea should have been to prevent the prisoners from focusing on anything but their own crime and the development of their own sense of penitence, but the reality seems to have been quite different.
Inmates were hooded when taken out of their cells to prevent them from understanding the layout of the prison, or interacting with one another. They were confined empty cells with their own toilets and personal exercise yards, and had no human contact other than with the guards and the occasional priest. The only light came from a tiny ceiling window, referred to as the 'eye of God', and silence was insisted upon at all times.
If the prisoners were caught laughing, talking or singing, they were transferred to punishment cells and given half rations, but attempts to communicate were still made and, at a loss to know how to control this, the prison staff eventually invented some much more imaginative forms of punishment. Straitjackets and 'mad chairs' were common choices, but far worse were the iron gags (wrist chains attached to tongue compressors, which would cut into the mouth if the subject moved) and water baths, which involved an ice-cold drenching and suspension from a stone wall by wrist and ankle chains. 'The Hole' was perhaps the most infamous, however, and involved weeks at a time spent in a pitch-black, rectangular earth pit beneath the prison, fighting off rats and existing on a single slice of bread and one glass of water a day.
Understandably, insanity affected a large number of the prisoners, particularly those who suffered the warders' inventive punishments, but disease was also rife due to the poorly-designed sewage disposal systems.
The spooky tales began when the prison was still functional and the story of Al Capone's pleas to the ghost of James Clark, a Saint Valentine's Day Massacre victim, to leave him alone in his cell, is perhaps the best known.
Prison guards began to tell of ghostly footsteps, screams and shifting, black shadows in the corridors and similar experiences are still described today by visitors and museum staff. The dank, murky environment coupled with the knowledge of what happened in those crumbling, bare stone rooms is enough to set anyone's nerves on edge, so it is certainly not easy to differentiate between tricks of the imagination and genuine paranormal activity where this dismal place is concerned. However, the theory that disturbing events can leave their mark on a place is a well-documented one and seems to apply in a huge number of spots all over the prison. Many corroborate the same stories and even photographs seem to suggest a paranormal presence.
Written by larapiegeler.
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