After I heard Charles Dickens wanted to visit two places in this region – Niagara Falls and the Eastern State Penitentiary, I knew I had to take some time out before I left Philadelphia to visit the latter. I know it as the site of the 1995 movie 12 Monkeys starring Brad Pitt and Bruce Willis and a once home of Al Capone but as I toured I found out much more. Dickens was right in wanting to visit – the difference is he hated what he saw and I found it fascinating.
The prison opened in 1829 and is one of the most copied and expensive buildings in the US. It’s estimated that more than 300 prisons worldwide are based on the Penitentiary’s wagon-wheel floor plan. After 142 years of consecutive use, Eastern State Penitentiary was abandoned in 1971. There is an audio tour included with the entry fee ($1 off here) and at 2pm most days there is a guided tour. The guided tour is informative if a bit bland. Ideally, if you have time learn the history from the guide and ask questions then return and grab the audio and tour the cells and buildings yourself for the most bang for your buck and better photo opportunities.
Famous prisoners include Victor “Babe” Andreoli who was convicted of 1st degree murder. He later escaped and was shot. Leo Callahan, who is the only successful escapee of the 100 inmates to escape from Eastern State. Alphonse “Scarface” Capone, who is Chicago’s most famous mob boss, spent eight months at Eastern State in 1929-1930. William Francis Sutton was also an inmate at Eastern State. He is one of the most famous bank robbers in American History.
The gaol is falling apart and crumbling around you but its definitely worth the stop if you are in Philly.
Have you been to Eastern State? What did you think?