Sunday, November 20, 2011

Horrors of Philly

Over a month ago I had visited a friend in Philadelphia. The trip was a very short one but rather memorable indeed. Last week I had written about a smile inducing comment made by my friend’s daughter. Following up from that post, this time I’ll be writing about a somewhat creepy side to this historic city. Yes, this is the city where Edgar Allen Poe penned some of his scariest works. Yes, M. Night Shyamalan filmed The Sixth Sense here as well. As I learnt from my friend that day and then later from Uncle Google, if you are looking for a ghost in the US, then this is probably the right place to be. True to this reputation, there are plenty of sites in Philly to go ghost hunting.

Let’s start with the James Martin School. This is an erstwhile hospital and nursing home. The most popular sighting in this school is that of a face in the attic window; and there are plenty of accounts as to the owner of this face - a mental patient who jumped out of the window committing suicide, or a boy stuck in the dark attic unable to find his way out for decades, or of a patient who slit his/her wrist up in the attic; take your pick.

Then, there is the site of the Byberry mental hospital which is haunted by the different patients mistreated here. Prior to 2008 there were reports of screams from the basements and the catacombs were creepy enough for people who had gone in to run out crying. Here’s an excerpt from a visitor’s report - “The place I'm talking about isn't haunted by ghosts or goblins, its haunted with stories, memories, and eeriness. To look into what was once a great utilitarian structure, but now is and great industrial ruin, terrifies you. It makes you scared, worried, and frightened. Not knowing what or who is behind each door, each hallway, each turn can torment your mind. It gets inside you”. The hospital was shut down in 1990 for poor living conditions and later in 2008 it was sold to a contractor who demolished all the buildings. An office complex and a few retirement homes stand there now, but people still complain about a negative vibe that’s associated with the place.

Then, there is the popular ghost hunting site of Fort Mifflin. There are 3 ghosts here. A “screaming woman” in the ruins of the commander’s house and 2 civil war soldiers, one without a face. There are in fact many more such sites. For the lack of time I could visit none of them. As a matter of fact, though I heard about the ones above from my hosts I didn’t visit them either.

One place, however, I did go to - the Eastern State Penitentiary. Opened in 1829, it was hailed as a new type of prison. Here, solitary confinement was not just an occasional punishment, but was the prisoners’ primary state. The idea behind this facility was to force the incorrigibles to look inside themselves and find God. Each cell had a toilet, a table, a bunk and the Bible and it was here the prisoners spent all but one hour of their day. Interaction between inmates was forbidden and even when they did leave their cells for an hour a day, a black hood was placed over their heads. Inmates lived a life of complete solitude that has driven many a sane man to madness.

The gargoyle at the entrance

A cell block

A cell block

A typical cell

A typical cell
Solitary confinement was not the only punishment. Inmates desperate for human interaction, would tap on pipes or whisper through vents. When caught, the penalty was brutal ranging from being dunked in a bath of ice-cold water and then hung from a wall for the night to the “Iron Gag” for which an iron collar was clamped onto the tongues of the inmates and then chained to their wrists which were strapped behind their backs. For the latter, even the slightest movement would tear their tongues. Many a men have died in the resultant bleeding.

Unsurprisingly, Eastern state Penitentiary is one of the most haunted Philadelphia locations. The most famous sighting is that of a prisoner who killed 27 people in an attempted escape. Another popular paranormal episode is that of a locksmith who was doing restoration work in one of the cell blocks. The tale goes thus: “He was working to remove a 140-year-old lock from the cell door when a massive force overcame him so powerfully he was unable to move. Some believe when he removed the key it opened a gateway to the horrific past and offered the spirits caught behind its bars a pathway out. The man spoke of experiencing an out-of-body state as he was drawn toward the negative energy which burst through the cell. Anguished faces appeared on the cell wall, hundreds of distorted forms swirled around the cellblock and one dominating form seemed to beckon the locksmith to him. The man's experience was so vivid, years after he would shudder in fear when he talked about it”.

The prison system of solitary confinement was abandoned in 1913. A famous prisoner of Eastern State after the relaxed rules was Al Capone. He was given a special cell away from the cellblocks where the other prisoners were kept. The image below shows his cell.  Compare that to the cells of the other prisoners shown before. In spite of his relatively cosy treatment, Capone himself has reportedly said that the spirit of James “Jimmy” Clark, one of the men murdered in the St. Valentine's Day Massacre used to haunt him. Reports from other prisoners seem to indicate that they heard Capone constantly screaming and begging with an unseen entity to be left alone.

Al Capone’s cell
As the years took its toll on the structure and faced with costly repairs, Eastern State was officially closed down in 1971. Now, opened to the public the state makes good use of its haunted reputation by hosting a haunted house called “Terror Behind the Walls” every Halloween. It is supposedly very scary, but I was a week or two too early to check it out myself.

In any case, I’ll be going to Philly again over the next year and a half. It would be fun to check these sites out. But before that I need to take the road less travelled. Hopefully, next week I’ll have some photos and stories from Clinton Road, NJ.

Until then, cheers and have a blast.


  1. Scary stuff...I have to visit that road which you mentioned in one of your posts. Now, I am wondering whether I should plan a trip to Philly for some more adventure or not?

  2. I'm planning a trip to Gettysburg. Seems that I should keep Philly also on my cards. The pics are real creepy.

  3. Saru, Ashwini... scary indeed. Let me know when you do visit these sites.

  4. Never been to Philly, but I'm a big fan of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Just my brand of crass hilarity.