Is Eastern State Penitentiary really haunted?

Eastern State Penitentiary dates back to 1829 and is located in the Fairmount section of Philadelphia. | J. Smith for Visit Philadelphia
J. Smith for Visit Philadelphia

If you’ve ever been to Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP) for Terror Behind the Walls or even for a daytime tour about the infamous prison, it’s hard to deny that the place makes an impact on visitors. Simply walking past the massive Gothic building is enough to instill a creepy feeling. 

Built in 1829, it’s considered the world’s first penitentiary, rehabilitating prisoners through solitary confinement for much of its history. Famous inmates include mob boss Al Capone, who spent eight months there, as well as murderers like Victor “Babe” Andreoli.

But is it really haunted? Staff members share their ghostly encounters with Metro.

Mischief Night

Creative Director and GM of Terror Behind the Walls, Amy Hollaman, has been working at ESP for 13 seasons and had her first paranormal experience ever at the site.

“Prior to that I had been a skeptic about paranormal activity,” she says. “I wasn’t the kind of person hoping to find ghosts or assuming there were ghosts.”

On Mischief Night during her first season working, she was cleaning paint brushes with a colleague — knowing they were the last two people on the premises for the night.

“All of a sudden, in the back area of the room we were in, we started to hear these sounds — like a person was stamping something and then moving a paper over repeatedly. Then we heard the sound of a cup move,” she says. “These were independent sounds that lasted for 15 seconds. It doesn’t seem like that long of a time but imagine if something is terrifying you — it’s pretty long. I literally learned what the word petrified meant — I was frozen stiff.”

Her and her colleague linked arms and left the building in silence  — too stunned for words.

Repetition is the Mother of Scares

Hollaman also works with the actors as a part of her job and two different ghostly accounts from two different ones certainly sent chills up her spine.

“According to many ghost investigators, cellblock 12 is one of the hottest paranormal spots on site,” she reveals.  “An actor says to me one year,  ‘Amy I can’t work on the top floor of cellblock 12 anymore. Can you move my spot?”

She asks him why and he replies, “There’s a ghost up there. When I was at the edge of the cellblock, it looked like this woman was running towards me screaming and once she got close to me, she turned around and ran back.”

Hollaman thought his account was “weird” and switched his spot.

Three years later, a totally different actor comes to her with a similar story about the second floor of cellblock 12 being haunted.

“You’ll never believe this but I think it was a banshee. It was flying down the cellblock towards me screaming. and then turned back,” Hollaman says of the second actor’s story.

What are the chances of that?

“Breaking Bad” Luck

Hollaman also reveals a peculiar happening last year when a visitor mailed back a bolt they had taken from the site along with a letter.

“In it, they say they regretted taking it because they’ve had the worst luck ever since,” she divulges.

The mysterious sender returned the bolt in a bag of sage, asking the staff to put the bolt back exactly where they found it.

“For them to think that their lives took a turn for the worse since taking this object says something,” she admits.

A Ghostly Encounter

Hollaman isn’t the only person on staff with paranormal experiences. Technical Director James Travis also had his own moment with a spirit.

“It was close to midnight on a rainy and windy Friday during the fall of the year 2012,” he describes.  “There was an event that evening and all of the other guests and staff had left the property.”

Travis noticed a large steel panel that had been delivered for him in the building’s Gatehouse and wanted to move it out of the way and decided to take it to cellblock 12. (In case you needed reminding, this is probably the hottest spot for paranormal activity at ESP, according to Hollaman.)

“I planned to put it just inside of the gate there. The dolly kept sliding out of the way so I had to use both hands to get the gate unlocked,” he remembers.

All of a sudden, he felt the presence of someone behind him.

“I knew that everyone else had left the property, so my first suspicion was that some miscreant had secluded themselves away and were up to no good,” he says.

When Travis turns around, he sees a short man, only about 5’4’’, standing a few feet away from him.

“I instantly drew back my fist ready to strike, heart pumping.  Then I realized he was translucent and dressed in Civil War-era military clothes.  Then he disappeared,” Travis describes.

Later, Travis finds out that ESP was operational during the Civil War.

Creepy, huh?

Odd Feelings

Despite these accounts, even ESP’s staff has a few skeptics in their ranks who haven’t actually seen or heard ghosts, like Director of Interactivity for Terror Behind the Walls, Jennifer Tomczak.

“I tell people that I do not believe in ghosts, but I look for them during my evenings working as a performer,” she says.

Tomczak has been with ESP for 14 seasons and has never seen anything “manifest in a physical form,” but admits that she’s had odd sensations now and then.

“My head throbbed and I felt cold and queasy while standing in three locations: the Warden’s Office, the very back section of ‘Klondike’ (the punishment cells) and near a pipe closet on the 2nd floor of Death Row,” she reveals.

Tomczak says she openly invites ghostly creatures to hang out with her while working.

“I openly welcome an apparition’s companionship during my long nights in the crumbling cellblocks,” she admits.

Who knows? Maybe one of the spirits will read this article and take her up on the offer.

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