Oh, that Al Capone -- what a guy! In addition to being Chicago's most powerful mob boss and one of the most famous criminals of all time, he also apparently had a knack for interior decorating. At least, that's what a visit to his cell at Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia -- one of that city's most popular tourist attractions -- might lead you to believe. While all the other inmates made do with iron bedsteads and rough wooden chairs, Al had oriental carpets, fine upholstered furniture and a large cabinet radio, so he wouldn't miss the ballgame broadcasts. Another funny thing? During Al's time at ESP, it's rumoured the penitentiary was suddenly able to upgrade the kitchen facilities and add an exercise yard.
Capone wasn't the only well-known inmate at ESP, as a guide will tell you during the walking tour. Opened in 1829 and famed for its castle-like architecture and strict discipline, ESP was the world's first real "penitentiary," a prison intended to make prisoners feel regretful or penitent for their crimes. Featuring only solitary confinement cells in its initial stages, ESP housed more than 70,000 prisoners during its years of operation, including women and children as young as 12 years old.
Many inmates were known across the United States for their crimes, including Morris "The Rabbi" Bolber, an enterprising businessman who was leader of a ring of poisoners-for-hire who used arsenic to remove the husbands of wannabe-widows. Providing a highly successful service from 1932-37, Morris and his friends were able to eradicate more than 30 superfluous spouses before the Rabbi landed at ESP.
The Buzzard boys -- all five brothers -- were other famous convicts who spent time at ESP during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Joe Buzzard, in fact, has the dubious distinction of being the last horse-thief ever incarcerated at ESP.
Another well-known inmate, Clarence Rae made his way to ESP in 1912 after being convicted of kidnapping, and spent his jail time writing a book of poetry: Tales of a Walled Town. He must have grown pretty attached to the place because, shortly after he completed his sentence and was released, Clarence was returned to ESP -- convicted of stealing books.
Not all prisoners wanted to extend their time at ESP and some, in fact, came up with fascinating escape strategies. In 1945, William Francis Sutton dug a 33-metre-long tunnel under the prison through which he and 11 other prisoners made a dash for freedom. Disappointingly, when they broke through to the outside, they were recaptured by waiting guards.
Only one prisoner, was ever successful in escaping from ESP -- Leo Callahan, who used a makeshift wooden ladder to climb over the 8-foot thick prison walls and was never heard from again. No need to lose sleep, however, worrying about where he might be. If Leo's still alive, he'd be more than 110 and probably not a huge threat to public safety.
While there are tours at Eastern State Penitentiary all year, there's no better time to visit than autumn, when the emphasis is on all things ghoulish. Featuring special nighttime tours billed as "Terror Behind the Walls," ESP becomes a grand-scale haunted house, complete with guards dripping gore and crazed escaped prisoners waiting to jump out at you from every corner.
Special attractions include a gruesome infirmary, where all treatments go very wrong; a disorienting outdoor maze called the Gauntlet and an indoor version complete with creepy hanging vines in the prisoner's greenhouse, both filled with grisly roadblocks.
Hallowe'en's your favourite holiday? There's no better place to celebrate than at Philadephia's Eastern State Penitentiary where the gargoyles glowering over the entrance are just your first clue that the ghosts of Al Capone, the Rabbi, the Buzzard Boys, Clarence Rae and countless others are inside, waiting to welcome you to their nightmare.
Thrill-seekers will love the Lock Down in Cellblock 12, one of ESP's most haunted areas, where special lighting, fog and sound effects combine with arcing electrical currents from giant Tesla Coils to create a "Frankenstein's lab" vibe that's sure to horrify. Equally scary is the Night Watch, an area of the prison where visitors are left in total blackness to find their way out, past the terrors lurking in the darkness. If you're truly fearless, slip on the special chromadepth 3-D glasses used in the Experiment and watch walls reach out for you and see people bend in ways nature never intended.
NEED TO KNOW
The Philadelphia State Penitentiary is open daily for tours, with the exception of Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. Terror Behind the Walls runs until Nov. 10. For specifics and entry fees, visit easternstate.org.