Philadelphia’s Curses and Ghosts

It was gray and rainy in Philly as we headed into the Eastern State Penitentiary. This used-to-be-jailhouse known for its often copied spoke-wheel design is apparently one of the spookiest places in the City of Brotherly Love. I don’t believe in ghosts, but my two traveling companions do.

An audio guide is included with the price of admission.

“I don’t know if I want to wear this,” Chris says, looking dubiously at the headset.

He was afraid that he wouldn’t be able to sense presence from the other side if he was caught up in listening to a tour guide. It turned out not to matter anyways because he sensed the first possible ghost in the Porta-Potties outside of cellblock one. (No audio narration was available for this stop in the tour). He dragged us out to the bathrooms and demonstrated how a piece of the soap dispenser randomly fell off during his initial visit.

Yup. Ghosts.

In all honesty, the whole place was a bit on the creepy side, especially when you step in some of the claustrophic former jail cells. ESP was known for its dedication to solitary confinement. Inmates could go their entire jailhouse stay without ever seeing another human being. At the time (1829) this was thought by many (including Benjamin Rush and Franklin) to be the human way of forcing individuals to contemplate their actions and repent. Charles Dickens (who visited the place in 1842) was one of the first to disagree with the humanity of such isolation, saying that “…solitary confinement, and I believe it, in its effects, to be cruel and wrong…”

Eastern State Penitentiary is located in a castle looking building above the city at 2027 Fairmount Avenue. Admission is $12 and street parking was readily available.

After ESP, the four of us (three humans, one Porta-Potty ghost) headed downtown for what would be my favorite Philadelphia moment: Driving towards City Hall on Market Street. This is one cool city hall. The statues were so striking that I felt the need to continually grab my friend’s camera and take pictures of it out my rolled down window. (Obviously, blending in with locals wasn’t the main concern here). City Hall was built in 1901 and was the tallest building in of its time, at 548 feet. This includes the 15 foot statue of William Penn, Philadelphia’s famous city planner.

There is a curse attached to this building however. In reference to good ole’ Bill, City Hall was supposed to be forever the tallest building in Philadelphia. And until 1987 it was.

Then Liberty Place went up. At 945 feet, it was just a tad taller. William Penn is said to have exacted his revenge by cursing all four sports teams. The Philadelphia Phillies, Eagles, 76ers, and Flyers all went many, many disappointing seasons. Philadelphia was the only city to have four major sports teams that produced no championship victories for 20+ years.

In 2005, construction began on the Comcast Center building, soon to be the new tallest peak in William Penn’s city. The architects (who I’m guessing doubled as frustrated sports fans) tacked a one foot statue of Penn atop the roof and hoped for the best. The Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series the next year.

I think Billy Penn went pretty easy on his city. This “statue” wouldn’t have cut it for me. You can’t even see it on top of that Comcast Building. Then again my baseball team has never even BEEN to the World Series, so perhaps I’m a little bitter.

But I digress. In between Philly cheesesteaks (Geno’s was way better than Pat’s, by the way) my friends and I took the Spirits of ’76 Haunted Tour. Again, fitting in with locals was not our number one goal. Actually, many of Philadelphia’s fine citizens mocked us with supposedly creepy sounding “woooo” noises as we traipsed around Independence Square, but whatever. I like wearing glow sticks and asking tour guides annoying questions.

The scariest story from the tour was at Holy Trinity Church which began as an orphanage for children whose parents had died of the Yellow Fever. In the summer of 1793, one-fifth of the city died from the disease. Not having the proper knowledge of germs and how they spread, the orphanage doubled as a burial ground for all the children who caught the disease here and died. They continue to haunt this place today.

Ghosts are creepy enough, but children ghosts are truly terrifying. For more on the topic, check out Fever, written by YA genius Laurie Halse Anderson.

Not that we saw any ghosts on the tour – children or otherwise. If only there had been a Porta-Potty along the way.   

Catch the Spirits of ’76 tour outside Cosi coffee shop nightly at 7:30. Tickets are $17. And have a happy Halloween next week, whether you are in Philadelphia or elsewhere.

Eastern State Penitentiary, Haunted Philadelphia, The curse of Bill Penn

Jenna Vandenberg

Teacher, writer, runner, mom and wife.

Comments (2)

  • Mom

    This was hilarious! And all this time I thought you went to Philadelphia for history.

  • There was a group of students at the Liberty Bell the next day on a field trip, and I just wanted to jump in and teach them something. So don’t worry Mom – it wasn’t all fun and ghosts!

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