According to lore, Halloween is the one night of the year ghosts can come back to interact with the living.
Rumor has it, though, that spirits wander freely around Philadelphia all year long.
The local haunts are numerous, and sightings of the otherworldly are recorded all of the time. Locals have spotted ghosts hanging out in movie theaters, taking carriage rides through the parks, toiling over historical documents in Independence Hall and generally acting like they own the city.
There are a few spots in Philadelphia that are notorious for paranormal activity. Certified paranormal expert and founder of the International Society of Phantom Finders Richard Long offered some insight.
“Philadelphia is full of haunted locations,” he said. “I have been to a few of them, such as Eastern State, which is infamous for its history, as well as a local restaurant that even made it into a book called Philadelphia Ghost Stories. I even know that Independence Hall has a few stories.”
The Eastern State Penitentiary, located at 20th Street and Fairmount Avenue, is said to be heavily ghost-ridden. The 172- year-old state prison building was infamous for causing insanity due to solitary confinement. The penitentiary offers daytime and candlelit tours for those who aren’t afraid to explore the long hallways and deteriorating cells in search of former inmates.
Louis Wolf, a Philadelphia native and avid ghost hunter, recalled some strange happenings there.
“I’ve seen a lot of bizarre occurrences at Eastern State,” he said. “Cellblock 13, which is known for its shadow people, lives up to its legend. I’ve also seen a man in a bowtie and looked into it further. It turns out that the man is the ghost of a former guard and what I thought was a bowtie is actually a slash mark from a former inmate.”
People have spotted hundreds of other prisoners and workers there, including maids in white dresses and a notorious murderer who killed 27 people in an attempted prison break.
Not all haunted areas in the city are quite so bleak and scary, though. The historical haunts are intriguing and eerie, but don’t involve any murderers.
Benjamin Franklin, who laid the groundwork for Philadelphia, is apparently very reluctant to leave. He’s been seen by Philadelphians walking in and around Independence Hall, looking at the documents he helped write and taking naps on the steps of area buildings.
Betsy Ross, our patron flag-maker, is rumored to be both seen and heard at her original residence, weeping over loves lost at the foot of her bed. In fact, many of our forefathers have been seen traipsing around the likes of the Liberty Bell and other Old City locations.
Debbie McLaughlin, a resident of the Old City section of Philadelphia, has experienced many strange occurrences, but one in particular stands out.
“I was walking home from dinner down Second Street with my husband one night. It was about 10 p.m., and I saw a very pale man in colonial dress walking behind us. I thought he must have worked for some kind of historical deal in the city, but when I turned around for a second glance literally two seconds later, he was gone. I basically ran home after that,” she said.
Despite stories like McLaughlin’s, Long said he thinks Philadelphia’s historical spooks are questionable. “I have heard the stories of dancing Franklin, as well as investigated Old City for the possibility with little results. But ghosts do not perform on cue,” Long said.
There is always a possibility the ghosts do exist, though. A nightly ghost tour runs at 7:30 p.m. from Independence Park through Society Hill telling tales from our colonial past. One might catch a glimpse of everyone’s favorite traitor, Benedict Arnold, or Thomas Jefferson lurking in an alleyway.
Not surprisingly, there are a few known haunted cemeteries in Philadelphia. Palmer Cemetery in Fishtown holds stories of vanishing flowers and ghostly figures, including a large apparition holding a baby. The cemetery at St. Peter’s Church, located at Third and Pine streets, also offers some spooky happenings. People have seen orbs spinning in the moonlight and glimpsed several Indian chiefs who died of smallpox.
Meanwhile, at City Tavern on Second Street, there is a young man on the wait staff who apparently is no longer employed or living, but still shows up for work.
“I’ve heard stories of a waiter that died here showing up in a bloody shirt,” said Cindy Ellis, a frequent patron of the colonial-themed restaurant. “I haven’t seen him in any of my visits here, but I kind of hope I never do.”
The next time you are grabbing a bite to eat, catching up on your history or roaming the city, keep your eyes peeled. You may have some unexpected company.
Leeann Hamilton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.