Whether it’s a prickling sensation on the back of the neck or a cold chill running the length of the spine, signs of the supernatural have fascinated humans for millennia. For paranormal enthusiasts, the City of Brotherly Love far from disappoints.
With its rich history and cultural diversity, Philadelphia has been the locale for many bizarre occurrences. From the celebrated monuments of Independence Mall to the cobblestone streets of Mt. Airy, each neighborhood has its own unique story.
Eastern State Penitentiary
In the Fairmount section of the city sits the Eastern State Penitentiary. A massive prison constructed in 1829, it was part of a controversial Quaker-inspired movement to correct the behavior of criminals. Inmates were subject to confinement in solitude, according to Assistant Program Director Brett Bertolino. Once home to such notorious felons as Willie Sutton and Al Capone, Eastern State lies empty today.
Now a historic site managed by a non-profit organization, daytime prison tours are regularly offered as well as a high-spirited haunted house attraction during the Halloween season. As one of Philadelphia’s most popular tourist destinations, many have dubbed this gothic behemoth the “Alcatraz of the East.”
Some say that several troubled inmates never left Eastern State. Numerous ghost sightings have been acknowledged within the prison’s fortified walls.
Bertolino attributed these sightings to the penitentiary’s grim past. “There were 80,000 men and women that were here against their will,” he said. “There were often violent periods in the prison’s history, and there are definitely people that come to the prison and believe they see, hear or experience ghosts.”
Among the most active areas of paranormal investigation is the prison’s cell block 12. Bertolino noted that this is where the most commonly sighted specter manifests itself. The figure, which is called the “soap lady,” is said to be a female form dressed in a white garment that appears in the showers.
Devon J. Gillian, senior theater major and manager at Eastern State, claimed to have seen several apparitions while working in the prison. He connected various strange happenings with public disturbance of the spirits.
“With the massive amount of people that come through here and the disrespect done by the public, not by everyone, but there are certain individuals … they [the ghosts] would get upset with what happens,” Gillian said. “It’s their home, in essence.”
In Southwest Philadelphia, Fort Mifflin is another place that is home to many ghosts, according to caretaker Wayne Irby.
Originally an unfinished British project in the 1770s, the fort was adopted by Benjamin Franklin as part of a strategic colonial defense system for Philadelphia during the Revolutionary War. Often called “the fort that saved America,” it served the country until the Korean War and was decommissioned in 1954.
Today, Fort Mifflin lies adjacent to the airport and is operated by a non-profit organization. October ghost tours and a Halloween family fright fest are available.
An immense amount of human suffering remains part of the fort’s history. Irby listed several ghostly remnants of the past. The “lamplighter,” the “screaming lady,” the “blacksmith,” the “unknown tour guide,” and the “man with no face” are all said to haunt the fort’s sprawling grounds. Some have even harassed guests and employees, Irby said.
Volunteer Kristy Bell claimed to have encountered the unknown while searching for supernatural activity in the fort as part of a team for the Philadelphia Institute for Paranormal Research.
Bell and her teammates were spending the night in Casemate 5, a dungeon used to imprison Confederate soldiers during the Civil War, when they captured a disembodied voice on tape. When the team used a computer to play back the voice and check its frequency, they made a strange discovery.
“I could hear a man’s voice going ‘get the keys, I’m getting old, get the keys,'” Bell said. “A human voice box can’t make a sound less than 300 Hertz … it was so low that a person couldn’t have made it.”
Cresheim Cottage Cafe
While Fort Mifflin may house several malevolent spirits, a much friendlier apparition, according to general manager Kenneth Leger, inhabits the Cresheim Cottage Cafe in the historic section of Mt. Airy. Originating as a 100-acre tract of land secured from William Penn in 1683 by German settlers, Cresheim Cottage is among the oldest buildings in Philadelphia, said Leger. A wide variety of occupants have dwelled within its carefully preserved walls.
Hardly the typical habitat for a ghost, the cozy cottage is now a lively restaurant serving American eclectic cuisine.
Leger associated regular unexplained incidents with Emily, the resident ghost. Said to be the spirit of a 10-year-old Victorian-era girl, Emily frequents the second floor of the cottage. “She’s a young girl, she’s not suffering and nothing bad has ever happened,” he said. “It’s always just been little prankster stuff.”
Her mischievous antics include the disappearance of various objects, flickering the lights, appearing in photographs, and tampering with the restaurant’s computer system, Leger claimed. “It’s kind of fun having odd things go on around here … it’s a nice touch to the restaurant,” he said.
Other rumored Philadelphia haunts include Washington Square, Baleroy Mansion, Loudon Mansion and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Venuri Siriwardane can be reached at Venuri.Siriwardane@temple.edu.