As long as the door opens both ways, visiting a historic prison can be a thrilling experience. From haunted Gothic castles to prisons that bitterly testify to man’s inhumanity to man, these five prison museums tell stories worth hearing – during the Halloween season and beyond.
Eastern State Penitentiary – Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Halloween is a popular time to visit Eastern State – Photo courtesy of Eastern State Penitentiary
Stroll Fairmount Avenue, minutes from downtown Philly, past pubs and restaurants until you come to the breathtaking view of the Eastern State Penitentiary, 11 acres of blocks crumbling cell phones and menacing guard towers. Opened in 1829 as the world’s first and most famous penitentiary, Eastern State was a segregation facility.
Designed by John Haviland and considered quite enlightened at the time, some 300 prisons around the world have copied its 8-by-12-foot cell layout radiating from a central rotunda. Once a hotbed of notorious criminals, including bank robber Willie Sutton and Al Capone, Eastern State closed in 1971 and was nearly razed to the ground, save for screams from preservation advocates.
It opened in 1994. “Terror Behind the Walls” serves as an annual fundraiser for historic sites, with tours of four haunted houses, immersive interactive performances, themed bars, and an audio guide narrated by the actor. Steve Buscemi. The place ranges from spooky to terrifying – leave kids seven and under at home.
Angola Museum – St. Francisville, Louisiana
A look at Angola’s notoriously cramped neighborhoods – Photo courtesy of the Angola Museum
You’ve probably heard of the Angola Rodeo, even if you haven’t attended the inmate event at Louisiana’s most infamous prison. Even if the rodeo isn’t your cup of tea, the next time you’re near St. Francisville, some 130 kilometers northwest of New Orleans, take the time to stop by the Museum of the Rodeo. ‘Angola.
Founded by former director Burl Cain in 1998, the museum is well worth a visit. Cain is the man credited with reducing violent incidents by 73% in the place once known as “The Bloodiest Prison in the South”, and judging by the contents of this spooky place, he really had work for him.
Located just outside the gates, the museum features everything from terrifying homemade weapons taken from inmates over the years to a replica of an electric chair – used in Louisiana until 1991. The museum shop is the place. great for buying Guts and Glory hot sauce, made with peppers grown in Angola and t-shirts that say “Angola: A Gated Community”.
Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary – Petros, Tennessee
Brushy Mountain is eerie even without the fog – Photo courtesy of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary
A brick-and-mortar testament to prisoner exploitation, Brushy Mountain State Pen opened in 1896, providing free labor to the Tennessee Coal Mine in Anderson County. This dark chapter of Tennessee’s coal industry set the stage for a bloody labor battle that transformed Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary from a prison to a state coal mine, mined by prisoners who have literally worked to death in overcrowded conditions similar to those of a Siberian gulag.
Mining remained the prison’s sole mission until 1969, when it was upgraded to a maximum security prison. Brushy closed in 2009.
Tours are self-guided, with former prison guards and inmates on-site to answer questions. There are over 30 stops along the tour, as well as a map to cross the prison grounds. The castle-like prison, where hardened criminals including James Earl Ray were locked, offers Warden’s Table restaurant, an on-site distillery (End of the Line Moonshine) and the option of self-guided or private tours – private is really the way to go.
There’s even a campground on site, a spot that could lead to restless sleep for the faint of heart.
Alcatraz – San Francisco, California
Alcatraz is known as The Rock – Photo courtesy of San Francisco CVB
This San Francisco Bay Fortress – called The Rock – was home to Al Capone and a slew of dangerous criminals. Although there have been more than a dozen escape attempts, none were successful, all foiled by the choppy waters of the bay and resident sharks.
Today, Alcatraz is San Francisco’s most popular attraction and is part of one of the most visited national parks in the country. Offering full-day tours, behind-the-scenes tours and night tours, explore the windswept island accompanied by the award-winning “Doing Time: Cellhouse” audio tour, which you can download to your smartphone.
New attractions include access to the New Industries Building, with its exhibit commemorating the 50th anniversary of the influential occupation of Alcatraz by Indians of all tribes.
Alcatraz East – Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Alzatraz East is located in the former Tenneesee State Prison – Photo courtesy of Alcatraz East
Located in the former Tennessee State Prison, which opened in 1898 just outside of Nashville, this museum is just one of Pigeon Forge’s many well-packed family attractions. This crime museum includes artifacts from Alcatraz, but is not really related to the original prison.
Five galleries examine crime-fighting, crime scene investigation (from DNA to blood spatter and beyond), American crime history, punishments, and pop culture. Billed as “a unique journey into American crime history”, Alcatraz East is “so much fun it’s a crime!”
Perfect for true crime fans, there are CSI forensic exhibits and an infamous getaway car exhibit that features the Bronco from OJ Simpson’s pursuit. While kids are welcome, this Ted Bundy exhibit could be quite a conversation piece.
Buy tickets in advance online or with a credit card – like many businesses trying to rationalize during the pandemic, no cash is accepted.