Friday Top 5: Scariest Historic Prisons of the World

It’s October and the countdown until Halloween is in effect so all this month our Friday Top Fives will be about creepy old places around the world. This week: abandoned penitentiaries. Confinement can drive anyone to a place they never thought they would go- in their minds- and these historic buildings were the sources of many an insane reaction. If you’re ever in the area of any of these prisons be sure to check them out, especially this time of year, to get your goose bumps on.

1) Tuchthuis Prison, Vilvoorde, Belgium (1779-1974)

At the height of its popularity, Tuchthuis Prison contained upwards of 12,000 prisoners on its four floors. Everyone from murderers to prostitutes filled its walls with tiny slits for light in its vaulted ceilings. Labor was mandatory; the prisoners weaving hemp, wool and cotton into goods to be sold. In the early 19th century the building was converted into a military hospital before returning to a prison until 1914 when it was used as barracks and later a detention center for the army. Again in WWII the Germans used it for the same purpose. In 2009 part of the building was restored and converted into a hotel and has been used for club space. Each Heritage Day in September a small portion of the original structure is opened to the public. The creepiest bit? The cell with crosses drawn all over the walls, among other swastika carvings and personal letters left to decay.

2) William Porter Reformatory, Tokai, South Africa (1878-late 1980’s)

The oldest age allowed in the “reformatory” was sixteen, meaning that children were held here for all kinds of misdemeanors and crimes. Funded entirely by “Sir” William Porter (he declined knighthood,) the place was intended to help children caught for crimes who would otherwise continue to grow into a life surrounded by adult criminals. However, solitary confinement was normal protocol and the children were forced to abide by strict obedience with physical abuse being handed out by the warders as well as rape of newcomers. Not surprising, mental derangement, self-inflicted harm and suicide were common among the children. In 1892 racial segregation came to the prison and soon the whites were living cushioned lives compared to the blacks.

3) Holmesburg Prison, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1896-1995)

Built in the wagon-wheel architecture originating at Eastern State Penitentiary, also of Philadelphia, Holmesburg was notorious for a Dr. Albert Kligman, who spent decades testing chemical compounds and cosmetic products on inmates. “All I saw before me were acres of skin … It was like a farmer seeing a fertile field for the first time.” In 1966 it was reported that an estimated 9 out of 10 inmates were used for testing, including chemical warfare. Tests were funded by the Dow Chemical Company, Johnson & Johnson and the U.S. Army. Rape was again common, as well as murder by both warders and inmates. A number of massive riots ensued over the years, and in 1938 25 inmates were murdered by roasting after leading a hunger strike. They were placed in a room where the temperature was turned up to 190 degrees in mid-August and the doors did not open for 58 hours. Holmesburg definitely goes down in history as one of the worst prisons in America.

4) Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1829-1971)

I had the “pleasure” of visiting Eastern State Penitentiary recently, which was built with the belief that all crooks contain good in their hearts, which just needs to be brought out of them through solitary confinement and labor. All books with the exception of the Bible were forbidden and masks were worn on the rare occasions that inmates might interact. Each cell contains a ceiling window and a private outdoor area. Silence was protocol, to the extent that the overseers wore wool socks over their boots. Due to its architecture and new system of detention, tourism was massive in the late 19th century. Originally intended to hold 250 inmates, the prison maxed out at 1,700 in 1926. By now the solitary system had collapsed and several things were done to raise morale, including Christmas decorations. Al Capone was a famous inmate of Eastern State. Today, parts of it are available for tours daily and in October is it open at night for a terrifying Halloween treat.

5) West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, West Virginia (1876-1995)

Built in a Gothic style with turrets and battlements, the West Virginia Penitentiary prison was built out of a need after West Virginia succeeded from Virginia during the Civil War. The prison operated at a self-sufficient level through labor of varying kinds and farming. In 1900 conditions were “good” with adequate care given and education given president. However, conditions quickly deteriorated with fighting, gambling and rape (among other crimes) being held in a particular room called “The Sugar Shack.” Murders increased, inmates began escaping and riots broke out by the later 20th century. 94 executions were carried out within its walls, by hanging (one man was immediately decapitated by his own weight on the noose) and electrocution in “Old Sparky,” a chair built by an inmate, which is on display and part of the tour. Again, Halloween is a great time to check out the creepy old building.

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