10 Fascinating Facts About the Missouri State Penitentiary

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Located in Jefferson City, the Missouri State Penitentiary has a very long and pretty dark history. In its 168 years operating as a prison, the location saw many deaths, riots, suicides, and even fires. The inmates nicknamed the prison “the walls,” because of the large stone walls that surrounded the facility. But even with the large walls, several prisoners managed to escape.

Thousands of men (and some women) called the prison home, so it’s not surprising that some well-known people found themselves locked up there, including the man who assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., a man known as “the most dangerous man alive,” and even a boxing champion.

And with a history that long, it’s also not surprising to learn that some pretty strange and disturbing things have taken place there. 

10. History Of The Prison

The Missouri State Penitentiary first opened in 1836 and didn’t close until 2004, making it the oldest operating prison located west of the Mississippi River. It was also one of the largest prisons in the entire United States with several units on the location, including a five-story, 240-bed hospital unit that was constructed in 1938. By 1900, over 2,000 inmates were housed at the penitentiary, and by 1936 nearly five thousand prisoners reluctantly called it home.

Although prison life is definitely not ideal in general, the “dungeons” were a place where no prisoner wanted to end up. Located in the basement of A Hall, there were rooms without any type of light except when the guards would open the door to pass food to the inmates. There were up to six inmates in a dungeon cell at one time. It’s said that one prisoner was housed in the dungeon for 17 years while another lived there for 11 years.

In the early days, many of the inmates were hired by local businessmen to build several buildings in the area, including the governor’s mansion. Many of those buildings are still standing today.

Then on September 15, 2004 the prison closed its doors for good and 1,355 inmates were transferred to the new Jefferson City Correctional Center.

9. Sonny Liston’s Journey From Inmate To Boxing Champion

In 1950, Sonny Liston was convicted of two counts of first-degree robbery and two counts of larceny. He learned to box while serving his time, and a publisher from a St. Louis newspaper noticed him during one of the prison’s boxing tournaments. The publisher immediately contacted the Board of Probation and Parole, and Liston ended up getting paroled in 1952. Liston became a well-known heavyweight boxing champion in 1962 when he beat Floyd Patterson. His reign as champion finished in 1964 when he was defeated by Cassius Clay (soon to be known as Muhammad Ali).

Liston would host boxing exhibitions at the Missouri State Penitentiary for the prisoners and would sometimes even box when he was challenged by an inmate. He’s definitely one of the better “success” stories of former inmates, though his mysterious death continues to inspire debates among boxing fans.

8. Women At The Prison

The first female prisoner was sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1842. Amelia Eddy was given a two-year sentence for grand larceny but she was pardoned just a few days after her arrival, due to the lack of facilities to accommodate her.

By the 1890s, almost 60 women were housed at the prison. They lived in a 78-cell dormitory, separated from the men’s facility by a 20-foot stone wall.

In 1926, a total of 64 female prisoners were moved to Prison Farm No. 1, which was located just a few blocks east of the prison. They worked outside, gardening and raising farm animals on the 15-acre lot. Their new building also had a beautiful view of the Missouri River, as well as Jefferson City.

After the women’s jail got overcrowded, in the early 1960s they were again moved to their new home in Tipton, Missouri. They had dorm-style rooms in which up to four women could live at one time. They also had access to several sports, such as volleyball, badminton, and swimming.

7. Missouri State Penitentiary Museum

The Missouri State Penitentiary Museum is located in the Col. Darwin W. Marmaduke House in Jefferson City. This former warden’s house is full of artifacts that help tell the story of the prison, and one of the most interesting parts of the museum is a replica of an actual prison cell from the penitentiary.

There are many items on display at the museum, such as actual weapons that were confiscated from the inmates. The weapons were created by the inmates themselves, of course, and they were basically rudimentary shanks with sharp edges – the better to do maximum damage to other inmates or, in some cases, guards.

Less terrifying is a display featuring art that was created by inmates over the years, as well as leather wallets, wood carved pieces, salt and pepper shakers, and even a lamp that was created from popsicle sticks.

6. Oh, and Of Course… It’s Haunted

With a dark history, it’s not surprising that the Missouri State Penitentiary is known to be haunted. Numerous people have encountered the apparition of a man wearing a white lab coat, and others have seen the ghost of a woman inside of the female’s ward.

One of the most active places in the prison is cell 16. Many people have heard voices and even conversations coming from inside of that cell when nobody was in there. There are ghost tours available for the public to view the dark and eerie prison, including two and three hour tours. If you’re feeling a little more adventurous, you can even participate in a five or eight hour overnight investigation.

5. The Gas Chamber

In 1937, Governor Lloyd Crow Stark signed a bill for the execution of inmates using lethal gas, instead of the electric chair and the old traditional method of hanging. Between 1937 and 1989, a total of 40 prisoners were put to death in the gas chamber.

Probably the most infamous execution was that of Bonnie Heady and Carl Austin Hall. The couple had kidnapped a young boy and demanded a ransom amount of $600,000. After the couple was paid off, the boy was found killed and buried. In 1953, they were arrested and sentenced to death. Later that same year, the couple were executed side by side in the gas chamber. Heady was the only woman executed in the gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary. In 1989, the last execution was conducted at the prison via lethal injection – the first and only time that method was used in the penitentiary.

4. The Prison Housed Some Infamous Convicts

Of the thousands of prisoners who have walked through the Missouri State Penitentiary’s doors, a few of their names are recognizable.

In the 1880s, John “Firebug” Johnson was well known for his many escape attempts, as well as the fire that he started in the prison that caused over $500,000 in damages, in addition to killing numerous inmates. After being convicted of arson, another 12 years were added to his sentence and he was sent away to the dungeons. After eventually getting released, he wrote a book titled Buried Alive for 18 Years in the Missouri Penitentiary.

In 1925, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd (pictured above) arrived at the prison when he was convicted of robbery. After his release, he continued to rob banks and committed several murders. In 1933, he was known to police as the “most dangerous man alive.” After years on the run, he was finally found by police and shot dead when he tried to get away.

In 1959, James Earl Ray was sentenced to 20 years in prison for holding up a Kroger grocery store in St. Louis. He was known for his many escape attempts – including his one successful plan in 1967, when he hid in a large box that was used to ship loaves of bread, and successfully escaped the prison in a truck carrying the cargo. Approximately a year later on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee, Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr.

3. Escapes From The Prison

When James Earl Ray escaped, it became probably the most talked about and well-known escape plan in the prison’s history; however, there were several other attempts by other inmates.

In 1868, a frightening story made local headlines when an underground passageway was found that almost reached the bottom of the wall. Thankfully, it was found in time. If a few more days had passed, it’s possible that over 700 inmates could have escaped the prison.

In 1924, a prisoner named Walter Holub was told to clean out a sewer pipe in the prison. He wiggled his way through the pipe and ended up making his way all the way to Denver, Colorado, where six months later he was arrested for robbing a drug store.

In 1926, two prisoners named Carl Pittman and Fred Hildebrand were working at the machine shop when they climbed a ladder and over the wall. That… seems startlingly easy. The inmates reached the freezing cold January water of the Missouri River and started swimming, but the current brought them right back to the jail. Which… also seems comically easy, only this time for the prison guards. They were brought to the infirmary and treated for frostbite.

2. It’s Nicknamed “The Bloodiest 47 Acres In America”

In 1967, Time Magazine called the Missouri State Penitentiary the “Bloodiest 47 Acres in America.” Forty prisoners were executed – most of them by the gas chamber. It is said that other inmates were hanged in the earlier years, although the exact number of deaths by hanging is unclear.

It’s believed that many prisoners passed away at the penitentiary, but there are no records to indicate just how many of them died as a result of living at the jail (fights, murders, suicides, escape attempts, etc). The belief is that the deaths were not reported because nobody wanted to lose their jobs or lose business deals with the state of Missouri.

1. The Riot Of 1954

In 1953 and 1954, there were several riots that erupted in prisons all over the country and many people were worried that the same would happen at the Missouri State Penitentiary. And on September 22, 1954, their fears became reality.

On the evening of September 22, two inmates faked illnesses and when the guards went to check on them, they were overpowered, badly beaten, and had their keys stolen. The two prisoners then released several other inmates on their block (as well as other blocks). Soon after, several hundred convicts were running around the building smashing windows and even setting fires. Not long after it all began, four buildings were on fire and approximately 2,500 prisoners were rioting. There was even one prisoner who was in solitary confinement that was murdered by other inmates.

By the time the riot had ended, four prisoners were deceased, one attempted suicide, and 50 others were injured. While nobody escaped, the damage from the riot and fires were estimated at $5 million.

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