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Behind The Walls

November 19, 2009

Thankfully, I never had to serve time in the old Missouri State Penitentiary. Perhaps that’s why I was glad to return Wednesday for my third tour of the historic property, located in the heart of Jefferson City.

First, a little history: The prison was decommissioned in 2004. It has been open for public tours and, this year, the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau began sponsoring hard-hat tours of the property. (Tours are complete for 2009, but will be available again starting in March 2010.)

The Missouri State Penitentiary once was the only prison located west of the Mississippi River. It opened in 1836, the year of the Battle at the Alamo. It was accepting prisoners for 100 years before Alcatraz opened.

For many years, anyone convicted of a serious crime in the “western” U.S. was sent there, including women. At one time, there were up to 5,000 inmates at the prison (by comparison, there were 1,350 inmates when it closed). In its early history, there were instances when seven men shared a 6-foot by 8-foot cell, which had no real bedding, but instead, straw mats, if they were available.

The prison saw its share of notable events, including the riot of 1954, which caused an estimated $5 million in damages. It was also home to some famous folks, including Sonny Liston, who learned to box at the prison and later became the world’s heavyweight champion. James Earl Ray, the man who shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr., escaped from the MSP by hiding on a bread truck in 1967 and was still on the run when he shot the civil rights leader.

Nearly four dozen people were put to death at the prison, many in the gas chamber, and there were reportedly more than 3,000 deaths at the prison during its 168-year history.

Now, on to the tour.

As I said above, tours for this year are complete, but Missouri Division of Tourism staffers, along with our partner companies Hoffman|Lewis and Steady Rain, were given a special tour of the facility, courtesy of Steve at the Jefferson City Area CVB and our guides, Ray and Mike. Thanks to them for showing us around and for Leah at H|L for setting it up.

After a brief overview of the prison’s history, Ray led us inside and to the oldest housing unit on the property, Housing Unit 4, often called A-Hall. It was built in 1868 and it was here where Liston spent his days in cell No. 33. This building also housed the dungeon, where unruly inmates, and sometimes both Union and Confederate prisoners were kept, in total darkness. Ray told the story of one inmate who spent roughly 10 years in the dungeon. When he left the prison, after spending so much time confined in tight quarters and in darkness, he was no longer mentally competent.

Ray also said inmates sent to the dungeon – where there’s no light of any kind, natural or otherwise – would try to procure a button or would rip the button off their pants and toss it around just to keep their minds occupied in an attempt to keep from going mad, but even that didn’t work all the time.

Housing Unit 4 still has the same smell it had five years ago when the prison closed (and I was fortunate enough to tour it then), though it’s not quite as strong as it was the night the inmates left. But walking up the weathered stairs and across the narrow catwalks, you get an uneasy feeling and it’s tough not to slink around in a guarded manner (no pun intended).

From there, we walked through part of the yard and into Housing Unit 3, which was a little more modern, but no more welcoming, and then on down to the into the large yard – where the ballfields used to be – and around to the gas chamber building.

We heard about the inmates who were executed in the chamber, their pictures still are on the wall there, and some of the crimes they committed. A few of us morbid souls also sat in the chamber’s chairs. Murph, from H|L, got a pretty good scare when he sat in the chair and Ray turned on one of the vents inside. Murph thought there had been some kind of malfunction, that gas was going to appear and his ticket to the afterlife was about to be punched. Pretty funny move by Ray.

As we were walking out of the prison, Ray talked about the great opportunity it presents the city as a tourist attraction. Tours last summer sold out and more will be offered next year to meet the growing demand. People seem to be fascinated by the Old Missouri State Penitentiary, and rightfully so. (For more on the prison and tours, visit

While some might see it as a little ominous, it is a wonderful piece of the state’s history – and perhaps, one of the reasons Jefferson City remained the capital – and its value as a destination is obvious. I am hopeful the prison remains open for tours for years to come and that people from all around the world take an interest in its history.

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