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Lock-ups You’ll Love … To Visit

August 23, 2012

The Missouri State Penitentiary has a fascinating history.

The Missouri State Penitentiary, Nevada’s historic Vernon County Jail, and the Glore Psychiatric Museum (or State Lunatic Asylum No. 2) once confined people deemed a danger to themselves or others. It is slightly ironic that the same facilities residents wanted to escape from are drawing crowds today.

Yet these historic sites and museums have fascinating stories, interesting architecture, and contain important Missouri history. What was life like in the state prison, or for a patient in a Lunatic Asylum? Tour these facilities to find out.

The Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City was called “the bloodiest 47 acres in America,” by Time magazine in 1967. Opened long before Alcatraz, the massive stone Housing Unit Three with its turrets and tall, narrow windows resembles something out of a gothic horror novel.

A History Tour at the Missouri State Penitentiary, led by a former warden, offered an insider’s view on the daily life in prison; our guide also shared stories of his own experiences. The most memorable part was when we all trooped down to the lower level of Housing Unit Four. No natural light reached us, and once the lights were out, we were in incapacitating darkness.

Our guide said prisoners confined to this “dungeon” passed the time in the dark by flipping a button into the air, and then searching for it. Some prisoners were in the dark so long they went blind and/or insane. The MSP offers Ghost tours and even overnight paranormal investigations, but attending the History Tour is enough to cause a few chills.

As bad as life at MSP could have been, it may have been preferable to some inmates held at the old stone jail in Nevada, Missouri. Located in the town once known as the Confederate Guerilla Capital of Missouri, the jail is available for self-guided tours.

Cramped, crowded, and windowless, the cell block is lit by a single light bulb. The cells are so small that only one inmate could stand up at a time, the other inmates had to stay in their bunks. There are rumors the conditions were so bad that prisoners sentenced to one year in the Vernon County Jail would instead request a sentence of two years in a different prison.

To enter the jail, you must first pass through the jailer’s home. It’s odd to step from a comfortable, well-lit home into a jail reminiscent of a dungeon. Be sure to check out the jailer’s home, part of the Bushwhacker Museum, to learn interesting stories about Nevada’s turbulent, yet fascinating, past.

This exhibit at Glore shows items taken from a patient’s stomach.

The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St. Joseph preserves a facility used to heal and shelter, rather than to contain. Even though a hospital is very different from a prison, some of its residents were similarly trapped, if only in their own minds. The Glore also serves as a grim reminder of the early misconceptions of psychiatric disorders, and primitive treatments.

The museum is located in the building once known as “State Lunatic Asylum No. 2.”  It is definitely a must-see for those who are interested in the strange and unusual. It was my first stop on my first visit to St. Joseph. The outside of the museum resembles an ordinary office building. Once inside, however, you realize this is a unique place.

You begin in a gallery filled with medieval torture devices, including what appears to be a giant hamster wheel. These were the early treatments for psychiatric disorders. People were placed in the Hallow Wheel to run themselves into exhaustion, they were restrained in the Tranquilizer Chair, and submerged in the Bath of Surprise.

Other exhibits include a display of more than 100 items (buttons, screws, safety pins, etc.) retrieved from a single patient’s stomach, and the instruments used in early lobotomies. As you move to different galleries, you see more calming displays, illustrating how treatments have evolved over the years. Musical and art therapy gave patients the chance to express themselves creatively. The Glore exhibits beautiful artwork produced by former and current patients.

The Missouri State Penitentiary, the Historic Vernon County Jail, and the Glore Psychiatric Museum provide glimpses into a time when inmates (or patients) suffered conditions that would be unthinkable today.

More memorable than the dark underground chamber, cramped cells, and nightmarish “medical” equipment, is that they were endured by real people. In fact, our guide at the Missouri State Penitentiary shared that many former inmates had attended tours.

Why would former inmates voluntarily return to prison?  Come see for yourself as you tour the different historic institutes of incarceration in Missouri.  They are so interesting, you may not want to leave.

Written by Sally Anton, supervisor of the Official Missouri Welcome Center in Eagleville

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