UPDATE 12-1-13 Missouri State Penitentiary Tours are on hiatus while they work on mold abatement. They hope to resume tours in 2014. Please follow us on Facebook for updates!
Brace yourselves, kids. This is a long one! We drove to Jefferson City last weekend for the "Ghost Tour" of the Missouri State Penitentiary. Opened in 1836 - the same year the Alamo fell - it was the first penitentiary west of the Mississippi, and was the oldest when it closed in 2004. Once called "the bloodiest 47 acres in America" by Time magazine, MSP has seen death beyond number. As you can imagine, there are many, many ghost stories, but as is my custom, I will not be publishing them here. The tour and the tour guides are awesome, and MSP needs your support to continue operation as a historic site. Some day they would like to be a museum, and as you know how huge a fan I am of Eastern State Penitentiary and all the incredible things they've done with the space, I want to see that happen for the dedicated staff of MSP.
So no ghost stories, but lots and lots of pictures to tempt you to visit. I will say this, while I didn't have any experience I could definitively state as paranormal, this was the most skin-crawly I've ever been on any ghost tour I've ever been on. If you're into the creepy, you will find it here. If you're not, there are straight history tours while the sun shines. You can find the schedule on the website linked at the top.
If you are familiar with paranormal theory, you will notice that nearly the entire prison is made of the famous limestone of the area, said to attract and retain energy. It's also mere feet from the Missouri River. The penitentiary used to be much, much larger, but many of the buildings have been torn down in recent years.
The tour starts with signing a release of liability, and receiving a flashlight and a postcard that has the story of a famous inmate, such as "Pretty Boy" Floyd, on the front, and a coupon good for various restaurants that support MSP on the back. Prison Brews is one, of course! Then it's time to step inside, and they close the barred door behind you from the control tower just inside.
Through this building we saw our first cell block and the challenges these folks face in getting the place back into shape. Remember, MSP closed in 2004. This is how fast a building falls apart when it stands vacant. There are still signs and rules and memos all over the walls, like the prison was vacated by some sort of catastrophe.
Next it was out to the yard, where you have a great view of the remaining buildings, and the river at the back of the property.
This next building is where the prison riot of 1954 started. Two prisoners faked illness to get the attention of two guards, and when the guards investigated, the prisoners overpowered them, stole their keys, and ran through the building opening cells. Thousands of prisoners rioted through the night, setting buildings on fire and drawing police response from the Missouri Highway Patrol, Kansas City, and St Louis. Police surrounded the prison, and the citizens of Jefferson City were right behind them.
It's a really incredible story and you can read more about it and see news photos on the MSP website under the "History" tab. Death Row was located on the lower level of this building, and today one of the upper levels houses the Gift Shop.
While my hair was standing on end the most in the first building, this next building is the creepiest and has the best stories. It even has dungeon cells in the basement where prisoners were in complete darkness 24/7, sometimes for years. They let you stand in a cell with the lights out to show just how complete the darkness is. It is pretty chilling.
The cells in this building have all kinds of stuff stored in them, including artwork painted by the inmates. Many of the cells even have murals painted on the walls. I couldn't handle the creepy-crawlies of being in the building and on narrow catwalks for very long, but there is MUCH to explore in this building.
Last stop, the gas chamber. There is a lot of construction in progress on the property right now, so you can't walk over to the building. You have to drive around the block to the other entrance. It's pretty chilling to pull up to the gas chamber at 11pm, and imagine the preparations that would have been going on for an execution at that time of night.
Contrary to what some might imagine, the gas is not piped INTO the chamber. The gas is formed by the reaction of a cynanide tablet and sulfuric acide in the bucket under the chair. The giant vent pipe on top of the chamber is to let the gas out, and for each of the 40 executions performed here, the people in the surrounding houses had to be evacuated. It's an extremely dangerous and unpleasant way to kill someone.
The last person put to death by gas was Lloyd Anderson in 1965. There are two chairs in the gas chamber because Bonnie Heady and Carl Hall were executed side by side in 1953 for the murder of six year old Bobby Greenlease, which was a very famous case in Missouri. The last use of this building for an execution was in 1989, when George "Tiny" Mercer was put to death by lethal injection. After that, executions moved to the Potosi Correctional Center.
Thank you to the dedicated people of MSP for keeping this amazing historic site on life support! If there's anything we can do to further your mission, let me know and I will spread the word far and wide! CC&G fans, stay tuned on Facebook for further updates!
Lastly, thank you to Francis for being my photographer!