If you ever get a chance, take a history tour of the old Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
Before it closed in 2004 it was the oldest prison west of the Mississippi River, having accepted its first inmate on March 8, 1836. To give some historical context, this was only two days after the Alamo fell.
It was also a rough place. At one time it was known as “the bloodiest 47 acres” in America.
I’ve wanted to take a tour for years, and recently had the opportunity to with my wife and two boys. All four of us enjoyed it. There are two hour tours and three hour tours. We chose the former, yet after all we saw I wonder what else is included in the three hour one. There are also “ghost tours” in the evenings.
After the prison closed in 2004, some of the buildings were torn down. The good part about that is the front of the 1905 stone entrance is now totally exposed, gargoyles and all.
The oldest of the prison halls - or “housing units”, as they call them - still standing was built a couple of years after the War Between the States. It is amazing that it was still being used to house prisoners up until 16 years ago. The stone walls are very structurally sound, I was told, and they certainly look it. Normally that hall is part of the tour. However, a tornado took off the roof last year. When a new roof is installed it will reopen.
There are buried cells that date back to the 1840s that were discovered some time ago during a construction project and then reburied. The plan, subject to funds, is to uncover and reopen those cells one day. Right now, they’re still buried under the ground.
One part of the tour, in another hall, is the cell of James Earl Ray, the later convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, who was held at the Missouri State Pen - and escaped - on another charge, before he was locked up for shooting King.
That same hall is where Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd was initially held until he was moved to another unit that has since been torn down. Unfortunately, Floyd’s exact cell isn’t known.
The end of the tour includes the “death house”, where the gas chamber was. Forty people - 39 men and one woman - were executed there. The gas chamber is still intact in all its grim morbidity, levers, two seats and all. Yes, there were several double executions. You can sit in the chairs, though I chose not to. It didn’t seem right to me, but that’s no judgement on anyone else.
On a wall of the death house are the photos and names of everyone who was executed there.
The death house includes a separate room for witnesses to view the execution through tinted glass, as well as a cell for last rites, and another room that was used for storage.
Our tour guide had actually worked at the prison for 20 years and was full of stories - both first hand and historical - about the place he knew so well. He made the tour entertaining and the time passed all too soon.
I really encourage you to see this part of Missouri history. If you decide to, you need to make reservations first. Also, try to go in the spring or fall. The day we went was mild, but it can get stuffy in the un-airconditioned prison, we were told.
For more information go to missouripentours.com or call 866-998-6998.
-Wes Franklin writes a weekly column, That History Guy, for The Neosho Daily News.