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Missouri State Penitentiary
You can tour the old Missouri State Penitentiary, which had been used for 168 years when it closed in 2004. It was the oldest continuously operated prison west of the Mississippi River at the time.
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Guards on the 20-foot walls before the prison closed in 2004.
The oldest prison west of the Mississippi closed its doors in 2004, but you can still see long lines of people waiting to enter a hall full of cells. But rather than prisoners returning from mess hall, these are tourists waiting to hear the stories of the prison called by Time Magazine in 193 "the bloodiest 47 acres in America."
Anarchist Emma Goldman, gangster Pretty Boy Floyd, and boxer Sonny Liston were all held here in the prison. James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr., about a year after escaping from the prison.
You can still tour the historic site and one of the old prison halls, and you can choose from a two-hour or four-hour historic tour, a twilight tour, specialty history tours, photography tours and ghost tours.
The Missouri State Penitentiary was called by its last proper name, the Jefferson City Correctional Center, or JCCC or J Triple C by the last inmates to inhabit it, before they moved to the medium-security Algoa Prison, six miles east.
The tour includes the gas chamber, used after 1938. Before then, executions were carried out by hanging. Lethal injections were used starting in 1989.
Here is the story of the prison, in a timeline:
1832: The legislature authorizes the building of the prison. The bid calls for 23-foot-high walls, three feet thick at the bottom and two feet at the top.
1836: The prison opens. It's a wooden stockade on a quarter acre. The first prisoner is convicted of stealing a watch; 18 other prisoners this year are convicted of murder, rape, horse stealing, Negro stealing, counterfeiting, and highway robbery.
1841: Prison rules forbid prisoners to speak to each other or look at visitors, even relatives.
1842: The first female prisoner, convicted of theft, is pardoned within a few days.
1843: Townspeople complain of the high number of escapees. One cell with a stove serves as the hospital and usually holds 8 to 10 people.
1853: A state commissioner explains the goal: "Our prisons are reform schools, as well as houses of correction; and he is being punished, not so much to appease the wrath of the law, as to produce in him a reformation, and at once we arouse up within him, every ennobling and honorable em otion of the soul, and cause him in meekness and in tears, to bless the means used for his correction."
1854: The penitentiary had been turned over to a private enterprise to run, but it is returned to the state from the lessee in "exceedingly bad condition ... Convicts were dirty and wretchedly clad, bedding was filthy, and the cells were like kennels."
1861: 30 convicts rush the gate; two of nine prisoners who make it the river are shot and sink. The others yell, "Death before prison."
1862: Prisoners manufacture equipment for Union troops during the Civil War.
1869: Guards find an underground tunnel nearly reaching under the walls.
1870: 25 convicts help build the Lincoln Institute in Jefferson City.
1873: Prisoners riot due to lack of edible food.
1874: Escapees during a riot hop onto freight trains.
1875: A letter from the warden to an inspector says, "Today we had rice and barley soup which was unfit for use, on account of the worms that were in the rice. The worms were half an inch long." The second female prisoner gives birth without assistance except from a male convict. Another woman prisoner may be "visited" by guards and male prisoners any time.
1876: A separate female prison is built.
1890: The first prison hospital is built.
1891: The first full-time chaplain begins work.
1893: The penitentiary is the largest in the country and one of the most efficient. The cost to house and feed a prisoner is 11 cents per day.
1894: The cat-o-nine tails whip is abolished.
1898: Prisoners produce their own meat and grown their own vegetables. Typical meals are hash, cornbread, and coffee for breakfast; beef stew and a vegetable for lunch; and all the wheat bread, molasses, and coffee wanted for dinner.
1899: A prisoner nick-named "Shoo-Fly" arrives from Kansas City for his fifth term. The self-described thief has a reputation for being able to get anything anyone wanted. During a previous term, a guard had challenged him to get some silk thread, and he succeeded.
1901: The prison encompasses 15 acres. President Theodore Roosevelt pardons a black man from California, Mo., after citizens from that town request it. Opium habits are observed.
1903: Shoe factories within the prison produce 10,000 shoes per day. The saddle-tree factory is one of the largest in the world.
1905: A model binder-twine plant helps the pen become the only prison in the United States where income exceed expense. The prison library is the best in the country, with nearly 10,000 books for 3,000 convicts.
1909: Prisoners are no longer required to wear zebra-striped suits, unless they break the rules.
1911: Lightning struck the capitol dome, and it caught on fire. Fifteen prisoners on the fire brigade earn hero status and pardons by rushing into the capitol to retrieve documents.
1913: A St. Louis newspaper opposes punishment by hanging prisoners by their arms from rings with their feet barely touching the ground.
1917: Famous anarchist Emma Goldman is imprisoned but released after eight days on appeal. She was sent to Missouri because there were no federal facilities for women.
1918: Probation and parole begin.
1919: Socialist "Red Kate" Richards O'Hare is sentenced to five years for an anti-war speech. President Woodrow Wilson commutes her sentence a year later.
1920: Traditional pardons on Christmas and Independence Day are discontinued after the press criticized officials the previous year.
1925: Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd pleads guilty to a robbery in St. Louis and serves time for his first offense. He is released the next year and by 1933 is "the most dangerous man alive" and wanted by police in several states.
1926: Officials call the prison "one of the worst in the country" because of overcrowded cells, poor sanitation, and a crumbling facility.
1932: Former heavyweight champion Jack Dempsey visits the prison. The population soars to 4,577 during the Great Depression.
1936: Overcrowding means seven or eight black prisoners or four to five white prisoners share cells designed for three. Federal commissioners urge President Franklin D. Roosevelt, "End this practice or tear it down."
1938: The gas chamber replaces hanging as the method of execution.
1940: The first fully sanctioned school begins.
1945: A parole board recommends 900 inmates be released to fight in World War II.
1947: A steam power plant explodes, plunging the pen into total darkness. The director and warden are out of town, so Gov. Phil Donnelly, with only one guard and a prison physician, walk across the darkened yard and down the hill to the plant with a flashlight. The governor stays until power is restored.
1950: Charles "Sonny" Liston becomes an inmate after being convicted of holdups in St. Louis. He learns to box while in the pen. He is released in 1952 and wins the St. Louis Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing tournament and then the National Heavyweight Championship in Chicago in 1953. He later revisits the pen.
1953: The only female executed in the gas chamber, Bonnie Heady, dies alongside Carl Hall. The two had kidnapped and killed the 6-year-old child of a St. Joseph businessman.
1954: The largest riot in the country at the time lasts for 15 hours and leaves four prisoners dead, seven buildings in ashes, and four guards and 29 inmates injured. A second riot erups a month after the first. A new warden tells legislators it is one of the "roughest damned prisons in the country" and should be abandoned.
1960: James Earl Ray is imprisoned after holding up a Kroger store in St. Louis. He tries to escape several times and becomes a hide-out artist, able to disappear within the prison for days. He finally escapes from the bakery in a large box in April 1967. Nearly a year later, he shoots the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
1961: The movie, "The Hoodlum Priest," opens after being filmed at the pen. It is based on the real life of Father Charles Dismas Clark, nicknamed the Good Padre by inmates.
1963: Three murders in 24 hours and 145 stabbings in 2 years prompted Time magazine to call it a few years later the "bloodiest 47 acres in America."
1964: Integration attempts to ease the overcrowding among blacks. All is quiet at first, but then one black is killed and three wounded by inmates wearing pillow cases. The warden commits suicide in his office.
1965: A moratorium on executions results from a Supreme Court ruling that the death penalty is cruel and unusual punishment. Shorts and tennis shoes are permitted.
1966: World heavyweight champion Joe Louis visits. Showers with hot and cold water are added to housing units.
1967: The first female probation and parole officer in the state is hired. A flood of litigation suing doctors, officers, and the warden for civil rights violations begins.
1970: Prisoners can buy television sets.
1973: Integration is accomplished without violence when 500 inmates change cells.
1977: Gov. Joesph P. Teasdale signs a new death penalty law, modeled after other states' laws that had been upheld by the Supreme Court. But there are no more executions until 1989.
1986: Rival gangs are a growing menace; they control drugs and other contraband and buy and sell the young and the weak for sex.
1987: AIDS testing begins in high-risk groups.
1988: Gov. John Ashcroft signs a bill allowing the death penalty to be carried out by means of lethal gas or injection.
1989: The last execution at the pen is George "Tiny" Mercer, convicted of rape and murder. The official site for executions is moved to a new prison at Potosi.
1991: After 160 years, the name of the Missouri State Penitentiary changed to the Jefferson City Correctional Center.
1994: Inmates without a high school diploma are required to attend school.
2000: Missouri's budget per inmate ranks 49th among all states. There have been 85 executions by lethal gas or injection since the gas chamber was first used in 1938.
2004: The oldest prison west of the Mississippi River closed after 168 years; 1,355 prisoners are moved to the new prison nearby on September 15.
Primary Sources: "Somewhere in Time, a 160-year history of Missouri Corrections," and The Jefftown Journal, 1972, Historical Edition.