It’s known as the “Bloodiest 47 acres in America.” It’s been home to some of the worst criminals in American history. Visit the Missouri State Prison in Jefferson City and you’ll receive an interesting history lesson about the penitentiary that operated for almost 170 years. The prison now operates public tours.
During our hosted visit to the city, we took the prison tour. We visited two of the main cell blocks, as well as the gas chamber. The tour guide shared facts about the facility while we stood in the prison yard.
The Missouri prison – nicknamed “The Walls” because of the large stone blocks that encircled the prison – opened in 1836, the same month that the Alamo fell in Texas. Thousands of inmates would call “The Walls” home during its lifetime.
Named the “Bloodiest 47 acres in America” by Time magazine, the Missouri State Prison saw 40 inmates executed, most by the gas chamber. One inmate was executed by lethal injection before the prison was closed. Others were hanged.
More men and women likely died during their stay at the prison, though there are no records to support it. Some died at the hands of area businessmen, guards, other inmates or while trying to escape, a guide told us during a tour. Deaths went unreported because no one wanted to lose business deals with the state or their jobs. There are no solid numbers to indicate the number dead.
The prison was the site of several violent riots which contributed to its nickname. A riot in 1954 is considered the most violent. Four inmates died, dozens were injured, but none escaped. The riot caused about $5 million in damages.
The prison operated a lease program with local businessmen during its early days. Businessmen could “hire” inmates to work for them. Several buildings in Jefferson City, including the first capitol and governor’s mansion, were built using prison labor.
The prison housed about 5,200 inmates at its highest capacity, far more than it was designed to hold. Among its infamous list of residents were the names Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, Emma Goldman and James Earl Ray.
Floyd was a mobster during the 1920-30s. Following his release from the prison in 1929, he returned to a life of crime. In 1933, he and others were the primary suspects in the “Kansas City massacre.” They allegedly tried to free a colleague from police custody when a gunfight broke out at Kansas City’s Union Station. Frank Nash was killed along with law officers. Floyd was killed in a gunfight in 1934 in Ohio.
Goldman was an anarchist imprisoned for violating the Espionage Act during World War I. She campaigned against the war and the military draft, which was illegal then. She met other women in prison who shared her beliefs. They campaigned for better living conditions for prisoners while serving their time.
James Earl Ray was convicted of robbery in St. Louis in 1959. Ray attempted several escapes before finally succeeding in April 1967. Working in the kitchen, he devised a plan to escape by hiding in a bread truck. He hid in a large container that was in the back of a truck. The truck’s interior should have been inspected by prison guards before being allowed to exit. However, for some reason, it wasn’t, and Ray successfully escaped the Missouri State Prison.
Ray was convicted of shooting civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a year later. King was shot while standing outside his room at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tenn., on April 4, 1968. The motel has been renovated and is part of the National Civil Rights Museum. The boarding house from where Ray shot King is now an annex to the museum.
One of the prison’s success stories involves boxing. Sonny Liston was convicted in 1950 of committing two robberies. During his prison term, he learned to box. A publisher “discovered” him during a prison boxing tournament. He arranged for his parole in 1952. Liston became the heavyweight champion in 1962 when he defeated Floyd Patterson. His championship run came to an end in 1964 when Cassius Clay (later Muhammad Ali) beat Liston for the title. Liston would host boxing exhibitions at the prison, including fighting inmates who challenged him.
Visitors can walk through cells once used by the inmates in A Hall. It’s the oldest structure at the prison. Near the end of the prison’s run, the cell block was used for prisoners who were “model” inmates.
However, the “dungeons” once housed prisoners who were punished for a variety of reasons. In the basement of A Hall, the dungeons were rooms without light. The only light the inmates saw was when a small slit in the door opened and the guard pushed in a plate of cornbread, one for each person in the cell. Six inmates could be in one cell at a time, so they had to fight for their food. One inmate was in the dungeon for 17 years and another for 11 years.
Our two-hour prison tour flew by. The tour company offers a variety of tours. A three-hour mystery tour adds an hour to visit with a former “model” inmate. A three-hour in-depth tour offers a look at additional buildings and information.
The prison is said to be haunted. Ghost and paranormal tours are offered, including overnight tours.
As you plan your prison tour, ensure you arrive about an hour or so earlier and visit the small museum in the lower level of the former warden’s house. The museum is full of memorabilia and artifacts. Shivs and other inmate-created weapons are on display.
Prisoners created art and products used in the warden’s house, as well as for gifts for family members. Leather items, such as wallets; wood carved pieces, such as salt and pepper shakers; and a lamp made from popsicle sticks.
We recommend taking a tour of the Missouri State Prison and visiting the prison museum.
For more information, please visit www.missouripentours.com.
Disclaimer: Thank you to the Jefferson City visitors bureau for the hosted visit. All opinions and views are ours.