Dad and I went to Jefferson City this weekend to tour the old Missouri State Penitentiary. This prison, which has sat empty since being decommissioned in 2004 was, hands-down, the coolest place I’ve seen in years.
Built in 1835, it’s 100 years older than Alcatraz. Noteworthy criminals such as gangster Pretty Boy Floyd and heavyweight champ Sonny Liston did time there. In 1961, James Earl Ray escaped by hiding in a large bread box. A year later, he would assassinate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nothing was prettied-up for the tour; the prison was dark, eerie and dilapidated.
Lead paint peeled from the walls and ceilings. We wore hard hats as we walked around inside.
In 1963-64, there were 550 serious assaults, including hundreds of stabbings. That year, TIME Magazine called it “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” The scandal led to the prison warden’s downfall.
The darkest stopping-point on our tour was the gas chamber. Notice how death row inmates would walk past the big cross along the walkway as they headed toward the door. Inside were two holding cells that faced the chamber. Prisoners awaiting execution would have a bird’s-eye view of the large metal capsule.
Here’s a mirror that pointed toward the observers’ room. It allowed witnesses to see the faces of the condemned. However, those being executed couldn’t see them.
Photos of the 40-plus executed prisoners hung outside the chamber. Their ages were listed along with their names and crimes. Since I’m 36, I thought it was interesting that almost all were in their mid-30s.
It seemed pretty slick to sit in one of the gas chamber chairs. That is, until one of the tour guides pulled a lever to turn on the exhaust fan. When I heard the loud rattle and accompanying rush of air, I barreled out of that chair. I think I aged 10 years in those few seconds.
Despite the momentary notion I’d be gassed, the place was amazing.