Missouri State Penitentiary for Thursday Doors and #CBWC

During vacation at the end of June, biking buddy and I did more than bike the Katy Trail. Toward the end of the week, the days were extremely hot, so we decided to be “tourists” and investigate Jefferson City, the capitol of Missouri, sweating a tad bit less in the process.

The now open-for-tours Missouri State Penitentiary gave us an opportunity to witness how harsh prison conditions could be in the 1800’s and up to the year 2004, when the state opened a new facility. There is much history here in the prison doors and it gives me the opportunity to participate in the stark photography of Cee’s Black and White Challenge and Dan Antion’s Thursday Door Challenge.

The complete history of the Missouri State Penitentiary can be found HERE, but I’ll share some of the highlights in case you prefer only the highlights. We spent time in the control center, the yard and two of the cellblocks. Life was more than difficult here for early prisoners who were not allowed to speak to one another and were hit with clubs by the guards if they stepped out of line.

Still owned by the State of Missouri, The Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) opened in 1836 along the banks of the Missouri River in Jefferson City, Missouri, the state capitol. The prison housed inmates for 168 years and was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi until it was decommissioned in 2004.

By 1900, the penitentiary housed 2200 inmates and by 1935, the number was 5,300. Tour guides let us know that in early times, each cell housed six inmates in brutal conditions, with no heat in the winter and no indoor plumbing.

On Wednesday, September 22, 1954, two inmates of MSP feigned illness and overpowered guards. Obtaining their keys, the inmates then released others and soon 2,500 inmates were running the grounds, throwing bricks and concrete, breaking glass, starting fires, etc. The state patrol, national guardsmen, local and nearby police agencies were called in to quell the riot. By the following morning the inmates were subdued and the prison retaken by authorities. In the end, four inmates were killed, fifty inmates and four guards were injured.

The MSP had a gas chamber for death row inmates. Death row at this facility ended in 1989, but not before Time Magazine called MSP “the bloodiest 47 acres in America” in the late 1960’s. Between prison conditions, a major riot, the gas chamber, etc., this did not surprise me.

Famous or infamous inmates that resided at MSP: The boxer Sonny Liston, James Earl Ray, Pretty Boy Floyd. James Early Ray attempted to escape many times and eventually was successful in 1967. A year later, on April 4th, 1968, Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. Ray was eventually captured and spent the rest of his days in two different maximum security prisons in Tennessee.

There were women at MSP, in their own housing unit and two of these women are considered “infamous.” Katie Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman were not criminals by today’s standards. They advocated for women’s rights, prison reform, better labor practices, birth control and against war. Dubbed “socialists” and “anarchists,” they were arrested, convicted under special federal law, and spent one to two years at MSP.

A couple more tidbits about MSP before closing: You can go on a ghost tour at MSP during the evening hours. Ummm…just no. The prison was creepy enough in the daytime.

The prison came into disrepair after 2004, between the time of its closing and opening as a tour site. One of the tour guides assured me that prior to its closing the facility was maintained (cleaning, paint, repairs) and was in much better condition.

The prison has a gift shop and that is where I bought a nail file…which may or may not help me escape to my next vacation in nine days.

Dan Antion’s Thursday Doors can be opened HERE.

This week’s theme for #CBWC is “your pick,” and you can access information about this challenge HERE and Cee’s main blog page HERE. Cee’s black and white challenge post is usually up for viewing mid to late Thursday mornings.

23 responses to Missouri State Penitentiary for Thursday Doors and #CBWC

  1. slfinnell says:

    They built that one to last! Many Missourians felt it had many years of use left. To me, it’s a little creepy lol Excellent post!

  2. K.L. Hale says:

    Thank you for sharing an excellent post of Missouri History. I’d like to do the “ghost tour”. You SURE you don’t want to go? 🙃

  3. Dan Antion says:

    This is a wonderful post, Mary. Many of these prisons were in use way beyond their humanely useful lives. It’s scary to think about being incarcerated there and for the reasons one could end up there – “socialists” – oh my goodness.

    PS – I love it when people tag Cee’s and this challenge!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      I didn’t include it in my post, but they eventually dug up what is called “Centennial Cells” which were early segregation cells. The lower left-hand photo in the gallery is part of those cells. It would have been inhumanely horrible to spend even a day in there. When people today complain about how hard life is…well, it had better be harder than that.

      • Dan Antion says:

        We toured Old Newgate Prison, here in CT. It was a copper mine that they decided to use as a prison. Deplorable conditions. It’s hard to imagine people thinking it was OK to treat prisoners like that.

  4. Ally Bean says:

    Interesting place to visit, but I’m with you about a ghost tour during the evening hours. No thank you. Tickled with your purchase in the gift shop.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      As a child, I hated it when mom asked me to go in the basement and get something from the pantry at night. There were lights, but it still creeped me out. So, I bought something else – a small wooden billy club key chain, which now serves as a fruit muddler for my brandy old fashioned. A more appropriate use I think… 😉

  5. murisopsis says:

    Very creepy! We geocached in the city and drove past the site (after it was vacated but before tours) and there was no way I’d want to go in there – for any reason!!

    • bikerchick57 says:

      At first, I didn’t know if I wanted to take a prison tour since I worked in a prison for three years. But we walked around the prison museum at the tourist center first, so I was able to focus on the history and enjoy the tour that way. The disrepair adds to the creepiness, so I just say go during the day and be thankful we have a much better life than some of those inmates did.

  6. quiall says:

    The black-and-white pictures are exceptional. I cannot even begin to imagine what their lies must have been like. Nowadays prisons are more like country clubs because we don’t want to upset people who break the law.

    • bikerchick57 says:

      Thanks for the positive comment about the photos, Pam. The aura of the prison called for black and white photos. Not all prisons are like country clubs. We have at least two prisons in Wisconsin that were built in the late 1800’s and I’ve been inside one of them. Not a place I would want to serve out a sentence.

  7. memadtwo says:

    Thanks for all this history. I think it would be hard to make a prison cosy, but one would hope for conditions that are at least humane. The black and white photos are just right. (K)

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