By Jill Draper
When a guide locks the entrance door behind you with a bang, your heart can’t help sinking a bit. The echoing thud, the gloomy hallway, the stand-and-wait instructions all offer a dim sense of what thousands of inmates probably felt as they crossed the threshold of the massive Missouri State Penitentiary in years past.
Of course, now it’s a bona fide tourist attraction in Jefferson City that advertises in magazines. Of course, you’re just here for a two-hour tour. Of course, they’ll let you out at the end. Push that sinking feeling aside and head for the daylight of the courtyard.
Once outside in the autumn sunshine, you’re in luck. Your guide Bill Green worked here as a guard for 30 years; your other guide Fred Brown lived here as a convict for 17 years. They have lots of stories, but the first thing they say is a warning.
“Do not shut any of the doors. You will be locked in for at least 10 hours. This has happened at least four times. Seriously, do not shut the doors.”
You hope this doesn’t include the entrance door because someone definitely shut that. Then you realize the warning is partly directed at A-Hall, one of the oldest areas of the prison complex. This four-story building is crisscrossed by catwalks connecting 150 cells. Visitors are free to explore all levels, enter individual cells and pose for photos. Just don’t shut any doors because only a handful of the penitentiary’s 900 original keys remain.
The prison was decommissioned in 2004 and the unheated interiors have deteriorated. Peeling paint and plaster hang in forlorn shreds from walls and ceilings, but living conditions once were nicer.
“You can’t believe how fancy these cells were,” says Green, who calls A-Hall the honor dorm. One prisoner had a 40-gallon aquarium accented with blue sheets and filled with tropical fish. Others created murals on their walls. There were pool tables, TVs and barber chairs in the communal areas.
“That doesn’t mean they were all good little boys,” remarks Green, “but they knew how to jail.”
Brown knew how to jail from the start. When he entered prison at age 16 on a felony charge, the first thing he did was buy cigarettes. The second thing he did was trade them for a knife for protection, especially from becoming another prisoner’s “wife.” He learned to hide knives in various places—at a diagonal slant inside a prison mattress or beneath the base of a toilet where they could be retrieved by pulling on pieces of dental floss tied to the handles. He was released 17 years later at age 33.
Brown lived in A-Hall and leads the tour group down basement steps, past a shower room and through a dark, narrow hall where he points out a rusty door that hasn’t been opened for decades, maybe centuries. “Nobody knows what’s in there,” he says.
A bit further are a series of eight windowless, stone floor cells from the 1800s. The guides call them “tombs.” Each contained one bucket for water and one for bathroom needs, and meals were delivered every two or three days. Some inmates went insane or blind if they didn’t die. One, JB Johnson, wrote a book after he got out titled, “Buried Alive or 18 Years in the Missouri State Penitentiary.”
During the tour you can opt to experience a taste of dungeon life when you step inside these cells and the guides flick the lights off for an uneasy moment of pitch black darkness. Back outside, they direct the group to another building where you can pose in more modern cells occupied by Pretty Boy Floyd, a Depression-era bank robber, and James Earl Ray, who was doing time for a robbery when he escaped in a bread truck and later was convicted of killing Martin Luther King Jr.
The 47-acre prison complex opened in 1836 and was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. At peak population it grew to the size of a small city with over 5,000 men and women. They helped run factories for soap, shoes, clothing, tobacco, furniture and car tags. There was a five-story hospital, a dairy farm, baseball field and quarry.
The tour ends at the gas chambers where 40 people were executed, including one prisoner who helped build the chambers.
“There’s more history here than any other prison in the country,” observes Green, who says the once bustling complex has seen its share of murders, fires, riots and unmarked graves.
Now it’s a ghost town. Some visitors have reported apparitions, unusual sounds and unseen entities. Whether you believe in hauntings or not, there’s a consensus: If any place has ghosts, this is surely it.
The penitentiary is open from March through November and offers history tours, photography tours and ghost tours. All tickets include free admission to the Marmaduke House across the street, which showcases artifacts and details about prison life. See missouripentours.com.