Missouri State Penitentiary
(Kansas City, MO)
Missouri State Penitentiary
If you are in the area of Jefferson City, Missouri and like unusual, historical tours you must plan on getting a reservation to do a “hard hat” tour the original Missouri State Penitentiary located at 115 Lafayette Street in Jefferson City, MO, just a few blocks from the Missouri State Capital.
When I had the opportunity to take a tour of the prison recently I had no idea what to expect, but thought it would be an interesting place to visit and photograph. Once I left the prison some three hours later I was amazed at how much I had had enjoyed the tour and wished it had not ended so soon.
The Missouri State Penitentiary is a fascinating place to visit. The prison was originally opened in 1836 during Andrew Jackson’s second term as President. To add a little more perspective to that date this was the same year the Battle of the Alamo was fought. The prison operated continuously from 1836 until 2004 when it was closed by the state. At the time of its closure it was the oldest continuously operating prison west of the Mississippi. In 1888 it was listed as one of the largest prisons in the world.
While certainly not as well-known as some other U.S. Prisons such as Alcatraz, Folsom Prison and others, the Missouri State Penitentiary was notorious in its own right. It had already been housing prisoners for 100 years when Alcatraz accepted its first inmates. Overcrowding led to riots in the 1950’s and multiple assaults and killings in the 1960’s during which time the Missouri State Penitentiary was one of the most violent prisons in America. That led Time Magazine to name the Missouri State Penitentiary the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” in a 1967 article.
Tours of the prison are operated by the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau but it is not clear how much longer this unique and special historical site will remain open to the public. Since the prison was closed in 2004 decay has rapidly set in giving the prison that much more of a “spooky” setting. Already some of the buildings have been torn down to make way for new development and a few other newer buildings are scheduled to follow. Hopefully the lawmakers of Missouri and the citizens of Jefferson City will recognize this historical treasure for what it is and be able to preserve the key historical buildings and settings for future generations to visit.
There are a variety of tours available and each features knowledgeable guides who share the history of the prison and point out cells of famous inmates such as heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd and James Earl Ray, who escaped from the prison in 1967, a year before he would assassinate Martin Luther King. Typical tours include the control center, the upper yard and different cell blocks or housing units. Cellblock A is the oldest remaining building at the prison having been built in 1868 and also features the “dungeon cells” which were used during some of the earliest days of the prison. The final stop on the typical tour is the gas chamber where 40 men and women were executed.
Because of the conditions at the prison no children under than 10 are allowed. The tours are also not handicap accessible and warnings are given to those with medical conditions that could be affected by the environment. All persons participating in the tour must sign a waiver of liability and people 18 or younger must have a parent or guardian’s signature on the waiver.
All tours require a reservation and there are several different lengths of tours including some special “paranormal” and “ghost” tours that take place at night by flashlight. I would classify the Missouri State Penitentiary as a “must see” for the person looking for an unusual and fascinating historical tour.
Tour information is available at the Prison's webpage: http://www.missouripentours.com/msp.html
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