When Governor John Miller proposed building a penitentiary in Jefferson City in 1831, it was less about keeping prisoners in place than it was about keeping the state capital in place. Pressure to move Missouri’s capital to another city was mounting, and Miller figured having a prison in Jefferson City would help solidify its status. His plan worked. Construction began in 1834, and two years later the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) received its first inmate, Wilson Eidson of Greene County. The penitentiary went on to hold prisoners for the next 168 years, and when it was decommissioned in 2004, it was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi River.
During the penitentiary’s earliest years, inmates built grand homes for wealthy businessmen; many of which still exist today. Later, inmates constructed parts of the penitentiary itself — including its gas chamber, where 40 prisoners would be executed between 1937 and 1989 — using stone excavated from the prison’s quarry.
In the 1890s, the Missouri State Penitentiary was heralded as one of the country’s most efficient prisons: Inmates were fed and housed for just 11 cents a day. But this efficiency came at a cost. Clean clothes and medical care for inmates were lacking, and working conditions at the prison’s many factories — where inmates made shoes, clothing, soap, brooms and other items — were poor. At the turn of the century MSP housed an average of 2,200 prisoners, and by 1935 that number had more than doubled to 5,300 inmates, making it the largest prison population anywhere in the country.
Inmates made good
Kate Richards O’Hare
Kate Richards O’Hare experienced the prison’s severe conditions firsthand — and it changed the direction of her life’s work. As chairperson of the Socialist Labor Party, O’Hare was no stranger to controversy and advocating for the working class. In 1919, she was charged under the federal Espionage Act and sent to the Missouri State Penitentiary.
While imprisoned, she worked in a factory that enforced unreasonable quotas. She also endured verbal and physical abuse and was barred from speaking to her family. O’Hare was released the next year, but her time at MSP inspired her activism on prison reform. It is O’Hare’s most enduring legacy and her work still affects policies to this day.
Some prisoners rose to fame even as they were behind bars. Not long after he began his three-year sentence in 1923 for attempted robbery, Harry Snodgrass became the piano player for the prison’s Peaceful Village Band. Each Monday, the radio station WOS broadcast from the Missouri State Capitol’s dome, and the Peaceful Village Band were regular — and soon wildly popular — guests.
The gig made Snodgrass one of the nation’s most famous radio stars and earned him the nickname “King of the Ivories.” More than 1,000 people turned out for his final performance as an inmate and donated money so he wouldn’t leave prison penniless. Snodgrass joined the vaudeville circuit, recorded multiple albums and received a full pardon from Missouri governor Sam Baker in 1926.
Charles “Sonny” Liston
Other prisoners didn’t know their own innate talent until it was drawn out by prison staff. After being charged with robbery and larceny in 1950, Charles “Sonny” Liston was sentenced to five years at the Missouri State Penitentiary. The prison’s recreation director/chaplain suggested that he try boxing. Soon Liston was besting professionals — one of whom reportedly begged him to stop after sparring for just two practice rounds.
The publisher of a St. Louis newspaper became his manager and convinced prison officials to grant Liston parole. MSP’s board of probation and parole agreed, and he was released in 1952. Liston competed in the national amateur championships the next year and in 1962 he won the world heavyweight title in Chicago.
J.J. Maloney, who had been convicted of armed robbery and murder and sentenced to four life terms, spent his time in solitary confinement at MSP educating himself and writing poetry. His work caught the eye of the Kansas City Star’s literary editor, and in 1967 Maloney started writing book reviews and poetry for the newspaper.
After serving 13 years, he was released on parole in 1972 and joined the Star’s staff the next day. Maloney went on to become an award-winning investigative reporter for his stories about prison and the Mafia, founded Crime Magazine, and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize five times.
Experience the scene of the crimes yourself
But even amid these inmates’ encouraging comeback stories, the Missouri State Penitentiary was also the scene of untold horrors, including a vicious riot in 1954 that left four prisoners dead, dozens more injured and buildings in smoldering ruins. Time magazine later called MSP “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.”
More of the prison’s secrets were uncovered in 1985 when construction crews found six cells dating back to the 1840s. Known as the Centennial Cells, the penitentiary’s oldest known structures have been carefully preserved and are now accessible to the public on various MSP tours, including a three-hour history tour. Appropriate for ages 10 and up, this in-depth exploration costs $30 and takes visitors through the prison’s women’s unit, Death Row and gas chamber. (A two-hour tour for ages six and up is $20 per person.) Other tours include photography tours, ghost tours, and a mystery tour led by a tour guide and former MSP inmate who will discuss daily life at the penitentiary.
The ghost tours are among the Missouri State Penitentiary’s most popular. “They will take you to some different locations inside the prison than the history tours,” says Alexandra Bobbitt, of the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The guides will give you the history of the facility but more as it pertains to the unusual and paranormal experiences of former inmates and our own tour staff.” These tours range from a two-hour ghost tour ($30) to a three-hour ghost hunt ($40) to overnight paranormal investigations ($75 to $100, up to eight hours). Visitors can also see a replica cell inside the museum at the nearby Colonel Darwin W. Marmaduke House.
Bobbitt recommends making tour reservations ahead of time and notes that MSP is taking extra steps to promote a safe experience during the pandemic. “We encourage any guests coming for a tour to wear a mask and discourage anyone from coming if they are not feeling well prior to their visit. We also have hand sanitizer stations in the different buildings,” she says.
To learn more about the Missouri State Penitentiary and how to book a tour, visit MissouriPenTours.com.