Deemed by Time magazine as the “Bloodiest 47 Acres in America,” Missouri State Penitentiary was in operation for over 180 years, until 2004, when it was officially closed. It is the oldest prison west of the Mississippi and over the years it gained notoriety for being one of the most violent in the United States.
Situated in Jefferson City, Missouri, the prison has become a major tourist attraction since it closed some 13 years ago, offering history tours that are sometimes led by former inmates who will gladly answer any of your questions.
Things were not that upbeat 181 years ago when a man named Wilson Edison stepped through the doors of the prison to become the first inmate of Missouri State Penitentiary. Soon after his arrival, about 2,000 other criminals joined him and this would be the average number of inmates for many years. However, about a century later, Missouri State Penitentiary became the largest prison in the United States, housing over 5,000 inmates.
The history of the penitentiary is closely connected with Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri. Jefferson City was chosen as the capital in 1822, but about a decade later, other towns made serious attempts to obtain the status and it became clear that something had to be done so that Jefferson City would remain the seat of Missouri government.
Governor John Miller came up with the perfect solution for the problem when in 1831 he suggested the construction of a maximum security state penitentiary in the town, hoping that this would cement its position as capital. In 1833, the legislature appropriated $25,000 for the purpose and by 1836 the Missouri State Penitentiary was open for “business.”
Housing so many prisoners, including some of the most notorious criminals from across the entire country, meant that there was no escape from the fact that the prison would become one of the most dangerous facilities in the United States.
During the 181 years of functioning as a prison, a great number of inmates were executed, as the state of Missouri had the death penalty. Between 1937 and 1989, a total of 40 inmates, including a woman named Bonnie Brown Heady, were executed in the Penitentiary Gas Chamber, constructed by none other than the inmates themselves.
Violence and riots became a regular part of the life of the prisoners, meaning that once inside no one was safe, including the guards of the prison whose lives were under constant threat. Many of these riots ended tragically with numerous murders and a few escapes, but none of them was as horrible as the one in 1954.
September 22, 1954, started off as any other day in the prison. This changed when two of the inmates managed to lure two guards into their cell. Next thing you know, they overpowered them, took the keys, and started releasing other inmates. Soon the prisoners set fire to everything they could, creating a level of chaos never before seen within the walls of the prison. Reinforcements were called in, and they immediately opened fire in order to prevent further chaos and any escape attempts. Four inmates were killed and around 50 more were injured. The damage caused by the deadly riot was estimated to be $5 million.
Over the years, many men and women were imprisoned in Missouri State Penitentiary, yet some names stand out. Anarchist Emma Goldman spent some time there but was released after she led a rebellion against unfair treatment in the prison.
The legendary American boxer and heavyweight champion Charles “Sonny” Liston served time in Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery. It was there that he was introduced to boxing and about a year after his release in 1952, he turned pro and by the next year had won the National Heavyweight Championship.
In 1959, Missouri State Penitentiary welcomed a man named James Earl Ray, who was about to serve 20 years in the penitentiary for the robbery of a grocery store in St. Louis. However, in 1967, he managed to escape by hiding in a bread truck. About a year later, James Earl Ray changed history when he killed civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In 2004, when the penitentiary closed, it was transformed into a museum, and as mentioned above, it is one of the greatest tourist attractions in Missouri. Apart from the fascinating history tours, Missouri State Penitentiary also offers ghost tours and hunts, photography sessions, and overnight investigations.