A Tour of the Missouri State Penitentiary
It’s been called the “Bloodiest 47 acres in America” by Time Magazine. It’s been the subject of many paranormal investigations. Its doors were open to inmates from 1836 to 2004, making it the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River. And now, the Missouri State Penitentiary has opened its doors once again – for tours. Most importantly private photo tours. When my friend Kathy and I heard this announced at our photo club meeting we were immediately intrigued. Well, maybe a little more than intrigued, we were pretty much on a mission. Halloween was approaching and the tours were filling up fast. Getting in on a private photo tour before they shut down for the winter was our number one priority. I have to give Kathy kudos on this one, she took the lead on the event planning and did a fantastic job.
On a crisp autumn morning, the week before Halloween we began our voyage to Jefferson City, the capital of the great state of Missouri, to see where some of the worst citizens society has ever known called home. Pretty Boy Floyd and Sonny Liston were inmates at one time and James Earl Ray escaped the prison in a supply truck a year before assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. Forty of the inmates who died within those walls were put to death in the institution’s gas chamber. Haunted or not, this place was going to be downright creepy.
We arrived on the Amtrak train in Jeff City several hours before our tour was scheduled, which was good because it was at least a mile uphill trek to the hotel and we were dragging all of our camera gear as well as our luggage. We toyed with the idea of calling a cab but decided we probably could use the exercise and soldiered on.
Entrance to the Missouri State Penitentiary
Later that afternoon as we were walking towards the other side of town, we began to see the stone edifice of the prison off in the distance. As we approached, it cast a very looming and imposing shadow. I could never imagine what it would feel like to close that distance under different circumstances and be faced with a 30 year stay instead of just a three hour tour.
During our un-incarcerated stay, we were allowed into several different areas. We started off in the women’s prison, photographing the catwalks and cells. We saw the dark chamber where unruly women had been put into solitary confinement.
Where the women were incarcerated at the Missouri State Penitentiary
Next we were brought to death row where we were introduced to a new guide. Mike had worked at the prison for most of his life and ended his career there as the head warden. Listening to his stories really brought the notorious past to life. Riots, murders, suicides, escapes, executions – all the things that made prison life much less than a walk in the park.
Death Row prison cells
Continuing on from death row, we went to A-hall which is the oldest building on the site, having been opened in 1868 to house post-Civil War criminals. Inmates had painted over most of the windows in the cells in an attempt at climate control during the oppressive Missouri summers. We seemed to be in this building the longest, and there came a point when I just needed to get out into the fresh air. It was depressing and dirty, certainly not a place made for lingering. The atmosphere and the air was dank and stale. How many pictures of cells that had once been occupied by murderers, rapists and thieves did I really need anyway?
A-hall at the Missouri State Penitentiary
Our visit culminated, quite fittingly, at the gas chamber where 40 of the inmates made a more permanent departure. This is a very uncool place with some of the worst juju ever. We saw the benches where the witnesses and members of the press watched as the condemned gasped his last breathe of lethal air. We were even allowed to enter the chamber and sit in the chair if we so chose. I declined that invitation. There was no way I could do that without having nightmares for at least a week.
Gas chamber at the Missouri State Penitentiary
Since ours was a private tour, we had been allowed to walk around each building on our own. While it was interesting, it was also quite disturbing. There were times when we each went our separate ways, photographing different areas, and I found myself standing alone in the prison ruins. Nothing will make me appreciate my freedom more than looking out of a grimy window at a now neglected and overgrown exercise yard, surrounded by high fences topped with coils of barbed wire, and being thankful that I could leave any time I chose. I felt a cold chill wash over me when I wondered what it had been like when it was fully populated with prisoners behind all of the barred cell doors that now stand open.
While I had gone into the penitentiary with the sole intention of getting super cool spooky prison pictures, I left with a new found appreciation for just how wonderful my life is and how fortunate I really am. Being within those walls, roaming the buildings and the grounds, listening to the stories of the horrors that had occurred there, brought me up close and personal with an aspect of our society that I would have preferred to remain ignorant of. This prison may now be an interesting piece of history to visit, but trust me there is not a soul on earth who ever wanted to live there.
Thanks to Mike! Our tour guide and former head prison warden.