“Older and Meaner:” the Missouri State Penitentiary

July 25, 2021

Missouri State Penitentiary presents a stern exterior on Lafayette Street in Jefferson City, MO.

Even though I grew up in Missouri, I feel I still have a lot to learn about the state. Visiting my brother in the summer of 2021 was joyful because it was my first time to return to Missouri since before the pandemic, but it was also a cool opportunity to learn more about the state capitol at Jefferson City. When Tom suggested we take the two-hour “history tour” at Missouri State Penitentiary, I jumped at the chance.

As we drove to the prison for our 3:30 PM visit, the clouds let loose with a sudden shower. I was grateful that we didn’t get drenched as we ran for the prison entrance, but the rain picked up considerably once we were inside. When the entrance doors were mechanically closed and bolted by the control office, they added a more substantial barrier to exit than the heavy rain. We were inside for the duration.

This control center for the main entrance was our backdrop for the early part of the tour since the rain impeded our wandering outside.

In the nineteenth century, penitentiaries represented a substantial change in how justice was pursued in the United States, built in the belief that prisoners could be isolated from negative influences and taught the habits of hard work. The facilities at Auburn, New York and Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, constructed in the first half of the nineteenth century, set the model for this reform of offenders. Missouri State Penitentiary was crafted to follow the “Industry, Obedience, and Silence” model of the Auburn System.

As powerful as these walls were, they were unable to withstand an EF-3 tornado.

Why is Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) significant? As detailed in J.P. Rasmussen’s book, the decision to build the first penitentiary west of the Mississippi River at Jefferson City was a stake in the ground to anchor the capital to that site. The first state capitol building in Jefferson City had only been completed in 1826, and more established communities in the state had agitated to abandon the project of creating a new city for the capital. By keeping offenders at a new MSP, the state’s counties would not have the burden of holding them in lesser facilities. Critically, if the offenders were housed at a central facility, they could labor in secure workshops. In effect, Jefferson City would be built on the profits of industries that could harness poorly-paid offender labor. The initial MSP was created by an 1833 act of the Missouri legislature and was completed only two years later. After a series of expansions, the MSP drew offenders from several states, eventually housing 5200 offenders (roughly ten times as many as Alcatraz). After remaining in service for 168 years, the MSP closed its doors in 2004.

Our tour guide was concerned about the rain, since he wanted to show us the oldest building still standing at MSP. For thirty minutes, he extemporized on the history of the prison, keeping an eye on the rain outside. He discussed some of the most famous offenders held here, such as James Early Ray. He explained that the building we stood in (Housing Unit I) represented a real innovation, housing female offenders separately from male. I would have liked to have learned more about Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman, women who were imprisoned from 1917 to 1920 for blocking the draft of troops for World War I. As observed by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, “Well-behaved women rarely make history.”

Housing Unit 4 (1868) has an impressive exterior, but we could not visit the inside due to storm damage.

It is worth mentioning that the oldest building still standing on the site was built in 1868, three decades after the prison came into existence. A hint of what existed before was discovered when an exercise yard was built for one of the other prison halls. Workers were able to uncover a line of prison cells dating from the 1840s; our tour, however, allowed us only to see them through a half-opened window a dozen meters away. Housing Unit 4 (1868), the oldest building still standing, is still pretty impressive, though we were not able to see the inside. A powerful EF-3 tornado ripped through Jefferson City in 2019, and it left gaps in the powerful walls surrounding the prison and removed the roof of Housing Unit 4. It is unclear when enough funds will be collected to repair the damages since the site is expected to cover its own maintenance expenses from tour ticket prices.

Long may your memory endure, Mike the Cat!

I am always a sucker for stories about cats, and I particularly liked the story our guide related about Mike, a feline who lived at the penitentiary from 1953 to 1974. Mike served as a “mule” for cigarettes, with a feeding schedule that took him to each hall of the penitentiary campus. His services were aided by a set of saddle bags crafted by prisoners to match his fur.

These large towers on Housing Unit 3 feed the ventilation system for the building. My brother appears in the red shirt at lower left.

Since Housing Unit 4 was unavailable, our tour emphasized Housing Unit 3 (1914). Just a few parts of the building had displays to help us understand the site. The prison cell of James Earl Ray was an early stop on our walk. A substantial display addressed the 1953 double execution for the kidnappers and murderers of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease. The guide played up the mystery of $300,000 ransom money that was given to the kidnappers but never recovered.

These ranks of cells seem more bleak now that they get less maintenance.

At several points in the tour, the guide made “spooky” allusions to ghost sightings in the facility, attesting that he had seen them himself. At one cell within Housing Unit 3, they had even posted three photographs purporting to be ghost sightings, though they looked like ordinary flash artifacts to me. The guide complained that the most compelling of the three photographs had been stolen by a guest. He also prevented the guests from walking down a corridor near which he had observed a ghostly man on a toilet. These comments seemed a bit upsetting to a child near me on the tour. I tried to keep my eye-rolls to myself. I have no idea how the people trailing behind us by ten meters were able to hear these ghost stories; the explanations could only have been audible to 25% of the group, at most.

The Missouri State Archives have plenty of photos to document this prison’s history.

September 22nd, 1954, was one of the darkest nights in the history of the MSP. A group of offenders sought to retaliate against an informer who was being protected by having been moved to the death row cells. After two guards were jumped and their keys stolen, a group of prisoners freed several more cells of offenders; at that time, the MSP held 2575 offenders in total. A major riot resulted in a fire that consumed the automobile license plate shop and damaged other buildings. One of the two informers sought by the rioters died under sledgehammers stolen from the shop, while the other survived. The overwhelmed prison guards were soon buttressed by 100 police from St. Louis and members of the 138th Infantry of the Missouri National Guard. In total, the riot lasted 14 hours. Four offenders were killed, and thirty-four were injured. Four officers of the law were injured. Seven offenders were given life sentences for their actions in the riot.

This area was once chocablock with industrial facilities powered by convict labor.

At the close of the tour, we returned to our cars and drove around to the state motor pool on the east side of the facility. We were allowed through a security fence there to see a large grassy field surrounded by the walls on the river and the eastern end. This pleasant meadow represents the former site of the factories that benefited from prisoner labor. The historic photograph on display documents a clothing factory, a tag plant, a furniture factory, a soap factory, a shoe factory, and the “I-Hall” industrial area. Let’s be completely clear: these factories gravitated to Jefferson City because free men and women required higher wages than the industrialists wanted to pay. The offenders were not paid free-market wages for their efforts, and their principal route for spending money was in the prison commissary. In effect, the prison got paid twice for this system; the first payment was the agreement by which the prison agreed to lease out its laborers, and the second payment came from their laborers spending the “wages” they received. I believe it is pertinent to remember that Missouri was a slave state at the time MSP was constructed, and the use of physical coercion to ensure every prisoner was working in the factories would not have raised an eyebrow. Jefferson City was established through the labor of incarcerated offenders.

My Aunt Joyce talks with my brother Tom in front of the gas chamber for Missouri State Penitentiary.

Of course, we were brought to that area not to see the former industrial site but rather the gas chamber. Missouri executed a total of 40 offenders at this location, with all but one dying by inhaling cyanide gas– the most recent died by lethal injection instead. I was a bit horrified that people wanted photographs of themselves sitting in the chairs of the gas chamber, but we all make our own decisions. I was surprised to learn that the bricks in the path leading to the chamber were manufactured by A.P. Green, the grandfather of former Senator “Kit” Bond. I thought the most poignant aspect of the gas chamber was a panel showing photographs of each person executed there.

When historian Mark Schrieber was asked in 2009 to compare the MSP to other prisons, he simply described it as “older and meaner.” This quote matches a concern I had with the banter on the tour. Our guide explained that the Auburn System would allow a corrections officer to beat a prisoner who looked him in the face or spoke out of turn; our guide’s companion, a current corrections officer, said it was “unfortunate” that this was no longer allowed. When a guest suggested that people would pay money to see a convict executed, the guide and his companion laughed. These are just two examples of ways that the tour script seemed to dehumanize the offenders who had been incarcerated at MSP.

Missouri State Penitentiary is an interesting tour, and it certainly gave me a lot to think about for America’s prison system in the present, not just the past. I hope that on my next visit to Jefferson City I can see the museum that is housed in the former Warden’s Residence!

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