Tag Archives: Missouri

“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!

Kansas City fountains and the people they memorialize

I was perusing the University of the Western Cape Library when I discovered a pair of books celebrating the architecture and arts of my home town, Kansas City. I felt so fortunate to have a taste of home, half a world away! I wanted to share a bit of what I learned from Fountains of Kansas City: a History and Love Affair, by Sherry Piland and Ellen J. Ugoccioni. Specifically, who are the Kansas Citians we celebrate with our most elaborate fountains?

Thomas H. Swope (1827-1909) and Alfred Benjamin (1859-1923)

The grounds of Swope Park were donated to the city in 1896. This 1911 map from the Kansas City Public Library illustrates the original size of the park.

I decided to group together Swope and Benjamin to reflect their shared resting place. When Swope Park was first dedicated as a public park in 1896, the land was four miles south of the city limits. Today, the park falls within the I-435 loop that surrounds the Kansas City Metroplex. The park has gradually gained more amenities over time. It is home to Starlight Theatre, the Kansas City Zoo, and the Lakeside Nature Center.
The area had only been a park for thirteen years, though, when the donor of the lands passed.

Thomas Swope came to Kansas City in his 30th year. He proved to be a very shrewd land investor. On April 16, 1857, Swope re-sold a valuable tract of land to the city (near 10th Street and Grand Avenue), one of the early expansions of the city’s original boundaries. Despite Swope’s involvement in large-scale land investment, he remained a very private man, eventually moving to occupy a room in a family mansion at Independence, Missouri. I am sure he would have been mortified that his death in 1909 became such a public scandal. Dr. Bennett Clark Hyde, the husband of his niece, had served as Swope’s doctor in his final illness, and the man was brought to trial for the murder of Thomas Swope. Three trials for Thomas Swope’s murder followed. Thomas Swope’s body only arrived at its memorial in Swope Park in 1918, and the memorial construction continued in three different phases of construction until 1931. It incorporates a mausoleum and colonnade (begun in 1917), a fountain and balustrade (begun in 1922), and a gate and stairway (begun in 1930). Rob Scott‘s photograph of the memorial appears at the top of this post.

This statue at the center of the Alfred Benjamin Memorial celebrates his generosity. Photo from kcfountains.wordpress.com

Alfred Benjamin came to Kansas City with his family in 1880 to launch a branch of the Abernathy Furniture Company. Benjamin rose to prominence, serving as vice-president of the company, and in 1905 he became president of the United Jewish Charities. Benjamin demonstrated a clear desire to help those in poverty, regardless of religion or race, and he donated a substantial portion of his own income to the cause. At his death in 1923, both Catholic and Jewish leaders spoke in his memory. Four years after his death, the memorial beside the road to Starlight Theatre was completed. The statue and fountain illustrate the principle he lived by, that those with much should contribute to the welfare of those who don’t have as much.

James F. Pendergast (1856-1911)

The Pendergast Machine dominated Kansas City politics for the first four decades of the twentieth century. “Alderman Jim” set the stage for his brother Tom’s domination, serving nine terms as alderman on the city council. His populist political style won him praise from the Kansas City Times obituary writer: “his generosity, his big-heartedness, his readiness to do favors for the ‘boys’…” By the time his memorial was dedicated in 1913, however, Prohibition had changed the appraisal of Jim Pendergast; his ownership of a saloon made him a participant in “an unnecessary business and a bad one” (Kansas City Journal-Post).

This image of the James Pendergast Memorial in its contemporary location comes from Flatland KC, the digital magazine of KCPT.

It may be unsurprising, then, that his memorial has had a checkered history. The monument shows him seated in a throne-like chair with flanking statues of youths with animals. The memorial started life in Mulkey Square Park, south of W. Twelfth Street, but the 1965 Crosstown Freeway project put it in storage for a while before it was replaced in the reshaped park. Whether James Pendergast was confused with his brother Tom or for another reason, the memorial has been a frequent target of vandals and thieves. Within a few years of its 1913 dedication, people had swiped the two flanking youthful figures (recast in 1916). In March 1933, the arms of the flanking figures were cut away. More damage followed, so that even the bronze panels showing the accomplishments of Pendergast were removed. Despite these challenges, the James Pendergast Memorial has been reconstituted. In 1990, the memorial was shifted to its current location at W. Ninth and Jefferson.

William Volker (1859-1947)

The vocation of William Volker would not seem hugely profitable, but his business in wholesaling picture frames led to a business selling window shades and soon other home furnishings. The Volker company eventually was able to open branches throughout most Western cities. Holding aside one million dollars for his wife’s benefit, he otherwise contributed tremendous sums of money to philanthropy on the large scale and to individuals. William Volker granted the land on which the main campus of University of Missouri– Kansas City was constructed, and he also launched the Research Medical Center.

This statue of the William Volker Memorial Fountain celebrates St. Martin of Tours. Photograph by Donald L. Smith

Piland and Uggucioni spend twelve pages of their book describing the development of the ambitious fountain celebrating William Volker. The puzzling character of Swedish sculptor Carl Milles delighted me. The principal subject of the fountain is Martin of Tours on horseback; the saint is known for having sliced his cloak in half to help a destitute person. Milles’ sense of whimsy really comes through in his sculpting a wristwatch on one of the angels! Carl Milles died in 1955, so he was present only in spirit for the fountain to be inaugurated at Theis Park in 1958. I have frequently driven past this enormous fountain in its second location on the south bank of Brush Creek. You can be sure I will stop to get a closer look the next time I visit my home town!

J.C. Nichols (1880-1950)

I could have sworn that the last fountain in this post was simply “the Kansas City Fountain” or “the Plaza Fountain,” but this probably reflects just how important J.C. Nichols was to the development of our city’s design. Many architects in our area were influenced by the City Beautiful movement of the 1890s and 1900s. J.C. Nichols was a pioneer in designing urban projects that make room for automobiles. In 1908, the Kansas City Star gave a useful summary of his intent with what became the Country Club Plaza:

A general plan has been adopted by which boulevards, winding roads, stone walls, rustic bridges and circular drives, shelter houses, systematic planting of trees and shrubs, the creation of private parks, the treatment of running streams, work out into a harmonious whole. The old method of laying out in squares regardless of topography is abandoned and the property is so divided as to permit intelligent treatment of hillside or lowland, thus escaping any ugly unsightly cuts or fills.

Kansas City Star, April 28, 1908, quoted in G. Ehrlich, KCMO: An Architectural History 1826-1990

The Plaza is an obvious place to visit for almost anyone who comes to Kansas City for the first time. Unlike most parts of the city, the Plaza has a very unified Spanish architectural style, taking its pattern from architect Edward Delk. The 1923 Tower and Mill Creek buildings set the stamp that would influence the design of all other commercial buildings nearby. By 1967, Kansas City had become “sister city” to Seville, and it constructed a small replica of the Giralda tower at the Plaza.

This image of the J.C. Nichols fountain, featuring the Giralda replica, was made available through Wikimedia Commons.

I was quite surprised, then, to discover that the iconic Plaza fountain celebrating the life of J.C. Nichols was in fact created for the Mackay “Harbor Hill” Estate in New York by Henri Greber in 1910! The vandalized and dismantled fountain was purchased by the Nichols family in 1952, just two years after the death of J.C. Nichols. A local sculptor, Herman Frederick Simon, created plaster models to replace the heads of the two children riding dolphins. A monument for the Daughters of the Confederacy was moved from the Plaza site to make room for the new fountain. Construction could only begin once the necessary funds had been raised, and so dedication of the fountain could not take place until May of 1960. In 2014-2015, the fountain was refurbished at the cost of a quarter million dollars. Two months after this blog was originally posted, the Black Lives Matter protests in the aftermath of George Perry Floyd, Jr.’s death elevated public awareness of J.C. Nichols’ efforts to segregate neighborhoods, making his homes available only to white families. In June of 2020, the mayor of Kansas City and its Parks and Recreation committees were debating plans to rename this fountain!


Naturally, these are just a few of the 200+ fountains offered by the City of Fountains. I love that some of the people who shaped Kansas City have been memorialized in this way. I feel some embarrassment that I haven’t also highlighted memorials remembering women, such as the American War Mothers Memorial,the Women’s Leadership Fountain, the Jane Hemingway Gordon Fountain, or the Mary Fraser Memorial Fountain. Our city was shaped by many people, and the joyful splash of running water can help us to celebrate all!

Kansas City origins: the bend in the river

The 1803 Louisiana Purchase nearly doubled the area of the United States. Settlers were soon on their way west to claim farms and trading sites throughout the Purchase, often using the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers to speed their travel. This blog post will examine the settlements near the bend of the Missouri River to answer a basic question: why did Kansas City become the largest city in Missouri?

Missouri as a launching pad

Today, we have any number of options for long-distance travel. It would seem no remarkable feat to travel to a city many states away by jet, and reaching another city in the same state is generally a simple matter of driving a car for several hours. In the days before railroads, however, rivers were necessary for speedy bulk transport. The pioneers who established trade routes to Spanish / Mexican territory, Mormons who sought a place to practice their religion in peace, French fur traders who needed to ship their goods east, gold miners bound for California, and others saw the Missouri River as the natural route. The National Park Service illustrates this neatly with their map of the National Trails System.

Zoom into NPS National Trails System Map. Mormon trail (yellow), California Trail (red), Oregon Trail (brown), and Pony Express (blue) overlap through Nebraska and Wyoming.

In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase, the federal government sent cavalry from St. Charles to construct Fort Osage near the Missouri River to extend its reach into the vast region and to protect a “factory” for the fur trade. The Osage Indians conducted an active trade with the fort, and they were willing to host missionaries from the United Foreign Missionary Society, which operated the Harmony Mission until 1837. The factory at Fort Osage, however, competed with the private fur trade, and it shut its doors in 1827. While Fort Osage was the first American outpost in the area, it did not nucleate a city.

This view of the rebuilt Fort Osage is from the riverside, courtesy of MormonHistoricSites.org

The French fur traders had established networks across the Purchase in advance of its sale to the United States, and they continued their activities after its annexation. The Chouteau family ran the American Fur Company from St. Louis, Missouri. The family used formal marriages to solidify their grip on the trade, and they frequently established common-law marriages with women from native American groups to solidify trust relationships with them. Francois Gesseau and Bereniece Chouteau may reasonably be called the first settlers of what is now Kansas City, arriving in 1821. After his initial fur trading camp was washed away in the floods of 1826, Francois established a home and warehouse on higher ground at the Randolph Bluffs. “Chouteau’s Warehouse” became a key depot and boat-to-wagon transition site. While a dozen other families joined in the settlement, it remained largely a commercial site, growing in value especially after the Fort Osage factory was discontinued.

Five early settlements each contributed to forming the Kansas City Metro.

For the first few decades, Independence, Missouri looked like it would be the dominant city of the region. As the eastern terminus of the lucrative Santa Fe Trail, Independence was just six miles from the Blue Mills landing on the Missouri River. The trail continued past Santa Fe to the south to reach Chihuahua, Mexico, allowing traders to circumvent the high taxes of naval trade at the port of Veracruz. Samuel C. Owens and others recognized that “traders needed a town where supplies and livestock could be purchased and freight could be transferred to and from St. Louis by river, a town where they might finalize legal transactions and assemble goods for freighting to Mexico, and where they could monitor each other’s business interests” [O’Brien p. 34]. Three factors interfered with the continuing growth of Independence. Their interaction with Mormon immigrants from the east rapidly became disastrous (1827-1833). The Mormons fled across the Missouri River to Liberty in Clay County, where the refugees found less-than-hospitable hosts. The primary school that I attended in Liberty was named for Alexander Doniphan, a lawyer, soldier, and legislator who agreed to represent the Mormons in court. The disputes with Spain and the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 compromised the value the Santa Fe trail represented. The Bleeding Kansas Border War between 1854 and 1861 had a heavy toll on the region, to say nothing of the American Civil War. Today, Independence has become the fourth largest city in the state rather than the first.

In many respects, Westport was an attempt to swipe Independence’s role as the trail head for Santa Fe. If one could unload steamers even closer to the bend of the Missouri River than at Independence, a couple of days could be cut from the wagon travel time. In 1833, John C. McCoy decided to divide the lands around his trading post into lots for sale. The site, approximately four miles south of Chouteau’s Warehouse, lay along the trail from Independence to the southwest. Growth at Westport was sluggish at first, but then the 1837 Platte Purchase altered the Missouri state line to follow the Missouri River rather than head directly north; previously, this wedge of land had been used to re-home Native Americans from the east, and now they were being removed again.

1865 etching of City of Kansas, soon after its incorporation. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Gabriel Prudhomme, one of the settlers at Chouteau’s Warehouse, had acquired some premium property at the site including a rocky landing on the riverside. His untimely death in 1831 resulted in a sale of his lands, and the buyers were fourteen investors who bought it to create the “Town of Kansas” (among them was John McCoy). In effect, the Prudhomme estate purchase made it possible to link Chouteau’s Warehouse with Westport. An 1838 survey established a set of lots for the expanded city, but a variety of mistakes led to contested claims. After a powerful flood of the Missouri River in 1844, the first brick buildings in the city were constructed in 1845, with the last of the initial lots selling in 1847. In 1850, the Town of Kansas was finally incorporated. Only three years later, it was renamed the City of Kansas. By contrast, nearly forty years had passed before the name was changed to “Kansas City!”