The ghosts of the past still linger within the walls of the Missouri State Penitentiary. The prison’s dark history is still evident even today, drawing thousands of visitors from around the world to tour its grounds. As one of the largest prisons in the United States, it is also one of the oldest prisons, being 100 years older than Alcatraz. The prison held 4,900 inmates at its peak.
In 1831, John Miller, then governor of Missouri, suggested a prison be built in order to keep Jefferson City as the capital. By 1833, the House of Representatives had passed a bill which allowed for the construction to begin in 1834.
The prison took its first male inmate, Wilson Eidson, in 1836 and its first female inmate, Amelia Eddy, in 1842. The most famous building on site, Housing Unit 4 or A Hall, was built in 1868 to house post-Civil War criminals and was featured in the television show Ghost Adventures for its death-ridden history. The prison utilized its large inmate population and transformed the jail into a labor center with many industries on site, including a shoe factory. The penitentiary became one of the most efficient in the country and was considered “The Greatest in the World,” according to the Jefferson City News Tribune. Housing Unit 1, which now serves as the main entrance into the prison, was constructed in 1905. It housed infamous female inmates Emma Goldman, who aided draft resisters, and Kate O’Hare, who violated the Espionage Act. On February 5, 1911, prisoners helped save thousands of legal documents from the burning Missouri State Capitol.
In 1914, the prison was expanded again with the addition of Housing Unit 3, which became the capital punishment unit. In 1925, one of the prison’s most infamous inmates Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd arrived, who was well-known for his widespread bank robberies and association with the Kansas City Massacre. In 1937, the prison gas chamber was built and would be the location of forty executions. This included the deaths of many infamous criminals like Claude McGee, George Bell, and Bonnie B. Heady.
Charles “Sonny” Liston entered the prison in 1950 and learned to box before going on to win the National Heavyweight Championship upon his release. In 1959, James Earl Ray was a penitentiary inmate sentenced to twenty years in prison for repeated offenses of burglary. He escaped in 1967 by hiding in a truck transporting bread from the prison bakery. On April 4, 1968, Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot fired from his Remington rifle while King was standing on the second-floor balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, TN.
One of the most well-known events in MSP’s history occurred in 1954 when a riot broke out and received national attention for the destruction it caused. The prison became known as the “the bloodiest 47 acres in America,” coined by Time Magazine. The prison was shut down in 2004 after 168 years in operation. After its closure, the prison fell into disrepair until tours began and money was raised to help maintain the building. The prison is a hauntingly eerie place that still draws many visitors to this day. Night and haunted tours as well as daytime tours are available.
For more information or to schedule a tour of your own, visit missouripentours.com.