One of the country’s few penitentiaries open to public tours is about 330 miles east of Wichita in downtown Jefferson City, Mo.
The Missouri State Penitentiary is one of the oldest prisons in the United States, and it was the longest operating, opening in 1836 and closing in 2004.
On a recent tour, Mike Groose, warden of the Missouri State Penitentiary from 1991 to 1995, led us through the oldest building still standing on the campus: a housing unit built of limestone by the prisoners in 1868. I tried to imagine how six people fit into these tiny cells when as many as 5,000 inmates – male and female – were housed here in the late 1800s and early 1900s. We also saw dungeon cells, a recreation yard, another housing unit and the gas chamber – where I sat in the same seat where 40 prisoners, including one woman, were executed.
“The buildings are just the props; what makes our tours so interesting are the stories,” said Groose, adding that this is one of only nine prison tours he is aware of.
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There’s plenty of history from which to pull those stories: The prison operated for 168 years and was often referred to as the bloodiest 47 acres in America.
“The bloody part’s true,” Groose said. “But there’s only 37 acres behind this wall.”
It was the bloodiest, he said, because it was the largest prison west of the Mississippi when it opened. As a territorial prison, it received criminals from the entire western U.S.
Officials say 17 murders and 140 life-threatening assaults happened at the prison. As the penal system grew, the Missouri State Penitentiary came to house high-security Missouri inmates.
When he became warden in 1991, Groose said, he had 2,000 inmates in 1,000 cells. Nearly one-fourth of the population was serving sentences of 35 years or life. Groose tells stories of the early days of the prison, the Riot of 1954 and shares the names of some of the most infamous inmates, from gangster “Pretty Boy” Floyd to professional boxer Sonny Liston to James Earl Ray, who escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary one year before he assassinated Martin Luther King Jr.
Former employees lead tours seven days a week from March until October, sometimes into November if weather permits. Due to the content, all tours are for ages 10 and older. Two- and three-hour history tours are offered, and there are also ghost tours, paranormal investigations, photography tours and, new this year, a mystery tour with a former offender.
The mystery tour is three hours, with two hours for the actual tour with a tour guide and one hour for a question-and-answer session with the former inmate. Organizers said they carefully selected model inmates who used their time in the “big house” to turn their lives around and become upstanding citizens.
Outside the prison walls there is a Missouri State Penitentiary Museum housed in a historical home that once belonged to a warden.
Admission is included with a prison tour or is $2 if you’re not touring. Exhibits include prison memorabilia and a replica cell that explain life inside the walls, prison industries and prisoner behavior and control.
There are several special events this summer at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Last year, they held their first concert inside the prison walls, with Travis Tritt performing. They will have another concert this year on July 1 but have not yet announced the performer. That event is in conjunction with Jefferson City’s annual Fourth of July celebration.
Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, is in the line of the total solar eclipse and will have a tour to coincide with it on Aug. 21. On Sept. 2, the sixth annual Prison Break Race is a 5-mile course that starts at the prison and ends at Prison Brews, a restaurant and microbrewery two blocks from the penitentiary.
Touring the Missouri State Penitentiary
Address: 115 Lafayette St., Jefferson City, Mo.
History tours: Two-hour tour, $15; in-depth three-hour tour, $26; must be 10 or older.
Mystery tours: $26 per person; available 9 a.m.-1:30 p.m. on June 23, July 28 and Sept. 15.
Ghost and paranormal tours: $26-$36; must be at least 14. An eight-hour overnight paranormal investigation for those 18 or older is $95.
Tickets: Advance reservations are recommended for all tours at www.missouripentours.com.