I know you’re going, “Say wha-a-at?!” But honestly, this is the Jeff City tourist thing!
I haven’t got statistics to back me up, but I think I can safely say that the three top tourist attractions in Jefferson City are:
1. The State Capitol,
2. The Missouri State Penitentiary, and
3. Central Dairy Ice Cream.
Usually, in my blog, I try to highlight lesser-known but totally worthy places to visit—hole-in-the-wall restaurants, parks and hiking places, that sort of thing. But Saturday, Sue and I behaved like tourists in our own town. (We go to the capitol pretty often, so today I’m writing about the other two.)
Part 1: The Missouri State Penitentiary Tour
Last weekend was a festival marking the 175th anniversary of the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP), which, since its closing in 2004, has become a huge tourist draw for the city. Check out the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau prison-tour website, here, for information, including how to sign up for a tour.
I have to admit, I’ve been reluctant to go “visit a prison.” The times I’ve been to San Francisco, for instance, Alcatraz has never made it onto my list of “things to see.” Nope. And I’ve never been one of those people who maintain that prison life must be “cushy.” I’ve actually visited people in prison, and I haven’t been inclined to consider a prison—even one that is closed—as “fun” (the way I overheard one lady describing it last weekend).
Although everyday life behind the walls certainly entailed lots of interesting (and humorous) stories, prisons, in the end, are grim, grim places. In the 1960s, MSP was called “the bloodiest 47 acres in America” on account of the murders and other violent crimes that were committed in the many dark halls and “blind spots” that security cameras couldn’t show.
But it’s history: American history, corrections history, social history, criminal history. If you’re not yet grasping the depth and scope of this, consider:
—The Missouri State Prison opened its doors 175 years ago—in 1836—the same month and year that the Alamo fell in Texas. (This is a hundred years before Alcatraz opened.) For decades, MSP was the only prison to serve the entire American frontier—so people convicted of crimes, say, in the goldfields of California, were hauled to MSP to serve their terms. (Learning these facts really made me start paying attention!)
—Many famous and infamous people were imprisoned at MSP during its 175 years of operation, including social activists and antiwar protesters Kate Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman (during the years when the MSP held female as well as male prisoners).
Other inmates included Sonny Liston (who learned to box at MSP; a mural of him remains on the inside of the wall overlooking the prison yard), and Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd.
A particularly infamous inmate was James Earl Ray, who, after several escape attempts, finally snuck out of MSP in a bakery delivery truck. You can see and even step inside a cell that he once occupied for a few months in Housing Unit 3, three months before his escape, and about a year before he assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
—The tour ends with the prison’s gas chamber, where forty people received capital punishment. There are two chairs there, side by side (so that a pair of people convicted of the same crime could be killed simultaneously—as in the case of the infamous child kidnapper-murderers Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady).
The tour guides allow visitors go right in there and sit in the chairs. (Personally, I find that revolting and disrespectful, but that’s just my opinion. If you want to go and take a picture of yourself sitting and grinning in the chair, and use it as your “Facebook portrait,” don’t let me stop you.) But whatever your attitude, it is indeed a gripping experience to go into that small building with its superhigh ventilation chimney, and reflect on the subjects of murder and death.
—The oldest structure still standing at MSP is “A Hall,” a housing unit built in 1868, using convict labor and locally quarried stone. This hall remained in continual use until the MSP was closed in 2004. In the basement are original “dungeon” cells, where prisoners sentenced for extra punishment were locked up in complete darkness (the tour guides led us down there, closed the door, and turned off the lights for a while, just to give us a “taste”). During the days of segregation, this oldest housing unit was the one designated for African Americans.
—“Corrections” seems to be a growing industry in the United States. Because it remained in operation so long, MSP reflects America’s changing ideas about the treatment of criminals. For example, despite constant upgrades to A Hall, its architecture still reflects the “Auburn system” corrections style where prisoners were silenced, degraded, and humiliated in an effort to reform their characters. At least one cell’s entrance in this building was kept—for historical purposes—at its original height, showing what it was like when all prisoners were forced to stoop in order to go in and out.
—The different housing units reflect the evolution of prison architecture over 175 years. The fact that A Hall has the cells along the two outer walls, for instance, and the cells have windows, with a large open area down the middle of the building, reflects an older style of prison architecture. (They probably needed the windows in the early years, as there was originally no plumbing, heating, or cooling in the building.)
The more modern Housing Unit 3 has the big blocks of cells back to back in the center of the building, with big open spaces separating the cells from the exterior walls and their large banks of windows. In that housing unit, there are no individual cell windows to tempt prisoners to escape.
—The MSP was the scene of a huge riot in 1954, a catastrophic event that marked changing attitudes both outside and inside the walls. In the early years, convicts (at least, the well-behaved ones) were often permitted to work in the city, and many locals went into the prison to attend concerts, play baseball against the prison teams, and so on.
Historian Gary Kremer has pointed out that many of Jeff City’s most affluent houses were built along Capitol Avenue, just blocks away from the clink; how many rich people today would dream of building a mansion within walking distance of a prison? After the riot, however, townspeople and prisoners rarely interacted. Again—what a great amount of history you can learn here!
So: we did the prison tour; it cost twelve bucks, and the time went by very quickly. Our guide, like all the guides, worked at MSP for many years. All the tour guides are incredibly knowledgeable about and personally involved with the place.
Sue took lots of neat photos. It is truly a fascinating tour—honestly, take it from me; I’ve never been very keen on visiting the prison, but now I see it’s completely worth it.
Another note: this place is deteriorating; the state owns it but naturally doesn’t have the funding or much incentive (so far) for its upkeep. Roofs are leaking; paint is peeling like crazy; when the prison closed in 2004, it was still in decent shape.
It’s too bad, since there are a lot of details that are being lost. Some prisoners had painted elaborate murals in their cells, for instance. And Sue found evidence of a “girly” photo taped on the wall beside a lower bunk:
If the economy were in good shape, maybe the MSP could become an official State Historic Site—or maybe even a National Historic Site—and receive funding for upkeep. Meanwhile, the local CVB is doing quite a bit to promote the prison tours.
If you are considering going on a tour, I suggest doing it now, as the deterioration is ongoing. See it now, before more of it falls apart, and while there are men and women with intimate knowledge of the prison who are leading these tours.
Part 2: Ice Cream!
Yes, we actually went out for ice cream after our prison tour! We’ll cover this in the next post—so stay tuned for the dessert!
(Do I need to say it at this point? The best pictures in this blog are from Sue! Thanks, Sue, for letting me share these!)