For immediate release: March 31, 2011
JEFFERSON CITY, MO - There's never been a better time to go to prison-the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) in Jefferson City, Mo., that is. The historic landmark may have been decommissioned in 2004, but there's still plenty of activity here, with tours offered day and now night, as if it weren't eerie enough during the day.
Tours include a visit to the dungeon cells, shown above.
"The public was definitely demanding a ghost tour of some sort," says Sarah Stroesser Alsager, communications manager for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. "Very rarely has a history tour gone by without someone from the group asking about unusual occurrences that have happened at the penitentiary."
The prison also was contacted by more than 30 paranormal investigating groups wanting to spend time there using their activity-finding devices. So this year, in addition to the popular history tours, which saw a 275 percent increase in attendance in 2010, the prison began offering a new-up lineup of twilight ghost tours and overnight paranormal investigations. Lanterns are provided.
"The first few tours have sold out very quickly," Alsager reports. "Visitors have really enjoyed hearing stories of the spooky and ghostly side of MSP."
Whether or not you believe in ghosts, all tours offer visitors an opportunity to get a glimpse of fascinating and often shocking history, the kind not found in most books, but in true stories told by people who have worked here. And there are many stories to tell about the prison, which first opened in 1836.
"When the first inmate came here, Davy Crockett was pulling a trigger at the Alamo. That's 100 years before Alcatraz was built," says Bill Green, a MSP prison guard for 30 years and now one of the tour guides. "This place has a tremendous history, a mixture of horror and humor, gut-busting funny things and some horrible medieval things."
Inmates march through the upper yard in 1908. A Hall, the oldest housing unit still standing at MSP, is shown in the background. Courtesy Missouri State Archives.
The penitentiary was pegged "the bloodiest 47 acres in America" by Time magazine in 1967 due to the large number of murders and assaults that took place inside its walls. It housed some infamous inmates, too, including James Earl Ray, heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston, the Young Brothers Gang and Pretty Boy Floyd.
"In 1932, this was the largest prison in the world," Green says, "with 5,200 convicts."
It also was the home of the notorious John B. "Firebug" Johnson who wrote the out-of-print book, "Buried Alive or Eighteen Years in the Missouri Penitentiary."
You'll understand what "buried alive" means when tour guides take you where Firebug Johnson was taken after he set his third fire in the prison in 1893. But it's not for the claustrophobic.
Down 22 narrow steps is a dungeon, where the walls are made of stone four feet thick. There are no windows, no light and all is secured with both a big iron door and a wooden door to make sure nobody escapes.
"There's no other way to put it," Green says. "They brought you down here to hurt you."
Pictures of the 40 men and women executed in the gas chamber hang on the wall in the building.
Outside the prison, but still inside the penitentiary grounds, surrounded by razor wire-topped walls, you can see a short brick path with a large white cross in the middle. It was the last walk for some, because it leads to a small stone building that houses the gas chamber with two chairs. There were 40 executions here, including that of Bonnie Heady and Carl Hall for the shocking murder and kidnapping of 6-year-old Bobby Greenlease in 1953. The last execution was in 1989.
You can sit in the chairs, if you dare.
Since inmates were moved to a newer facility in 2004, peeling paint and other signs of disrepair are apparent. Yet, when combined with the haunting Gothic style architecture of the main buildings and passionate stories by former employees, tourists have been finding that the unpolished halls just add to the atmosphere of walking through a great piece of history, making the Missouri State Penitentiary a destination not to be missed.
Tour prices are $12 for a two hour tour, $17 for special subject tours focused on specific themes, such as Sonny Liston, or the riot of 1954; $17 for two-hour Twilight tours; $25 for Ghost Hunt tours; and $100 for Open Paranormal Investigations, where you start with the standard tour and then spend the night at MSP to investigate paranormal activity.
For available tour times, tour details, schedules and reservations, go to www.MissouriPenTours.com or contact the CVB's prison tour department at (866)998-6998.
Of course, the penitentiary is not the only reason to come to Jefferson City. As the capital of Missouri, the city has an abundance of historical and civic attractions, including enough Civil War era sites to fill a weekend. For details about the lodging, dining, shopping and events in Jefferson City, contact the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau at www.VisitJeffersonCity.com or call (800)769-4183.