Some might think the abandoned Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City is so eerie that it must be haunted

CJ Coombs

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Missouri State Penitentiary.CosmiCataclysm, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Is it one of the most haunted places on earth?

Abandoned places aren’t tough to find in Missouri. However, one certainly stands out among the rest – for both its bloody history and for the spirits who are said to remain. This abandoned Missouri prison has gained notoriety in the state and beyond, and for good reason. It just might be one of the most haunted places on earth. (Source.)

The Missouri State Penitentiary was in operation from 1836 to 2004 (168 years). It was a part of the Missouri Department of Corrections and was considered the state's maximum-security institution.

Construction for the penitentiary began in the early 1830s. This was shortly after Missouri became a state and Jefferson City was named the state capital. During the construction, there were employed prisoners to help make bricks. At the beginning of the new prison, there were only one guard and warden, and 15 prisoners (11 of which were from St. Louis). All of these prisoners were charged with larceny but one was in for stabbing a man.

Some infamous prisoners had been locked up here

Female activists, Katie Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman were well-known for their experiences of incarceration. Some other well-knowns are James Earl Ray and Charles Arthur "Pretty Boy" Floyd.

O'Hare who was the chairman of the Socialist Labor Party was indicted under the Federal Espionage Act after she gave a speech in North Dakota. She was convicted of espionage. While incarcerated, she was forced to work 50 hours a week in a clothing factory and kept from talking to her husband and four children. President Woodrow Wilson commuted her sentence in 1920 and she was released. President Calvin Coolidge gave her a full pardon. Interestingly, she gave up her past socialist behavior and decided to pursue prison reform. In 1939, California's governor appointed her as Assistant Director of the California Department of Penology, and as a result of her efforts on the penal policies in California, other facilities implemented policy changes.

Goldman was incarcerated in the same quarters as O'Hare. Known as an agitator and pursued by J. Edgar Hoover, she was arrested for causing a riot and protesting in support of the use of birth control. After serving two years, she was released.

[Goldman] is credited with having had a tremendous influence on the founders of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. (Source.)

James Earl Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968, a year after he had escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary. He had received a 20-year sentence in 1959 for helping to hold up a grocery store in St. Louis. When he was caught, he was convicted of murder in the 1st degree, and sentenced to 99 years. When he was sent to the maximum-security Brushy Mountain facility in Tennessee, he tried to escape several times. In 1991, he was transferred to the River Bend Maximum Security Facility in Nashville. He is still listed on escape status in the records of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Floyd is known as an infamous bank robber and cold-blooded murderer. He was labeled as the “most dangerous man alive,” and wanted in several states including Missouri where he was wanted for three murders. In 1933, Floyd and others, including Adam Richetti, were named as suspects in trying to get Frank Nash free and four lawmen ended up being shot in what is known as the Kansas City Massacre in front of Union Station. It would take some weeks after that before he was finally found at a farm and killed after trying to escape. Richetti was executed on October 7, 1938.

A more recent notable inmate was serial killer Robert Berdella who tortured and raped his victims between 1984 and 1987. He was sentenced to life with no parole chances in December 1988 and died in October 1992.

The 1954 prison riot

During the evening of September 22, 1954, a huge riot broke out at the prison. Two inmates pretended to be ill to get the attention of two guards who were ambushed and had their keys stolen. With keys in their hands, they began releasing other inmates. Help arrived by way of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Missouri National Guard, and the Jefferson City, St. Louis, and Kansas City Police Departments.

By the time the riot was over, four inmates were killed and 29 were injured. Four guards had serious injuries. Buildings were burned. There were no escaped inmates. The amount of damage was estimated at $5 million. Some of the damage remained seen for 10 years.

One inmate, Walter Lee Donnell (age 30), was held on death row for safety precautions because he had testified against other criminals. Rioting inmates lured the guard taking him hostage and ultimately killed Donnell with a sledgehammer.

Donnell and three other inmates were killed. Thirty-four inmates were wounded, 19 of them by gunfire. Four guards, including Dietzel, were injured. The riot was the worst ever at the penitentiary. (Source.)

The death penalty in Missouri

The death penalty was first used in Missouri in 1810 when Peter Johnson was hanged for murder. Missouri carried out a total of 285 executions from 1810 to 1965. Hanging was the primary method of execution until 1936, when lethal gas came into use from 1937 until 1987. Starting in 1987, lethal injection was added as an option for inmates in addition to lethal gas. (Source.)

Death row inmates were originally executed by hanging. That evolved to lethal gas and then to lethal injection. Inmates who were executed at this penitentiary can be seen here.

The bill signed for execution by lethal gas was signed in September 1937. The public hangings ended. Although the state legislature opposed the bill signed by Governor Lloyd Crow Stark, the death penalty remained for serious crimes. When the bill was changed to lethal gas instead of the electric chair, it passed.

In total, 40 inmates were put to death in the gas chamber between 1937 and 1989 when MSP death row ended and all capital punishment inmates were moved to the new prison at Potosi. (Source.)

Potosi is 72 miles southwest of St. Louis.

Open tours

Before this penitentiary was decommissioned in 2004, it was the oldest operating prison facility west of the Mississippi River. The Jefferson City Correctional Center which opened on September 15, 2004, replaced it. Interestingly, its street address is 8200 No More Victims Road. There are currently 21 correctional facilities in Missouri including the Jefferson City Correctional Center and many probation and parole offices.

When you read that guests for all tours are encouraged to bring their own flashlights due to low visibility in some areas, that's enough of a reason for me to not add this to my bucket list. This old penitentiary holds both public and private tours. And, yes, you can even book your ghost or paranormal tour. Your cost for a ghost tour will depend on how long you want to go on your ghost hunt!

Now the Jefferson City Convention & Visitors Bureau offers a wide variety of tours at the site, once named the 'The bloodiest 47 acres in America' by Time Magazine. (Source.)

There is also a museum in Jefferson City containing some of the penitentiary's history.

The prison goes Hollywood

Destination Fear featured on the Travel Channel had an episode of the penitentiary that they filmed on location. The episode can be watched on Prime Video. Some of the paranormal claims were also investigated and featured in Ghost Hunters (The Bloodiest 47 acres aired in 2011) and Ghost Adventures (go here for video clips).

Is the penitentiary really haunted? Watch the below video and decide for yourself.

Thank you for reading.

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30 years of legal secretarial experience, and a BA in Eng Journalism & Creative Writing. Thinker, giver, and lover of life. Born into Air Force service life, my life has taken me to Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, and Missouri. I love family, art, truth, non-fiction, reading, history, and travel.

Kansas City, MO
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