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Dark Destinations > Locations - M > Missouri State Penitentiary

Missouri State Penitentiary Other destinations within a
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Filed Under: Historical Locations > Tours
Infamous Crimes
Music/Murder Ballads > Stagger Lee
Paranormal Hot Spots > Haunted Jails/Prisons
Added By: TheCabinet
Added On: May 27, 2007 - 10:50 PM UTC
Last Modified: May 06, 2009 - 06:22 PM UTC
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631 E State St, Jefferson City, MO 65101, USA (Jefferson City, Missouri)
Missouri State Penitentiary
This prison opened in 1836 and seemingly underwent expansion ever since. In 1888, it was named the largest prison in the world. The facility promoted growth for Jefferson City through economy and prison labor. Riots in the 1950s and a series of assaults in the early 1960s gained the prison a notorious reputation around the United States as one of the country's most violent prisons. It was decommissioned in October of 2004 and the inmates were moved to a new facility and over the subsequent years, the grounds have undergone some demolition, redevelopment and new construction. Before the decommissioning, the prison was known as the oldest continuously operated prison west of the Mississippi River. In its 168-year history, the penitentiary played host to various notorious criminals.

Lee "Stagger Lee" Shelton
On December 25, 1895, Lee Shelton would shoot and kill William "Billy" Lyons in a tavern in Saint Louis, Missouri (see The Bill Curtis Saloon). The crime would become the basis for the immensely popular murder ballad Stagger Lee. It took two trials, but the prosecutors were finally able to convict him and he entered the Missouri State Penitentiary on October 7, 1897. He was credited for helping prison officials capture a "systematic thief" and also had the support of several powerful Democrats in the state, which ultimately led to him being paroled around Thanksgiving of 1909. However, a little more than a year later, he would be convicted of robbery and assault and was returned to the penitentiary on May 7, 1911. This time, Shelton was sick with tuberculosis. After an attempt by the standing governor to pardon him for his crimes was thwarted by the attorney general, Shelton died in the prison hospital on March 11, 1912. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Saint Louis (see Greenwood Cemetery, Hillsdale, MO).

Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd
On September 11, 1925, Charles Floyd robbed a Kroger store/warehouse in Saint Louis, Missouri. One of his victims described him as a "pretty boy" and the name took. So did a jail sentence. He was handed a three and a half year sentence at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Once he left the prison, he headed to Kansas City and began to rob banks regularly and his legend grew. On June 17, 1933, it was alleged that Floyd with Vernon Miller and Adam Richetti, attempted to free their friend Frank Nash from federal custody. As result, four law officers and Nash would be killed in what became known as the Kansas City Massacre. Floyd denied any role in the Massacre. However, in October of 1934, he was tracked to a farm in Clarkson, Ohio where he was killed in a shootout with law enforcement.

Sonny Liston
In 1950, Liston was convicted of armed robbery in Saint Louis and sentenced to five years in the Missouri State Penitentiary. While in the prison, Liston took up boxing under the watchful eye of the prison chaplain. He would be paroled two years later. On September 25, 1962, Liston would knock out Floyd Patterson in the first round to become Heavyweight Champion of the World. He would hold that title for two more years until February 25, 1964 when he quit in his corner against the young Cassius Clay (who would shortly thereafter take the name Muhammad Ali).

James Earl Ray
One of the more infamous inmates incarcerated in the Missouri State Penitentiary was a smalltime criminal when he came there. James Earl Ray was a no-name crook that robbed a Kroger Grocery store in 1959. He was given a habitual offender status and sentenced to 20 years at the Missouri State Penitentiary. In 1967, Ray worked in the prison's bakery and managed to fit himself in a 4x4 box. Another convict covered the box with bread and it was placed on a truck leaving the prison. A cursory search by the guards turned up nothing suspicious and the truck was sent on its way. James Earl Ray escaped the Missouri State Penitentiary on April 23, 1967. Nearly one year later, on April 4, 1968, Ray would assassinate civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee (see National Civil Rights Museum).

The Bloodiest 47 Acres in America
Throughout its history, the Missouri State Penitentiary gained a reputation for the violence that took place inside its walls. As the prison population continued to grow, more and more inmates were being housed together. By 1954, the overpopulation had grown to the point that it was not unusual to find six to eight inmates confined in a single cell. Coupled with the deteriorating state of the prison, the overcrowding led to a violent uprising on September 23 of that year. The riot began in the maximum-security "E Hall" of the prison, which housed some of the prison's more violent criminals. When order was restored, four inmates were dead, three guards and over thirty prisoners were injured, and around eight buildings were either destroyed or heavily damaged by fire. Though the riot was quelled, two more minor riots would break out a month later on October 23rd and 24th that would again cause the death of one more inmate and injure 36 others.

Its violent reputation would come to head in the 1960s when a series of violent assaults made national headlines. It has been reported that between the years of 1963 and 1964, there were around 550 separate accounts of serious assaults, including hundreds of stabbings. The violence led to outcries of lack of administrative control by the prison warden, E.V. Nash, who ironically was given control of the prison following the riots of 1954 in hopes that he would be able to restore order. The scandal led to an administrative review, which issued a report recommending removing Warden Nash from his position. On December 18, 1964, in a house directly across from the prison, E.V. Nash took his own life with a gunshot to his head. The resulting controversy led Time Magazine to give Missouri State Penitentiary the unfortunate moniker of the "bloodiest 47 acres in America" in 1967.

The Execution Chamber
Settled in the sprawling structure is one notably small, but overly ominous building. Isolated inside its own fenced courtyard, the small building is known simply enough as the execution chamber. Between the years of 1937 and 1989, 39 or 40 (depending on the source) inmates were put to death inside the structure. All of the executions, save one, were conducted in the state's gas chamber where the sealed unit was filled with cyanide gas. The sole exception was the prison's last execution on January 26, 1989. George "Tiny" Mercer had the unfortunate distinction of being the first execution in the state of Missouri after the 1977 reinstatement, following a moratorium on capital punishment in 1968. Mercer was convicted of the rape and murder of 22-year-old Karen Keeten. According to sources, officials were concerned that there might be leaks in the aged gas chamber, so Mercer's execution was carried out by lethal injection.

Demolition and Reconstruction
Following its decommissioning in October 2004, a wide variety of development plans were immediately up for consideration. In September 2007 (just months after the photos on the right were taken), those plans went into action when demolition began on various buildings inside the complex. The older, historical buildings were spared a similar fate with plans of preserving them as historic sites. The current plans call for a new federal courthouse to be built over eight acres of the cleared property, with the addition of two hotels and other office buildings. The current estimated of the project is currently set at around $153 million, which will be shared between state and federal government.

A Haunted Prison?
Perhaps not surprisingly given its notorious past, the remaining prison structures on the campus of the former Missouri State Penitentiary are slowly gaining a reputation for paranormal activity. Perhaps interestingly enough, the reports of odd or supernatural activity seem to have only emerged following the building's decommissioning. The reports have varied from sightings of apparitions to disembodied laughter or the sounds of cell doors slamming when no one is around. The reports are still quite vague in context of where the sightings are occurring or noting any in particular structure or specific witnesses. However, now that the facility is now open to the general public (see below), it is quite possible that more and more reports will emerge.

Hard Hat Tours
In May 2009, the doors of the remaining structures of Missouri State Penitentiary were reopened to the general public. The new so-called "Hard Hat Tours" takes guests on a two-hour tour of the spared prison buildings. Stops include such sites as the very cell where Sonny Liston was incarcerated during his stay at the prison, as well as the infamous execution chamber. Tour guides share the structure's history of punishment, escapes, riots, and other interesting tales from the prison's past. For more information, please visit the site below.
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Related Sites
Missouri State Penitentiary
Information on Missouri State Penitentiary provided by the Jefferson City Visitors Bureau. The Penitentiary hosted the likes of Pretty Boy Floyd, James Earl Ray, Sonny Liston and Lee Shelton, who inspired the murder ballad, Stagger Lee.
Lee Shelton's Death Certificate
The death certificate of Lee Shelton, the man behind the murder ballad, Stagger Lee. The death certificate is stored in the Missouri State Archives.
Wikipedia: Stagger Lee
Wikipedia's entry for the story behind the murder ballad, Stagger Lee.
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St. Peters Cemetery, Normandy, Missouri
See Also on
Blog: Stagger Lee (05/07/08)
Blog: The First Prison Sentence of "Pretty Boy" Floyd (09/11/08)
Blog: Stagger Lee Shot Billy (12/24/08)
Blog: The Dark Destinations Top 50 for Spring 2009 (05/24/09)
Blog: Top 20 Dark Destinations for Month of January 2010 (01/31/10)
Available from
The Life and Death of Pretty Boy Floyd
Stagolee Shot Billy
The Devil and Sonny Liston
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The former Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City in June 2007.
From: TheCabinet
The Missouri State Penitentiary
The former Missouri State Penitentiary looms behinds its gates in June 2007.
From: TheCabinet
Watch Tower at Missouri State Penitentiary
A watch tower looks over the former Missouri State Penitentiary in June 2007.
From: TheCabinet
A Look at the Former Missouri State Penitentiary
A June 2007 wide-shot of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City.
From: TheCabinet
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The above content is for informational purposes only. Before making any travel arrangements, it is highly recommended that you contact those in charge of the property to check for updated availability and hours of operation. While we do our best to keep this information updated, we cannot guarantee that it is completely valid and up to date. Any destination marked "Closed to the Public" is marked that for a reason and we discourage any visits or attempts to gain access to that facility. Similarly, take note of any "Travel Advisory" that may be associated with a destination. Finally, treat any location and its local residents with respect. Any vandalism and/or unruly behavior is completely despicable and only ruins the experience for future visitors.

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