Missouri State Penitentiary

The Missouri State Penitentiary was a prison located in Jefferson City, Missouri, open and operated between 1836 and 2004.  During its operation, the Missouri State Penitentiary was Missouri’s primary maximum security prison, later becoming the oldest facility that laid to the west of the Mississippi River.  Many were executed at the facility, including by gas chambers during the years 1938 to 1965.  When the Jefferson City Correctional Center was constructed in the early 2000s, the Missouri State Penitentiary officially closed.

History of Missouri State Penitentiary, Jefferson City, Missouri

Construction of the Missouri State Penitentiary began in the early 1830s, roughly ten years after Missouri officially became a recognized state of the new nation.  Because Missouri’s capital city was Jefferson, lawmakers decided it would be best to construct the prison in the city as well.  In March of 1836, the Missouri State Penitentiary officially opened its doors under the direction of master stonemason James Dunnica, who the state of Missouri gave $25,000 to build the penal facility.

In 1836, when the Missouri State Penitentiary officially opened, the staff and occupants were quite small, consisting of only one guard, one warden, and fifteen prisoners.  Also found on the prison grounds were a foreman and his assistant who helped run the penitentiary’s brick-making operation that the fifteen prisoners were required to work at.

Famous Inmates of the Missouri State Penitentiary

Throughout its years of operation, the Missouri State Penitentiary housed many inmates who committed a wide variety of crimes, ranging from larceny to stabbings to manslaughter.  Some inmates housed were even made famous for the crimes and acts of violence they committed.  One of which was Kate Richards O’Hare, a woman sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary for giving an anti-war speech in 1919.  Later, however, in 1920, the current President, Woodrow Wilson, commuted her sentence, and future President Calvin Coolidge later pardoned her.

More commonly referred to as “Pretty Boy,” well-known bank robber Charles Arthur Floyd also served time in the Missouri State Penitentiary, starting in December of 1925.  Floyd was given a five-year sentence, though he only ended up serving three and a half of those years, then being released on parole.  He continued to rob banks and get into trouble with the law after leaving the Missouri State Penitentiary and eventually died in 1934 at the age of 30.

Probably the most famous inmate that served time at the Missouri State Penitentiary was James Earl Ray.  Ray was originally sentenced to the Missouri State Penitentiary in March of 1960.  However, seven years later, in 1967, Ray escaped one April night when a fellow prisoner caused a commotion by escaping in a bread box.  Following his escape, the police were unable to find him for a year.  Ray traveled and drove throughout the country, even going to California to receive facial reconstruction, not to be recognized. Finally, on April 4, 1968, he shot and killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot from his Remington rifle.  After fleeing the scene, he was arrested two months later.