In The Missouri State Penitentiary, Jamie Pamela Rasmussen recounts the long and fascinating history of the place, focusing on the stories of inmates and the struggles by prison officials to provide opportunities for reform while keeping costs down. Tales of prominent prisoners, including Pretty Boy Floyd, Sonny Liston, and James Earl Ray, provide intrigue and insight into the institution’s infamous reputation.
The founding of the penitentiary helped solidify Jefferson City’s position as the state capital. A highlight in the chapter on the Civil War years is the story of George Thompson, who was imprisoned for attempting to help a number of slaves to freedom. The narrative enters the twentieth century with the controversy surrounding the various systems of inmate labor; the effort to make the prison self-supporting eventually caused punishment to be driven by factory needs. The example of Firebug Johnson demonstrates how inmates reacted to the prison labor system while Kate Richards O’Hare’s struggles and efforts to improve conditions in the penitentiary illuminate the role of women in the system at the time. A full chapter is devoted to the riot of 1954, and another concentrates on the reforms made in the wake of that catastrophe. Rasmussen also considers the effect inmate lawsuits during the 1980s and 1990s had on prison life before telling the story of the decision to close the prison.
The Missouri State Penitentiary provides a fitting account of an institution that was part of Missouri’s history for well over a century. Numerous illustrations and a list of recommended reading contribute to the readers’ understanding of the history of the institution.
About the Author
Jamie Pamela Rasmussen is an adjunct instructor in the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Missouri State University. She lives in Springfield, Missouri.
Read an Excerpt
THE MISSOURI STATE PENITENTIARY170 Years inside The Walls
By Jamie Pamela Rasmussen
University of Missouri PressCopyright © 2012 The Curators of the University of Missouri
All right reserved.
With whatever precaution, prison escapes always have been occurring, and always will be.—Augustus W. Alexander, secretary of the Missouri State Board of Guardians (1873)
The year is 1905.
Four inmates—Ed Raymond, Harry Vaughan, George Ryan, and Hiram Blake—approach Deputy Warden R. W. See at the Missouri State Penitentiary. To his surprise, the inmates are armed with Colt .44s and explosives. Warden See pulls out his pistol, but the inmates, anxious for freedom, fire first. The warden is wounded in the hand, and the inmates take him prisoner. They demand that he order Captain John Clay to open the prison gates and the men advance, hustling the warden ahead of them and picking up two other hostages on the way.
Captain Clay sees the approaching inmates and quickly takes action. He tosses the keys to a guard on the other side of a heavily barred door. With a shout of rage, Vaughan shoots Clay in the head, killing him instantly. The inmates then rush to another gate, kill the guard there, and set explosives to blast the gate. The first blast fails to leave a hole big enough to crawl through. As the inmates hurry to set a second charge, guards sound the alarm, alerting local police and townspeople.
Finally, the explosions create a larger hole, and the four men wriggle through to freedom. They take off down the railroad tracks that run next to the prison. Shots ring out, and Blake goes down. He's taken to the prison infirmary where he later dies, but the other three escapees reach the railroad depot a few blocks from the prison at the foot of Monroe Street and commandeer a freight wagon. In the wagon, they race down Monroe Street. Police and townspeople shoot at the convicts, and the convicts return fire.
On Dunklin Street, at the Capital City Brewery, it has been business as usual until the telephone rings. The voice on the line warns the president of the brewery, Jacob Moerschel Sr., about the approaching convicts. The brewery employees rush out to watch in fascination and terror: historian Gary Kremer reported in his book Heartland History: Essays on the Cultural Heritage of the Central Missouri Region that one of the employees later recalled, "We saw them driving south for some distance, the horses galloping and running at great speed, followed by citizens afoot, and by horse and buggy, exchanging gunfire, Western Movie style." As the wagon full of convicts passes, Moerschel steps out and gets a secure grip on the reins of the wagon's horses. Vaughan raises his gun to shoot, but it doesn't go off. Police rush in to arrest the convicts.
Vaughan, Raymond, Blake, and Ryan were added to the long list of Missouri State Penitentiary convicts who escaped only to be recaptured almost immediately. Ryan, in a bid for leniency, agreed to testify against his confederates. He explained that a released convict had smuggled weapons over the wall for them and that they had planned to hijack a train and blow up the bridges as they went.
Although the details are more fanciful, the escape of November 1905 was only one of thousands of escapes from the Missouri State Penitentiary over its 168-year existence. Such escapes and attempted escapes are born of the eternal struggle between dangerous men and the society they prey upon. Many people feel a fascination with escape attempts, fueled by stories like this. For most of our nation's history, this struggle has continued to play out in the courts and the prisons, and the Missouri State Penitentiary has epitomized American prisons.
When asked during a December 2009 interview how the Missouri State Penitentiary compared to other famous prisons, historian and former prison administrator Mark Schrieber said, "It's older and meaner." That short phrase exemplifies the penitentiary's place in history. For 168 years, the Missouri State Penitentiary was everything other prisons were and more. As in many other prisons, the inmates called the institution "the Walls." When convicts across the nation wore stripes and walked in silent lockstep, Missouri's prisoners did the same. When prisons began to hire out convict labor to industry, the Missouri State Penitentiary did the same. In fact, it became one of the major manufacturing centers in the state. More recently, as inmate lawsuits and soaring inmate populations changed prisons into "correctional institutions," the Missouri State Penitentiary was replaced. Through the stories of the penitentiary's inmates and administrators, this book shows how this old institution was among the foremost examples of the penitentiary system in the United States.
For over a hundred years, beginning around the turn of the nineteenth century, the penitentiary system dominated the way society dealt with those who violated the law. In the penitentiary system, officials imposed solitary confinement and hard labor to reform convicted criminals. This system represented an advance over older systems in that it was based on the idea that men could be reformed. At the same time, however, administrators often did not have the experience to realize their optimistic goals. At the Missouri State Penitentiary, the struggle between prison administrators, with their goal of reforming convicts, and politicians, with their goal of spending less money to support convicts, often shaped policy.
This struggle also shaped the lives of the inmates. At first, the political pressure to make the penitentiary self-sufficient meant prisoners spent long hours at hard labor. Only when rising rates of violence in the prison itself and high numbers of released convicts returning to crime proved that the system was not working did politicians begin to allocate the money needed to support truly reformatory programs. But, ironically, the success of those programs meant the penitentiary system in Missouri had to become something entirely new. The story of that transformation is examined in these pages.
The Founding of the Penitentiary
We were aroused by the rattling of bolts and locks, the slamming of iron doors, with a dismal, hollow sound as it echoed through the hall, and the music of chains ... —George Thompson, Prison Life and Reflections
Many of the reformers who developed the idea of the penitentiary saw it as an institution that would civilize both the inmates it held and the society around it. In its early years, the Missouri State Penitentiary was used in both ways, although not necessarily in the way theorists had planned.
In the American colonial period and in the first years of the existence of the United States, justice was swift and painful. Religion was the bedrock of society, and criminal justice theories reflected that. Crime was equated with sin, so officials found it difficult to recognize gradations in culpability for different offenses. This attitude resulted in an extremely harsh system of punishment. Criminals were punished primarily in physical ways. The death penalty was still used for most serious felonies, including rape, robbery, and murder. For lesser offenses, colonies and early states employed fines, whippings, mutilations, and banishment. Jails were merely places where suspects awaited trial or convicts awaited the execution of their sentences. Reform was not an objective in this era because religious ideas caused people to believe that a person's character could not be changed.
After the American Revolution, a new optimism entered American thinking, and with it, the potential for reform. Society became more mobile and Americans sought ways to stabilize their world. David J. Rothman described the attitudes of this period in his book The Discovery of the Asylum: Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic. He said that during this era, "the prospect of boundless improvement confronted a grim determinism." Rothman concluded that reformers began to believe that "to understand why men turned criminal or became insane or were poor would enable reformers to strengthen the social order." Fired by Enlightenment ideals and appalled by the physical brutality of colonial punishments, the activists soon began to develop an entirely different idea of punishment.
In the latter part of the 1700s, societies of reformers sprang up to agitate for the implementation of these new ideas. Although there were at least two major schools of thought regarding the structure this reform should take, all the reformers agreed that they should try to eliminate the causes of crime and that prisons could demonstrate better methods for organizing society.
Out of this thought, two practical characteristics of the penitentiary system took root. The first was the need to isolate the inmate from the pernicious influence of other inmates. In many ways, isolation was the guiding force of the penitentiary system. Inmates at the Pennsylvania Penitentiary spent twenty-four hours a day locked in their cells, each with an individual courtyard for a minimal amount of air and exercise. In other systems, like that employed at the Missouri State Penitentiary, isolation was accomplished simply by prohibiting talking. Without conversation, reformers thought, a man's conscience would become his punishment as his isolation would cause him to reconsider his deeds. The second major pillar of the penitentiary system was hard work. Hard work, reformers believed, would teach the inmates how to earn an honest living after their time in the penitentiary was done. Together, isolation and hard labor formed the core of the penitentiary system.
Two of the earliest penitentiaries were founded in eastern states just as Missouri was struggling for statehood. Auburn in New York was established between 1819 and 1823, and the Pennsylvania Penitentiary was established during the latter 1820s. So when Missouri became a state in 1821 and began setting up a system of government, the new ideas about how to handle society's criminals played an important role.
In 1821, Missouri entered the union as a result of the Missouri Compromise. Under the Missouri Compromise, Missouri was admitted as a slave state while Maine was admitted as a free state to keep the balance between the increasingly hostile northern and southern factions. When the state of Missouri was formed, most of its population was clustered in the eastern portion along the Mississippi River. Fur trading was the most important industry of the new state, and many of the inhabitants of the major towns, including St. Louis, still spoke French rather than English. Land speculation was rife, courts and roads had yet to be established, and Indian raids were still a concern in some areas. It was a wild country, and many called it the "Mother of the West." Settlers streamed in, all of them hoping to make their fortunes.
One of the first major issues faced by the new state government was the selection of a location for the capital city. In selecting the site, Missouri's founding fathers had to balance many interests, including accessibility, cost, and politics. Perhaps the foremost concern was accessibility. Roads were still poor or nonexistent throughout much of the state, and river travel by steamboat was still the most efficient mode of travel. To make the capital more accessible, the drafters of the Missouri constitution declared that the capital of the state had to be located "within forty miles of the mouth of the Osage River on the Missouri."
The new government was also concerned with the cost of setting up house. Because of this, they decided to take advantage of a special grant made by Congress. When Congress enacted the law creating Missouri as a state, it offered four sections of government land for the building of a capital. This limited the location because there were already extensive private holdings in the state from early French and Spanish settlement in the territory.
The new state set up a temporary capital in St. Charles, and shortly thereafter, the legislature appointed a group of commissioners to select the permanent site. The commissioners set out on an arduous journey to view a number of possible locations. They found that the settlement that would become Jefferson City, at that time hardly a village, was the only location that both complied with the constitutional mandate and allowed the state to take advantage of the federal grant. Still, they recommended another site in what is now Callaway County as more favorable. This recommendation might have contributed to the prejudice that many felt towards the new town when Governor Frederick Bates chose it.
The capital was officially moved to Jefferson City in 1826, but not everyone was satisfied with the new site. Opponents thought the area was growing too slowly and was too far from major metropolitan areas. Some maintained the capital should and would be moved. A newspaper editor in Columbia wrote regarding Jefferson City, "Nature never designed such a spot as a place of commerce, business, or indeed of importance in any other respect-and not a dollar of public money should be expended in the erection of any public works in it." It would take more than a capitol building to keep the government in Jefferson City.
Later, Governor John Miller saw the difficulties posed by the uncertainty surrounding the permanent location of the government. A native of Virginia and a veteran of the War of 1812, Miller had made Missouri his home after being stationed near Bellefontaine during Missouri's territorial days. Settling in Howard County, established in 1816 in the Boonslick, he made it his goal to mold the state into an orderly community by building roads, establishing courts, and avoiding political infighting.
Another way Governor Miller sought to cement the establishment of the state was by developing Jefferson City. As part of this plan, he advocated the building of a state penitentiary in the city. In his second biennial address in 1830, the governor stated, "The penitentiary system merits the attention of the legislature. The state might gain some advantages by its adoption." He extolled the benefits of the penitentiary system as "more effectual in preventing crime" and cheaper than older systems of confining criminals in county jails. In his third biennial address in 1832, he made the connection between the establishment of a solid seat of state government and the building of a penitentiary in Jefferson City even clearer. He pointed out the problems caused by continual debate over whether Jefferson City should remain the capital, including failure to invest in the city's infrastructure. Then, he spoke of a penitentiary: "The erection of a Penitentiary here, the necessity and utility of which cannot be doubted, would contribute in a great degree to settle the public mind in relation to the permanent location of the Seat of Government." Thus, Governor Miller saw the penitentiary as supporting his goal of building a stable state government in two ways. First, the penitentiary system would encourage the rehabilitation of society's deviants. Second, it would be a substantial investment in the infrastructure of Jefferson City and so would help to cement the city's position as home of the state capital.
The debate about building a penitentiary was not merely a routine aspect of setting up state government. In addition to the general objections against Jefferson City, observers were concerned because most inmates would come from the St. Louis area. The location of the penitentiary became an issue in statewide elections. Boone County residents thought the penitentiary ought to be located in their county as opposed to the capital city. Eventually, Governor Miller was able to gather enough votes for the construction of the penitentiary in Cole County by convincing Boone County politicians that if they voted to locate the penitentiary in Jefferson City, he would support their efforts to have the state university located in Columbia. Later, the governor credited the success of the penitentiary project to the support of Boone County politicians. That success had far-reaching consequences for the state. It was only after the passage of the penitentiary bill that the public stopped agitating for moving the capital.
Excerpted from THE MISSOURI STATE PENITENTIARY by Jamie Pamela Rasmussen Copyright © 2012 by The Curators of the University of Missouri. Excerpted by permission of University of Missouri Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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