West perimeter wall of the decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary, 10 July 2014

West perimeter wall of the decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary, 10 July 2014

Before it closed in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi River. Ten years after becoming a state, then-governor John Miller proposed a prison, and two years later funding was approved. Construction began in 1834; in 1836 the first prisoner arrived.

At its peak, the MSP contained* 5200 prisoners. 

Three buildings of the decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary, 10 July 2014

Three buildings of the decommissioned Missouri State Penitentiary, 10 July 2014

The prison has a long and torrid history; once called the “bloodiest 47 acres in America” by TIME magazine for the assaults and murders inside the prison walls. Famous and infamous prisoners passed through the gates–some to remain, others to escape. Perhaps the most famous escapee is James Earl Ray. Sentenced to 20-years for robbery, he escaped the MSP in 1967. He remained in hiding until 1968 when he surfaced to assassinate Martin Luther King, Jr. Though caught, convicted, and sent to prison for the murder of MLK, he was sent to a Tennessee prison and not returned to the MSP, and so he remains on the escape list of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

The penitentiary also housed women prisoners, the first arriving in 1842. By the 1860s there was a separate housing unit for women prisoners. Two notable women imprisoned at the MSP were Katie Richards O’Hare and Emma Goldman. In 1918, Katie Richards O’Hare was convicted of espionage under the Federal Espionage Act and served two years. The treatment she endured led her to change her advocacy efforts from social to prison reform. She was later hired by the California Department of Corrections to implement changes, which eventually spread across the United States. At the same, Emma Goldman, considered the “‘ablest and most dangerous’ anarchist in the country”, was detained for, among other things, promoting birth control. She was targeted relentlessly throughout her life by J. Edgar Hoover, and is considered an influence on the founders of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union.


*Contain: have or hold (someone or something) within.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Containers – “Boxes, tanks, wrappers: for this week’s Photo Challenge, show us something that contains something else.”


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*Featured and Post Image are mine: Missouri State Penitentiary, 10 July 2014
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6 thoughts on “Detained…Contained

    • It is interesting info. How much more interesting a way can you say that? Lol! Glad you stopped by. This wasn’t our intended tourist stop in Jeff City, but after eating at Prison Brews and learning about it, we were no longer interested in walking around the Capitol. We couldn’t do the inside tour, though. Something about it being inappropriate for children under 10. (Considering it includes “solitary” and the gas chamber, it probably is.)


  1. Imagine being thrown in prison for promoting birth control. Wow. Of course it’s not much different than the possession of marijuana today is legal in some states and can result in a prison term in other states. Arbitrary laws that make certain activities that harm no one else, are one of the reasons that the prisons are so full. Lot of cost to everyone when arbitrary laws are enforced. laws that eventually are striken.

    Great post TIMC. Thanks for the pics and memories.


    • Times haven’t changed all that much. O’Hare was thrown in prison for a speech, and Goldman for advocating birth control. Now it’s, like you said, marijuana in some states or driving slow in the fast lane in another. It does seem, at times, that the lesser laws send people to prison with more frequency that the greater.


    • Unfortunately I’ve known a couple of people who have volunteered to go to prison (one to end the tirade of false accusation and another as a protest) and their stories have convinced me it’s the worst place on earth to be.


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