JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Two young bankers on our preview tour of the old Missouri State Penitentiary climbed into the dual white metal chairs used to execute inmates by cyanide poisoning. Our guide, Mark Schreiber, saw a golden opportunity and hit the switch to a fan inside the gas chamber.
"Whoosh" went the fan. "Whazzat!" went the startled bankers, jumping in their seats.
Schreiber was a deputy warden at the pen and, as its official historian, is helping recruit other former employees to act as guides for public tours of the prison, which began in May.
The idea for the tours began five years ago when the prison was decommissioned and its inmates sent to a new correctional facility on the outskirts of Jefferson City. The city held a weekend open house at the old prison, and some 22,000 people lined up to get an inside look at the legendary lockup, which opened in 1836 and had a guest list that included Pretty Boy Floyd, James Earl Ray and Sonny Liston.
Jefferson City, as Missouri's state capital, has plenty of attractions for a day trip or leisurely weekend. Visitors can tour the governor's mansion, the Supreme Court building and the domed Capitol, which last year was named the nation's prettiest state capitol interior by an article in USA Today. The walls of the House Lounge are decorated with a monumental mural by Thomas Hart Benton that displays the state's often stormy history.
But the addition of the old state pen, with its tiers of cells and wealth of stories, will provide an eerie stop that is as fascinating as it is foreboding.
"Everybody talks about Alcatraz," Schreiber said of the San Francisco Bay prison that is a tourist draw. "This prison was 100 years old when Alcatraz began taking inmates. When this prison opened, the Battle of the Alamo was going on in Texas and Andrew Jackson was in his second term. It's the oldest prison west of the Mississippi.
"Alcatraz at most had 500-something inmates. This prison held 5,200. The federal government never got female inmates until 1927. So we had famous females like Emma Goldman sent here. She was quite the anarchist. She believed in solving things with dynamite."
The city is pondering plans for the 144-acre site of the old prison, which sits on a bluff with a view of the Missouri River. A new $66 million federal courthouse is under construction just across from the prison's front entrance. The prison site may include a hotel, a Missouri Naval Museum, maybe even condos. A commission of city and business leaders is considering possible uses, which is why the bankers accompanied reporters on the preview tour.
The interior of the prison remains much the same as when inmates and staff walked out, although time and weather have taken their toll, with peeling paint hanging from ceilings like stalactites. While the inside is stabilized for safety, no redecorating is planned for the public's "hard hat" tours.
Visitors will get the full impact of walking into a prison with a history of murder and mayhem.
"Things were brutal in here," Schreiber said. "In the early years, they had a cat o' tails for whipping prisoners. This was the state's only maximum-security prison until 1989. Anybody with a long sentence or a history of problems came here."
The tour included Housing Unit No. 4, the oldest building still on the site, dating to 1868. "At the time of the 1954 prison riot, this was an all-black unit," Schreiber said. "There were six to eight inmates in each of these cells. We were in a warehouse mode then."
I climbed the stairs and the crosswalks between tiers, searching for cell No. 33, where heavyweight boxing champ Sonny Liston served time with five other inmates. As I tried to imagine six inmates in the tiny cell, Schreiber interrupted my thoughts with a yell from below.
"Don't slam any doors behind you cause I can't get you out," he said. "And I'm not kidding."
As Schreiber walked, he talked. And each building held another tale.
"You couldn't count the number of escapes from here," he said. "In one year in the 1920s, there were 30-something escapes. One guy took the warden's car, went out to California and got married in it.
"We had a guy who was going to make a glider and go over the wall right there. Another guy made gunpowder; tested it in his cell during a thunderstorm. He was brilliant. He's still in the institution, at the maximum-security prison in Potosi. Sends me a Christmas card every year."
Our tour ended at the most infamous building of all, the execution chamber. Sitting alone inside a fenced courtyard, the small rock building is where 39 men and one woman died for their crimes. All were killed by cyanide except the last, George "Tiny" Mercer, who was put to death in 1989. Because of fears that the aging chamber would leak, Mercer was executed by lethal injection.
On our way out, Schreiber pointed to the only thing that looked new in the prison.
"We added the razor wire up there just before we left because we knew some guy wanted to be the last to escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary before it closed," he said. "I'm going to bid everybody farewell right here. I've got to lock up the house."
My next guide also had a sense of humor. Wiley Tracy, a diminutive, dapper gent of 82 years, was to lead us around the state Capitol. He spotted one young man in the group and told him, "I'm sorry, sir, we can't allow you on the tour."
When the man stammered an objection, Tracy explained, "Not with that shirt on." The poor guy was wearing a Kansas Jayhawks T-shirt.
The capitol building is Missouri's fourth, Tracy said, and third built in Jefferson City. When it was completed in 1917 at a cost of $3.5 million, the state spent another million to add art. The dome rises 262 feet above the basement floor and is adorned with a statue of Ceres, the Roman goddess of Agriculture.
The first floor has self-guided museums that showcase the state's history and resources. The second floor has 41 half-moon-shaped paintings, including some that feature an optical illusion that artists call "three-point perspective." When you view the painting of Eads Bridge in St. Louis from one side, the bridge seems to be heading away from you. But when you walk slowly to the other side, the bridge appears to move and head the other way.
The third floor has bronze busts in the Hall of Famous Missourians and Benton's huge mural in the House Lounge. Benton was paid $16,000 for his work in 1935. Today, the mural is valued at over $10 million.
"When it was completed, there were a lot of unhappy legislators," Tracy said. "It was to be a social history of Missouri, and the legislators expected only good things. Benton showed slavery, the treatment of the Mormons, outlaws like Jesse James, a speakeasy in St. Louis, the Depression era. Benton showed Missouri as it was."
© St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Penitentiary tours: Admission is $12. Call 1-800-769-4183 to reserve a tour time and buy tickets.
State Capitol: 201 W. Capitol Ave., 1-573-751-2854 and mocapitoltours.com.
For information on Jefferson City: The Convention and Visitors Bureau is at 1-800-769-4183 and visitjeffersoncity.com.
Other Jefferson City sights:
Governor's Mansion — Built in 1871, this is one of the oldest governor's mansions in the country. The three-story brick building has a great hall with 17-foot-ceilings, glittering chandeliers and portraits of the state's first ladies. During our visit, the current first lady, Georganne Nixon, and the family dog, a Welsh Springer spaniel named Daniel Boone, came down to greet visitors. She was gracious, Boone was a bit skittish. 100 Madison St., 1-573-751-7929, missourimansion.org
Runge Nature Center — The Missouri Department of Conservation's nature center has displays that explain the state's various habitats, from forest and prairies to wetlands and rivers. The exhibits include live creatures that live in the habitats. You can check out an alligator snapping turtle, a longnose gar and an Osage copperhead. 330 Commerce Drive, 1-573-526-5544, mdc.mo.gov/areas/cnc/runge
Supreme Court — The library stacks at the Missouri Supreme Court building have 110,000 volumes and glass floors between the two levels. The walls are decorated with portraits of various judges. The favorite of kids on tours is a painting of an old boy named Elijah Norton of Platte County. Norton is clean shaven but has a ring of gray hair curling up from beneath his collar. 207 W. High St., 1-573-751-4144, www.courts.mo.gov
Historical Museum — The Cole County Historical Museum has antique furniture and historical treasures that date from the era of the Louisiana Territory. The museum has a Civil War exhibit with uniforms and weapons and a collection of the inaugural gowns worn by the state's first ladies. 109 Madison St., 1-573-635-1850, colecohistsoc.org
Atelier CMS — This is a nonprofit visual arts studio where Carla Steck brings in other artists to hold workshops for aspiring young artists, including troubled teens. The studio is in a remodeled barn that is chock full of colorful creations. You can't miss it on Highway 179 in the countryside. A giant metal wildflower is in front, a huge bug sits on the porch and a gargantuan turkey vulture flies outside. Highway 179 and Atelier Drive, 1-573-690-2556, atelier-cms.com
Summit Lake Winery — The winery is on a bluff across the Missouri River from Jefferson City, with a view of the Capital City skyline. An outdoor patio is the perfect place to try the Norton or Lewis & Clark dry white while admiring the Capitol dome. 1707 South Summit Drive, 1-573-896-9966, summitlakewinery.com
Central Dairy — Last, but perhaps the top spot to stop, is Central Dairy. A classic 1930s soda fountain, the banana split is big enough for two, maybe three. I had the Moose Tracks, which had crushed Peanut Butter Cups, chocolate swirls and vanilla ice cream, covered with walnuts that had been toasted in butter. A sinful delight for $2.25. 610 Madison St., 1-573-635-6148, centraldairy.biz