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The Missouri State Penitentiary

170 Years inside "The Walls"

Jamie Pamela Rasmussen

Publication Year: 2012

Asked how the Missouri State Penitentiary compared to other famous prisons, a historian and former prison administrator replied, “ It’s older and meaner.” For 168 years, it was everything other prisons were and more.



            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.

Published by: University of Missouri Press


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p. 1-1

Title Page, Series Page, Copyright Page, Dedication

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pp. 2-11


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pp. xi-xii

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pp. 1-5

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...

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The Founding of the Penitentiary

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pp. 6-14

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...

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The Civil War Period

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pp. 15-21

Like society at large, the Missouri State Penitentiary felt the sectional rumblings of the Civil War many years before actual fighting broke out. Although there were proportionally few slaves in the capital city, the governing families were generally pro-southern. Most had migrated to Missouri from southern states such as Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. But in the 1830s and 1840s, pro-Union...

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Earning Their Keep

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pp. 22-31

In the early days of the penitentiary movement, advocates believed that prison labor would both allow the prisoners to support themselves and help them to learn industrious habits that would allow them to become functioning members of society when their prison sentences were finished. But the push of economic motives created a...

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Women Prisoners Who Changed the Walls from the Inside Out

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pp. 32-43

Institutional reforms often have unexpected beginnings. In the Missouri State Penitentiary, a major impetus for reform in the early 1900s came from a long-neglected aspect of the penitentiary: its wing for female prisoners.
The women’s wing of the Missouri State Penitentiary demonstrated the nation’s thinking about how to deal with criminals. In the...

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Pretty Boy Floyd

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pp. 44-48

Some of the most famous inmates who spent time in the Missouri State Penitentiary did not become famous until after their stay in the penitentiary. One of these prisoners was Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd. Before going to prison, Floyd was just a small-time criminal. His exploits after his release made him a legend...

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Early Efforts to Reform Prisoners

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pp. 49-54

The penitentiary system was founded upon the theory that men could be changed. Reformers believed that with the right programs and training, men who had committed heinous crimes could become productive members of society. Around the turn of the twentieth century, it began to become apparent that prisoners needed more than solitary contemplation and hard work if they were to complete...

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12:01 a.m. : The Death Penalty at the Missouri State Penitentiary

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pp. 55-63

Along with early twentieth-century reforms came a darker aspect of the criminal justice system. As society became more settled and centralized, public hangings became a thing of the past, but the need to punish violent criminals did not. The death penalty came to the Missouri State Penitentiary...

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pp. 64-72

In the 1920s and 1930s, tensions in prisons across the country began to build. The 1930s saw a dramatic rise in the prison population that one Missouri warden blamed on fast cars, short skirts, and moonshine. When this population increase was combined with the phasing out of the contract labor system in response to pressures from organized labor, an explosive situation resulted. There were...

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Riot Aftermath

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pp. 73-83

As the embers of the riot fires cooled, a question remained in the minds of many citizens: what was the cause of so much violence? Interviews with inmates and two official inquiries provided a variety of answers, all of which were based at least in part on the overcrowded conditions and the old, crumbling facilities. The legislature was slow...

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James Earl Ray

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pp. 84-89

James Earl Ray was another infamous Missouri State Penitentiary inmate who is more famous for what he did after he left the penitentiary than for what he did while he was an inmate. Ray’s ingenious escape from the Missouri State Penitentiary put him on the scene when Martin Luther King Jr. was killed. Even today, debate still rages about...

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The Jailhouse Lawyer

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pp. 90-97

During the last decades of the twentieth century, the story told by prison authorities seemed to indicate that things were looking up for the Missouri State Penitentiary. New opportunities for education and recreation had been added, guards and other officials received professional training, and the entire prison experience was geared...

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The End of an Era

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pp. 98-103

As far back as the 1954 riot, officials knew that the old prison needed to be replaced, but problems of funding and increasing offender populations caused officials to focus on creating more prisons rather than replacing the existing penitentiary facility. It was not until 1998 that Missouri officials began to plan the closing of the Missouri State Penitentiary...

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pp. 104-112

Even after prisoners no longer toiled away long, lonely years behind its walls, the old penitentiary still played a vital role in the cultural life of the capital city. As soon as its closure was announced, community leaders began to think about what should be done with the land and buildings. Although it was difficult for the community to reach a consensus on the correct path to take, the penitentiary had...

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pp. 113-116


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pp. 117-121

About the Author

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p. 137-137

E-ISBN-13: 9780826272874
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826219879

Page Count: 136
Publication Year: 2012