Inside the Bloodiest 47 Acres in America
An eerie look at the history behind the walls of the Missouri State Penitentiary
By Erick Rodriguez
Rand McNally has named Jefferson City, Missouri, ‘America’s Most Beautiful Small Town.’ As such, you may find it surprising that this charming state capital town of flower pots and white picket fences also has a much darker nickname associated with one of its historic institutions – the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP), ‘the bloodiest 47 acres in America.’
Throughout its operation for over 100 years, the prison served various manufacturing roles, among them being the largest saddletree factory in the world. Former warden and historian Mark S. Schreiber explains that since its initial completion in 1835, the prison expanded to include over 5,000 convicts in 1932 and has been called the poster child for why free industrial market convict labor should not be used in competition with union labor. He further elaborates that the prison served as an influential industrial resource for the City of Jefferson, at one time producing up to 10,000 pairs of shoes and boots every two weeks and making over 60,000 saddletrees per year.
The More Infamous Side of MSP
MSP was not only famous for its manufacturing prowess, in fact, there were a host of infamous offenders who were housed in what was called the bloodiest prison in America in the 1960s. Some of the notable inhabitants include the man who killed Martin Luther King – James Earl Ray, boxer Sonny Liston, gangsters Roger McQueen and Edna Murray, a member of the Bonnie and Clyde gang Blanche Barrow, bank robber Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd, and a man who survived the dark dungeon of the prison for 18 years named JB Johnson.
The reason why Missouri State Penitentiary is a blood-ridden reminder of a cruel period in American history is that it is known for the hundreds of cases of handmade contraband weapons created by clever inmates who were violent, unpredictable and murderous. Schreiber’s book, Shanks to Shakers, is a solemn recognition of the dark criminal history that surrounds Jefferson City’s historic prison. In it, the former warden tells the story of the penitentiary through photographs taken throughout its history, as well as memoranda he acquired following its final days of operation in 2004. Modern critics would point out the immoral practices that characterized the prison, including the use of gas chambers, lethal injection, and torture of inmates.
The Historic Riot
Following horrid conditions faced by the prisoners at the penitentiary, a riot erupted at the prison on September 22, 1954, after two inmates pretended to be sick in order to incapacitate their guards, steal their keys, and release an onslaught of some of the most heinous criminals known to the American government.
Many of the convicts smashed prison property and set the complex alight, leading to a riot that amounted to 2,500 prisoners running loose inside the complex, and one inmate was reported to have been tortured to death by other prisoners. Once confronted by a mighty show of firepower in the form of machine and riot guns, the breakout was contained and order returned to the penitentiary. The containment was not without resistance, and many officers were close to deadly injuries planned by the inmates who awaited them. In one officer’s account, he was nearly hit by a 50-pound cake of ice pushed over a ledge above his head!
Although the rioting ended, the damage that accumulated from it added up to over $5 million. The outbreak resulted in the loss of four inmates and injured 50 of them, while only injuring four officers. It took more than 245 state troopers to subdue the chaos and not a single prisoner was able to escape thanks to their valiant effort.
Following repairs passed into law by the governor Matthew Donnelly, an enormous shakedown of the prison revealed what amounted to an arsenal of weaponry. The day after the riot, 100 St. Louis policemen joined prison guards to find sledgehammers, axe handles, screwdrivers, scissors, files and pieces of heavy machinery filed down to sharp, deadly points. When asked, the convicts claimed that the reasoning for the riot was that three new members of the parole board were former members of the Highway Patrol, which the prisoners felt was unfair since they thought the officers would not be impartial when considering parole in the conference held the Monday after the riot. Governor Donnelly refused to make any changes to the parole board despite the protests of the convicts.
Violence at the penitentiary often became commonplace and often was so rampant that Schreiber noted the burdensome number of cases of assault, escape, and homicide that pervaded the prison. One officer, Lieutenant Harold Atkinson, was stabbed 69 times in 1975, an example that illustrates just how hard and gruesome the job at the Missouri State Penitentiary could be. Even the cyanide gas chamber executions became so dangerous for those conducting them that the governor limited the method to lethal injection after consulting with the general assembly of Missouri. Since the first execution of George “Tiny” Mercer in 1989, the prison only conducted execution by lethal injection. Although the punishments sound heinous and sometimes inmates were docile and model prisoners, Schreiber explains that Tiny was a member of a motorcycle gang who kidnapped, abused, and killed a young waitress.
Resident Feline Adds Levity
Even though the prison was known for its violence and history of administering the death penalty, there are aspects of the penitentiary known to few other than those who worked in it. One such facet is the story of Mike the cat, who was known for carrying cigarettes around the complex through saddlebags attached to his stomach. The desperate convicts would pass notes through Mike’s bags, using him as a means to their ends in exchange for tuna fish. Another famous story from the complex involves the escape of the man who murdered Martin Luther King, James Earl Ray, who used the prison bakery’s truck to escape the undermanned penitentiary. On a Sunday morning, Ray convinced fellow inmates to hide him beneath a crate of bread loaves inside the truck. Lax weekend guards failed to spot the hiding inmate before it left MSP grounds to make a delivery.
As stupendous as some of the stories from the Missouri State Penitentiary may seem, its dark history is contrasted with its brighter touristic future. The prison, after closing in 2004, now serves as a museum reminding its visitors what the justice system could be like. Some even see the penitentiary as a monument that stands against older prison practices that would be hailed as barbaric in the contemporary period where human rights are protected to a greater degree.
The status quo has reflected a moralist shift toward the elimination of the death penalty, although various states still retain it as a last resort for certain crimes. Whether or not you agree with the death penalty, we can all gain a better understanding of the history of the criminal justice system by looking at the MSP history in order to avoid past misgivings and pave a future for a correctional system that reduces recidivism, maintains order, and fairly administers justice in a way society can accept as reasonable. Hindsight gives us the best vantage point to determine how our nation’s justice system can improve on the way prisoners are treated and prevent the spread of criminality. Despite the manufacturing profitability of prisons and the correctional system, a future with a greater value for societal quality of life demands a reduction in crime for the benefit of all who wish to live in a peaceful United States of America.
Infamous Missouri State Penitentiary Inmates
Blanche Iva Barrow: A fringe member of Bonnie and Clyde’s gang and wife of Clyde Barrow’s brother Buck, Blanche was convicted of intent to murder Sheriff Holt Coffey. She served 6 years.
Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd: Floyd arrived at MSP in 1925 to serve 4 years for a $12,000 payroll robbery. After release, he robbed multiple banks and in a manhunt was shot dead by police.
James Earl Ray: In 1959, Ray held up a grocery store and was sentenced to 20 years. In 1967, he escaped in a bakery truck. On April 4, 1968, Ray assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis, TN.
John B. “Firebug” Johnson: Firebug attemped many escapes but is most notorious for setting fire to MSP, killing several inmates. He survived 18 years in a pitch black dungeon and later authored “Buried Alive for 18 Years at MSP.”