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Historically Yours: The Missouri State Penitentiary

Elizabeth Davis
Special to Boonville Daily News

Not everyone was happy with Jefferson City as Missouri’s Capital. There were those who not only wanted it elsewhere, but attempted to get the capital moved. Governor John Miller was not one of them.

In 1831, Miller suggested a prison be built in order to keep the capital in Jefferson City. A bill was passed by the House of Representatives in 1833 and construction of the Missouri State Penitentiary began in 1834. It was the first prison built west of the Mississippi River. 

The first inmate, Wilson Eidson, arrived from Green County in 1836. As there were no separate prisons for women in those days, women were also housed in Jefferson City. Amelia Eddy arrived from St. Louis County in 1842. 

By 1893, the penitentiary was one of the most efficient prisons in the country.

It only cost 11 cents per day to house and feed inmates. The large prison population allowed the prison to be transformed into a labor center with many industries on site. In 1900, the Jefferson City Star Tribune proclaimed it was the greatest prison in the world. 

Originally, inmates wore black and white striped uniforms, but that changed in 1909 much to the pleasure of the inmates. 

On Feb. 5, 1911, lightning struck the capitol building and burned it down. Prisoners helped save thousands of legal documents during that night. 

A gas chamber was built at the prison in 1937. Forty inmates (one was a woman) were executed between April 7, 1936, and Jan. 6, 1989. While the last execution was carried out in the former gas chamber, it had been converted to use lethal injection.

Plans began in 1935 for a hospital at the prison and, in 1938, a 240-bed hospital was built. 

During 1953-1954, prison riots became the norm around the country. One of the worst happened in Jefferson City on Sept. 22, 1954. According to Time Magazine, the penitentiary was “the bloodiest 47 acres in America.” 

At its peak, the penitentiary held 4,900 inmates. It closed on Oct. 14, 2004, after 168 years of service. The remaining 1,355 inmates were moved Sept. 15 of that year to the new Jefferson City Correctional Center on the east side of town. 

Elizabeth Davis was born and raised in Cooper County, Missouri, and has written HISTORICALLY YOURS for the Boonville Daily News since April 2008, She has covered the War Between the States, US history, and Cooper County history. In celebration of Missouri’s upcoming Bicentennial, she has syndicated her column statewide and encourages readers all over the Show Me State to submit topic suggestions for future columns to HistoricallyYours.davis@gmail.com.