Historically Yours: The bloodiest 47 acres in America

Elizabeth Davis
Special to Boonville Daily News

During 1953-1954, prison riots became the norm around the county. The Missouri Highway Patrol devised a plan and began training officers, just in case. 

On the evening of Sept. 22, 1954, two inmates overpowered a couple of guards and took their keys. Running through the cellblock, they released other prisoners, smashed windows and chairs in the dining hall, and set fires in the prison shops.  

An urgent radio message went out to Highway Patrolmen all over the state: “Proceed to Jefferson City at once, prison riot in progress!”

By midnight, the prison was surrounded by Highway Patrolmen, police from all over the state, and the national guard.

Close to 2,500 prisoners were loose and rioting inside the prison walls and four buildings were on fire. Armed with machine guns and riot guns, troopers were forced to open fire.

Inmates scattered and took cover wherever they could. Finally, officers regained control, but about 300 prisoners barricaded themselves in B and C cellblocks. At 7:00 a.m., the troopers were given instructions. While 18 led the way, the other 200, along with 100 St. Louis police officers, stood outside the prison yard as a second line of defense. 

Trooper Walter Wilson was one of the 18.

“It was a tense moment and anything could happen: we were heavily armed with riot guns and submachine guns as we entered the massive building," he said at the time. "The inmates were shouting, cursing and throwing articles of bedding, furniture and personal belongings. … Over the loud speaker, the convicts were ordered to get into the nearest cell and be quiet or they would be shot. One inmate ignored the order, leering and shouting. Without hesitation, one of the troopers raised his weapon and shot the troublemaker dead. At that, an eerie silence fell … [as] convicts retreated into the nearest cells.”

In all, four inmates had been killed, 50 injured, and one attempted suicide. Four officers had been injured. Damage was estimated close to $5 million dollars. And through it all, not one prisoner escaped. 

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.