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Missouri State Penitentiary

Competition for Capital City site selection was intense in the early years. In 1831, Governor John Miller suggested a prison be built in Jefferson City to insure it remain the seat of government. While this met with strong opposition, most notably from Columbia and St. Louis, the Missouri House of Representatives passed the measure by a 25 to 24 margin in January 1833. October 1, 1834 was set as a deadline for completion and $25,000 allocated for the project.

Main Entrance, Missouri State Penitentiary

The penitentiary initially opened in 1836, the same week as the battle of the Alamo in Texas. The first prisoner, admitted March 8, was William Edson or Eidson. He was the only prisoner from this date until May 28th. Louis Bolton was Warden.

By 1839, the General Assembly had become distressed over the amount of money required to maintain the prison. To defray the cost of operations, the legislature abolished the warden's position and on February 15, 1839, the facility was turned over to John C. Gordon and William S. Burch. They contracted to pay the state $30,000 and in return the state granted them the right to utilize the pool of prison labor for personal business. It was also their obligation to guard, feed, clothe and house the prisoners. During this time prisoners were gravely mistreated.

The use of convict labor outside the walls of the penitentiary disturbed the community. The criticism did not arise solely from fear of prison escapes; its labor system threatened local economic stability.

Penitentiary, Aerial View

A book written in the state prison at Jefferson City was perhaps second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin in stirring sectional animosity between the north and south. The author was imprisoned late in 1841 and began writing probably early in 1842.

George Thompson, Alanson Work and James E. Burr, students preparing for the ministry, all radical abolitionists, crossed the Mississippi River from the Mission Institute on the Illinois side to Missouri July 1, 1841, to induce slaves to cross the river to the free state of Illinois whence they would be transported to Canada and freedom. One of the slaves approached informed his master. The three were arrested and after being held in the Palmyra jail for three months were sentenced to twelve years each in the penitentiary. Each was afterwards pardoned, after serving from four to five years.

Commenting on an attempt by the wives of the three men to secure pardon for their husbands in 1843, the Jeffersonian said, "Sympathy for the distressed condition of the females thus situated may be classed among the cardinal virtues; but executive clemency for a grade of crime so high can not be reasonably expected."

During his confinement Thompson wrote a book, Prison Life and Recollections, which was published and widely distributed throughout the east after his release. The book is now quite rare.

Thompson frankly expressed unflattering views on the character and habits of officials, then in charge of the prison. In this book he gave a vivid, if prejudiced, account of the evils of the system of prison leasing then in vogue, and the hardships it worked upon the prisoners. The state would farm out the penitentiary and its inmates to whatever contractor offered the highest price for their services. It was required of the lessor to feed and clothe the prisoners. As his profit, if any, was contingent on securing the greatest possible amount of labor at the least possible expense on food and clothing, the convicts were not overfed or over clothed.

The penitentiary contained ninety prisoners when these three were confined. There was no separate prison for women, which according to Thompson created a somewhat unethical situation on the rare occasions when a woman was imprisoned. Flogging was the principal mode of correction and was resorted to on trivial occasions.

Total receipts of the penitentiary for 1853 were $83,835.39 and total disbursements including salaries of officers and guards, purchase of materials, etc., $83,100.04. Its industries included a cooper shop, hemp factory, wagon works and brick yard.

Typical Accomodations


In 1853, in response to public pressure and recurring accusations of abuse and mismanagement, the state abandoned the practice of leasing the penitentiary. This did not, however, eliminate the use of convict labor inside the state prison. By the late 1870's the state had constructed factories inside the prison walls and negotiated with manufacturers who signed multi-year contracts for the use of convict labor.

This development placed greater demands upon the prison for internal discipline, and also reduced the conflict between convict and free labor in the community. The penitentiary's secure and inexpensive labor force attracted many manufacturers to Jefferson City, including the Star Clothing Mfg. Co., A. Priesmeyer Shoe Co., Oberman Clothing Co., L. S. Parker Shoe Co.

During the eight years from 1876 to 1884, the state constructed seven new factories inside the prison walls. These prison factories produced goods in quantity for wholesale markets over the country. These factories produced men's work clothing (overalls, duck coats, cotton pants, work shirts and jackets), shoes brooms saddle trees as well as other items. At one time five shoe factories operated within the prison walls with an aggregate output of 7,000 pairs daily.

Soon after the turn of the century the use of prison labor decreased and was outlawed in 1935 by U.S. federal law.

Executed Prisoners

By the 1930's Missouri State Penitentiary was the largest in the country. Over the years many additions and modifications were made to this 140+ acre complex. It was replaced by an all new, modern facility, situated at the eastern-most edge of Jefferson City and the old penitentiary was decommissioned in 2004. This property is being redeveloped for commercial, residential, governmental and public use. Some of the historic buildings will be preserved while others will be demolished. Prior to work beginning, historians are taking hundreds of photographs and making extensive audio recordings, preserving the history of the institution. Many artifacts have been collected for the state museum's exhibit, scheduled for 2007 first in the Rozier Gallery then in the Capitol Museum.

In-depth volumes can and have been written about the Missouri State Penitentiary. Perhaps one of the most comprehensive, "Somewhere in Time, 170 Years of Missouri Corrections", was researched, written and edited by Mark S. Schreiber (Associate Superintendent) and Laura Burkhardt Moeller (Public Information Officer) in 2004. We highly recommend this book for those of you searching for more complete information.

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