Last night the Syfy Channel show “Ghost Hunters” took us to the old Missouri State Penitentiary to show us some purportedly spooky stuff. It was kind of hard to get spooked, though, by a show that was heavy on over-produced visuals and too-loud supposedly creepy music and the overly-dramatic searches for the paranormal by the program hosts. They came up with a couple of voices and somebody dragging a chain–maybe but, really, wouldn’t you think that the old place where the worst of our worst criminals were held and executed would be chock-full of spirits that would turn your blood to ice and your hair to gray–especially since the place has deteriorated so badly in the seven years since inmates moved to a new, modern prison east of the city that the entire atmosphere is one of misery?
Say “boo” without an exclamation point and you pretty much capture the feel of the show.
The penitentiary is open for public tours now. In fact, Missourinet reporter Mike Lear is one of those who will take your group through it. Forget all the crap about whether the old joint is haunted. The real-life stories (maybe we should say the real life-without-parole stories) are riveting enough. One of these days we’re going to have Mike do a blog or two about his second life as a tour guide and the interesting stories he’s learned since starting that sideline.
The continued deterioration of the old penitentiary adds to the fascination with the place.
It also is a sad situation.
When word first got around that the state was going to abandon the oldest prison still in use west of the Alleghenies, Jefferson City quickly recognized it had an incredible but extremely challenging opportunity. All of the sudden, the city would have 47 acres in the heart of town that would be available for redevelopment. Some of the prison could be kept and restored as a historic site. But other parts of it could be cleared and redeveloped for other uses—offices, parks, businesses, even some residential opportunities. And the redevelopment would have great ripples in blocks and blocks of an older neighborhood that had been built up outside the walls.
Some of that has happened. A couple of new state buildings have been built on penitentiary property outside the walls. Some homes and businesses have found new life in the area. But the greater possibilities require tons of cash and the national economy and the political tenor of the times is focused on reductions in spending.
So development is slow. Maintenance and restoration of the historic old penitentiary seems far, far away. In the meantime, paint peels and rust creeps along. Leaks develop. Broken windows remain broken.
It might be a great atmosphere for tourists and for television shows that claim to find spooks lurking in corners that .program hosts can see but cameras generally can’t (the camera did capture a light of some kind that flickered, supposedly because a ghost passed in front of it) but it’s a slow and cancerous death of a historic structure with stories to tell that are beyond the power of television’s ginned-up frights.
“Ghost Hunters” did a pretty good job of showing those conditions.
But the old deteriorating penitentiary is its own continuing tragedy today.
If you want to see what it could be, take a look at this web page and the video showing the old Wyoming Territorial Prison. It’s much smaller than the old MSP. But the state of Wyoming has created a wonderful restoration that tells the story of the prison and some of the history of the state. A visit there last year took us through the prison, through the reconstructed broom factory, and through other structures that are part of the complex. To see what Wyoming has done is to see what Missouri could do if it had the will to put resources into this marvelous historic area.
The Wyoming Territorial Prison is unlikely to draw the attention of ghost hunters. There’s not enough rust and peeling paint to suggest that something might go bump in the night there. But the story of a state and the story of its main prison is not the story of conjured shadows and spirits. It’s the real story of real life and real death, of societal attitudes toward punishment and reclamation of real troubled souls, of despair and hope. Even empty, the old joint is scary–not because of spirits but because visitors can think of how easy it can be to wind up in a place like that. Do not kid yourself. New prisons are not country clubs. Iron doors sound the same in a modern prison as they did in the old pen. And once you are on the wrong side of them, the REALLY scary stuff can happen to you.
There are people with boatloads of money who could underwrite the effort to transform Missouri’s old penitentiary into something of enduring learning value. Some build mansions here and there. Some try to buy self-serving laws or constitutional amendments. Some support charities and foundations.
Maybe some will decide to support history.