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Old Prison Museum in Deer Lodge

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Like other fledgling territories in the 19th century American West, Montana had become wild when the gold rush attracted not only those wishing to find their fortunes, but also thieves, gamblers, and murderers. For several years following the gold discoveries of 1862, the Montana Vigilantes took it upon themselves to punish these many offenders in the lawless land of Montana. Finally, seeing a need for more organized forms of law enforcement, the Montana Territorial Legislature requested funds for a prison during its winter session of 1866-67. The United States Congress agreed that the territory needed a prison, approved the request for funding, and Deer Lodge was chosen for the site of the new Territorial Prison.


However, they soon found that the funding was inadequate causing revisions to the plans and many delays. Construction finally began in the spring of 1870 with convict labor, and the prison finally received its first convict on July 2, 1871.


Old Montana Prison Museum

Old Montana Prison Museum, July, 2008, Kathy Weiser.




Almost from the beginning, the prison was deemed inadequate and overcrowded, a condition that would result in slow, but continual construction at the prison for the next fifty years. When Montana became the forty-first state on November 8, 1889, the prison became Montana's responsibility. Finding it expensive to operate, the Board of Prison Commissioners contracted out the entire Prison operation in 1890. Colonel Thomas McTague and Frank Conley of Deer Lodge received the contract, which paid them seventy cents per prisoner per day.

Frank Conley became the new warden, a post that he would continue to hold until 1921. Over the next thirty years, Conley shaped the philosophy and appearance of the prison. Believing the prisoners should work, Conley began to update the prison by first replacing its twelve-foot wooden fence with the massive sandstone wall in 1893. Four and a half feet thick, the wall formed a solid perimeter for the prison. He also began to build a new log cell house to reduce the prison crowding.

As a further measure to reduce crowding, put the prisoners to work, and generate income from the prison, outside prison camps were established where prisoners would live and be "hired out” for both public and private work. This worked so well that by the late 1890’s approximately one-third of the prisoners worked outside the prison. At these camps, which housed about 75 prisoners each, inmates enjoyed a relatively high degree of freedom with neither chains nor cells restricting them. However, "outside work” was a privilege, and the slightest infraction of the rules would immediately send a prisoner back behind prison walls.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, about fifty percent of the inmates were working outside the penitentiary, traveling throughout Montana erecting numerous state buildings, paving more than five hundred miles of roads, and working on eleven different ranches that provided food for state-owned institutions.


In 1908, the prison witnessed one of its most tragic events when two prisoners by the names of George Rock and William Hayes attempted to escape. Fleeing from the Federal Building, their failed attempt resulted in the death of Deputy Warden John Robinson and Warden Frank Conley was required to get 103 stitches in his back and neck from stab wounds he received from the inmates. As a result, George Rock was hanged inside the prison yard that very year, and William Hayes met a similar fate the following year.  They were the only inmates to be executed in the prison.


Not all the inmates were so violent however, and one was down right liked by the guards and prisoners. At the age of 40, Pete Eitner was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in 1918.


Turkey Pete Eitner's Cell

Turkey Pete's Cell #1 was retired after his death.


A model prisoner, he was assigned to tend to the prison turkeys and soon garnered the nickname of "Turkey Pete." As he aged, he began to lose some of his mental facilities and when a man stopped one day to admire his turkeys, Eitner sold him the entire flock for 25 cents each. This ended his turkey tending days, but that was ok, because he soon fantasized a new "job" as the owner and administrator of the prison. Prison officials humored him, "allowing" Eitner to "run" the prison from his cell. Fake checks were printed for him, with which he paid the prison expenses and payroll. He would also tell anyone who would listen that he had the coffee crop in Brazil one year, sold pink alligators, ships to the navy, and grasshopper legs to Fidel Castro.


When Turkey Pete died in 1967 at age 89, his cell (#1) was retired. His funeral was the only one ever held within the walls of the prison. Today, Cell #1 displays photos of Turkey Pete, as well as his few belongings.

Continued Next Page


Turkey Pete Eitner

Turkey Pete Eitner


Montana Prison Museum

Two prisoners were hanged in this side yard inside the prison.

July, 2008,  Kathy Weiser.


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