In 1950, Charles “Sonny” Liston, who would later become a heavyweight boxing champion, was sentenced to time in the Missouri State Penitentiary for armed robbery. It was here that he learned to box and about a year after his release in 1952, he became a professional boxer and in 1953, won the National Heavyweight Championship.
James Earl Ray was held imprisoned here in 1959 for repeated offenses of burglary. He escaped in 1967 by hiding in a truck. While he was still at large, he assassinated Civil Rights Leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee on April 4, 1968. He was soon apprehended and sent to prison in Tennessee.
After the prison closed, it fell into disrepair before it reopened as a tourist attraction, offering history and paranormal tours. Sometimes these tours are led by former inmates and guards.
Nearly 100 years older than Alcatraz, it comes as no surprise that the old structure is said to be home to several resident ghosts and numerous paranormal events have been reported throughout the years.
Tales of ghostly visitors began long before the prison closed with both prisoners and guards reporting having seen apparitions.
A-Hall, the prison’s oldest building is said to be a hotspot of unearthly activity. Inside the massive stone building are four tiers of cells with catwalks that criss-cross its width. The doors of the cells are less than five feet high, which forced prisoners to stoop down and take a subordinate posture when leaving their cells. Early on, inmates were not allowed to look guards in the eye, an infraction that could result in punishment at the whipping post or solitary confinement.
Within this building is a basement of dungeons, referred to as the “Hole.” Here were kept death row inmates, violent and disruptive prisoners, and those suffering from mental problems. The only light in these cells came from a small slit in the door.
One inmate, John B. “Firebug” Johnson, was housed in the dungeon for 17 years between February 26, 1883, to July 1, 1900. Prior to his placement in the dungeon, he had attempted to escape several times and had started several fires. He was moved to the basement after setting a fire that destroyed more than $500,000 worth of property and the deaths of several inmates. Amazingly, he didn’t go mad and upon his release, wrote a book called Buried Alive for 18 Years in the Missouri Penitentiary.
In this building, paranormal reports have included the feeling of having been touched by ghostly hands, an overwhelming smell of body odor, an apparition of a man spied on the catwalk, and movements in the darkness. Equipment often malfunctions here, disembodied voices have been captured on recorders, and some have felt an invisible force breathing down their necks.
Cell #48 once housed a prisoner who was known to be a snitch. He was bludgeoned to death with a sledgehammer during the prison riot of 1854. Here, people have reported having strange heavy feelings and an unearthly human figure has been caught on camera
Near the Control Room and in some of the housing units is said to lurk an entity known as “Fast Jack.” Usually spied wearing a white lab coat and carrying a clipboard, he is thought to have been a trustee who worked in the medical facilities. At one point a tour guide passed through the control center to secure the outer doors, only to return just a few minutes later to find all the lockers had been opened. This antic was attributed to Fast Jack. Others report him as having been seen in hallways moving through walls or appearing for short moments before vanishing.
In the Female Wing, a female ghostly figure is often seen dressed in vintage clothing. Others have seen a man an outdated prison uniform leaning against a fence. Strangely, some have seen or heard the ghosts of children, and others, even a dog.
Throughout the old facilities, people have heard cell doors slamming, ghostly footsteps, loud banging, shadowy figures, the smell of cigarette smoke, objects being mysteriously moved around, and fast-moving entities. They also report having felt dread, a sense of sorrow, and feeling of being watched.
Today, the Gothic style Missouri State Penitentiary ranks as one of the most incredible haunted prisons in the country, along with the Eastern State Penitentiary in Pennsylvania, the Ohio State Reformatory, and the West Virginia Penitentiary.
Several major ghost-hunting groups have conducted investigations at the prison over the years, recording ghostly voices and shadowy people.
Reservations are required for all tours. The Missouri State Penitentiary Museum is located in the old warden’s residence built by convict labor in 1888. Called the Colonel Darwin W. Marmaduke House, it sits at 700 E. Capitol Avenue across from the prison. It features artifacts, photos, and displays about the prison, including a replica cell.
Missouri State Penitentiary
115 Lafayette Street
Jefferson City, MO 65101