Ozarks Life: Visiting the Missouri State Penitentiary, Part 1

Many consider the penitentiary one of the most haunted places in Missouri.
Published: Oct. 14, 2022 at 9:40 AM CDT
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KY3) - At the center of the state sits a petrifying penitentiary.

“I mean, 1836, the same week that the Alamo fell this place opened up,” Crocker native and former corrections officer, Tom Wells said.

“When we first became a prison,” a former employee at the penitentiary Larry Neal from Vienna said, “Texas, Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, and California, all of that was Mexico.”

From 1836 to 2004 the worst of the worst wasted their time at the Missouri State Penitentiary.

“I’ve seen three different episodes of Gun Smoke,” Wells said, “they talked about Jeff City; the penitentiary. They’re talking about this place.”

Over the years, more housing units were added to accommodate career gangsters, rapists, and cold-blooded killers. Before it closed, it was the oldest operating penal facility west of the Mississippi River.

“We had Sonny Liston, James Earl Ray, and Pretty Boy Floyd,” Neal said were the most popular men sentenced there.

But not every inmate left. Forty were executed on site. One by lethal injection and before that 39-inside the gas chamber. One of those sentenced to death by cyanide gas was a man from the Ozarks. Wright County’s Ernest Afton Scott.

In the spring of 1948, he shot his wife Verla in front of their oldest of seven kids because she filed for divorce. He also killed the judge in Mountain Grove that was going to hold their hearing. A year later, the last thing he saw was the inside of the gas chamber.

“Twenty cyanide tablets were put on the little shelf,” Neal who today is the penitentiary’s historian said. “When they pulled the red lever that dropped that into a stone on crock that had acid in it. That created a visible, cyanide mist.”

“It’s like breathing battery acid,” Neal continued. “It burns. You can’t draw another breath and you just slowly suffocate. So it was horrible.”

Outside of the execution chamber, hundreds of deaths have been reported at this prison.

“A lot of murders were committed in here,” Neal said. “Some very bloody and violent murders.”

In 1967, Time Magazine called it “The Bloodiest 47 Acres in America.”

“I’ve seen an inmate stabbed 25 times,” Wells said. “Blood squirting out of him everywhere running to the hospital. And you know, I’ve seen guys out in the gym that had been murdered.”

These buildings were fortresses to keep Missouri’s worst from escaping. Today many believe some of these inmates still cannot leave.

On this night, we’re following David Glidden with Four State Paranormal. He has a show on YouTube called Haunting History. Chad Plein has followed Glidden in the past for overnight investigations for KY3. Over the years they’ve spent the night at the Landers Theater, the old Riverside Inn, the Pythian Castle, and the Crescent Hotel.

Glidden, a southwest Missouri native, brought in some paranormal investigator friends to spend the night and see if any prisoners are still around. No Ouija boards or conjuring happens during these stays. The team uses instruments to gather sound, video, temperature, vibration, and humidity.

“This is my first time ever being here,” Glidden said. “This place has been on my bucket list for I don’t know how long. The history here is amazing.”

On this night, we have full access to most of the grounds:

Building 1: the women’s ward. Here tour guides have seen a woman walking the catwalks from cell to cell.

Building 3: home to death row and solitary confinement. Voices, footsteps, and shadows are said to watch your every move.

Building 4: the oldest on the property built in 1868. It has shadows, full-bodied apparitions, and screams coming from the dungeon cells.

The execution chamber: voices are captured where 40 people drew their last breath.

Before our investigation begins we interviewed both Neal and Wells. When we were talking to Wells, we all heard something coming from a cell block above us.

“Thought somebody was walking up there,” Glidden says as he interrupts Well’s interview.

“It could be,” Wells answers.

We all heard what sounded like something walking above us inside Building 3. The only people inside at that time were on the ground level for Wells’ interview.

“I’m sorry,” Glidden says for interrupting Wells.

“No, no, that happens when it happens,” Wells said.

Next Friday we will continue our overnight stay at the Missouri State Penitentiary. We’ll have more of its horrific history and paranormal claims.

You can visit the state penitentiary and go on one of its various ghost tours by clicking here. Right now unfortunately it’s almost booked solid this fall.

We’ll leave you with a little bit of Ozarks history. The first inmate brought to the penitentiary when it opened was from Greene County. In 1836, Wilson Eidson was sentenced two days after the fall of the Alamo for stealing a watch.

To report a correction or typo, please email digitalnews@ky3.com