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Missouri State Penitentiary (sometimes title "Missouri State Prison") is the fourth episode of Season 8 of Ghost Adventures. Zak, Nick and Aaron travel to Jefferson City, MO, to investigate the infamous cellblocks and prison halls of the Missouri State Penitentiary. The prison was founded in 1836, but it wasn't long before it became known for its bloodshed and violence. Time Magazine once proclaimed it "America's bloodiest 47 acres." - Official Website

Preliminary Investigation

Missouri State Penitentiary received its first inmate in 1836 which was the same year, month and day that the Battle of the Alamo was fought and was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi River, serving Missouri for 168 years; from 1836-2004. It housed 4900 inmates at its peak and is regarded as one of the largest prisons in the U.S.

Riot of 1954

During the years of 1953 and 1954 there had been a rash of prison riots across the United States. Many feared the Missouri system was ripe for an outbreak as well. The potential for riot became a popular topic of conversation which the Missouri Highway Patrol took very seriously, drafting a plan and training officers how to respond to such an event. The advance preparation would come in handy before long.

The storm is brewing: It was Wednesday evening, September 22, around 6:30, when two inmates feigned illness to attract the attention of two guards. When the guards entered the hall to investigate, they were overpowered and their keys were stolen. One of the guards was beaten severely. The two convicts then bolted out of their cell and ran along the cellblock, releasing others as they went. Soon a large group of inmates was running loose, racing around the compound and emptying other cellblocks along their path. One group of inmates entered the dining hall, smashing windows and chairs. In the prison shops, anything flammable was set afire.

Highway Patrol gets the call: Missouri Highway Patrolman Walter Wilson was eating dinner in his patrol car when he heard an urgent message come over his radio; “Proceed to Jefferson City at once, prison riot in progress!” Obeying the riot plan procedures, he immediately headed towards Jefferson City. Simultaneously, other patrolmen from all over the state turned their cars toward the capital city as well. By midnight, more highway patrol troopers, Kansas City and St. Louis police, national guardsmen and local police had surrounded the prison. Inside, several hundred convicts were running, shouting and throwing bricks and chunks of concrete at the deputy warden’s office. Four buildings were fully ablaze and more fires were being started. Soon, nearly 2,500 rioters were on the loose inside the walls. In this chaotic nightmare of activity, one inmate in solitary confinement was tortured and murdered by other prisoners.

Convicts rampage through the night: Trooper Wilson and the other highway patrolmen continued their vigil throughout the night, as the law enforcement groups tried to prevent a mass breakout: “As waves of rioters stormed the deputy warden’s office, armed troopers on the roof were finally forced to open fire with machine guns and riot guns to force the desperate prisoners to flee the prison yard. Several convicts were injured by gun fire,” Wilson later wrote.

Official regain control: Confronted with that mighty show of firepower, the inmates were finally forced back and most scattered to take cover wherever they could. Officers finally gained control, flushing out small groups of men and subduing the group of ringleaders. Another 300 prisoners were still barricaded in B and C cellblocks, cornered but not ready to surrender. The law enforcement officers left them alone and retreated, while in the warden’s office a meeting was held to decide how to handle the situation. The assembled members of the press were told that no attempt to secure the cellblocks would take place that night. Governor Phil Donnelley, Lt. Governor James Blair, Director of Penal Institutions Thomas Whitecotton, Warden Ralph Eidson and Highway Patrol Superintendent Hugh Waggoner had been at the riot scene since it began and were growing weary. At last they announced that all troopers were to meet at 7:00 the next morning, when they would be given instructions on how to enter the building. It was a sleepless night for the law enforcement teams.

Troopers storm the grounds: 245 troopers attended the next morning’s meeting. 18 men were chosen to lead the way into the cellblocks where the cornered rioters were in a forbidding four story white stone building. Trooper Wilson was one of those 18 selected. 100 St. Louis police officers and the remaining troops would stand outside the prison yard as a second wall of defense. These officers were also to process the 300 convicts, if and when they were taken captive. Wilson writes that this moment was the crucial one, when all of his training as a trooper would be put to the test: “It was a tense moment and anything could happen: we were heavily armed with riot guns and submachine guns as we entered the massive building. The inmates inside were shouting, cursing and throwing articles of bedding, furniture and personal belongings. All the windows had been broken out. As we entered the door we were greeted by flying debris. A 50-lb cake of ice pushed from a tier above barely missed my head. As we plunged through the hallway, wading in four inches of water I noticed to my left that the water in front of one cell was crimson red. Red with the blood of one of the wounded convicts who had been stabbed earlier by a fellow inmate. Over the loud speaker, the convicts were ordered to get into the nearest cell and be quiet or they would be shot. One inmate ignored the order, leering and shouting. Without hesitation, one of the troopers raised his weapon and shot the troublemaker dead. At that, an eerie silence fell in the huge building. The convicts retreated into the nearest cells as instructed and the troopers slammed shut and locked the doors behind them. Up to nine prisoners were crammed into the tiny cells. When all were safely locked away, an all-clear whistle sounded. Then, one cell at a time, the men were strip searched, taken out into the yard and processed by the waiting officers. They were returned to their proper cells. It took until mid-afternoon to finish the job.

Facts get sorted out: When the riot was all over, four inmates had been killed, 50 injured and one attempted suicide. Four officers had been injured. Burned out hulks of several buildings lay smoldering. Damage was estimated to be as high as $5 million dollars. Not one prisoner had succeeded in escaping the prison. No attempt was made to serve breakfast to the prisoners the next day. Instead, they remained locked in their cells and sandwiches were handed out. The evening meal, usually served at 4:30, was served at 3:00. Small groups of convicts, with hands clasped behind their heads, were marched to the dining hall. 85 troopers stood with weapons ready to prevent further violence. It was later reported that the majority of the black inmates had not participated in the riot and had remained in their cells throughout the ruckus. A schoolteacher at the prison gratefully credited two of his convict students with saving his life during the uprising.

Governor Donnelly acts: The day after the riot, Governor Donnelly ordered a massive shakedown of the entire prison. 100 St. Louis policemen joined with prison guards to search every corner of the giant Penitentiary for knives, homemade weapons and other contraband. The search revealed an enormous arsenal of weaponry: sledgehammers, axe handles, screwdrivers, scissors, files and pieces of heavy machinery filed down to sharp, deadly points. Two days after the riot, Governor Donnelly grimly toured the ruined areas inside the prison. When he emerged, he announced that convening a special legislative session would probably not be necessary, as he felt repairs could be made with funds already on hand. Meanwhile, the prisoners were complaining to the press that one of the major causes of the riot had been dissatisfaction with the newly appointed Parole Board. Three members had been appointed just weeks before the riot, and all were former members of the Highway Patrol. The inmates claimed that these former cops, as they referred to them, would not be impartial when the time came for parole consideration. During a press conference held the Monday following the riot, a reporter asked Governor Donnelly if he planned any changes in the Parole Board as a result of the prisoners’ complaints. “No sir,” Donnelly replied irritably, “I’m not going to let a bunch of convicts tell me what to do.”


In September of 1937, Governor Lloyd Crow Stark signed a bill calling for execution by lethal gas. No longer would the local sheriff be responsible for carrying out the death penalty for those convicted in his county. The days of public hangings in Missouri were to finally come to an end. Many members of the legislature were strongly opposed to the bill and argued that more death sentences would result. Nevertheless, Missouri was, on the whole, a state that supported the death penalty for serious crimes. The bill was changed to lethal gas instead of the electric chair, and passed. In total, 40 inmates were put to death in the gas chamber between 1937 and 1989 when MSP death row ended and all capital punishment inmates were moved to the new prison at Potosi. These included: John Brown, William Wright, Raymond Boyer, Johnny Jones, Adam Richetti, Granville Allen, Byron E. King, John Williamson, Robert Kenyon, Robert West, Chester Jackson, Wilburn Johnson, Ernest Tyler, Allen Lambus, William Edward Talbert, Fred Ellis, Raymond Batson, James Thomas, Leo Lyles, Jesse Sanford, Van Lee Ramsey, Marshall Perkins, Floyd Cochran, Ernest Afton Scott, George Bell, Charles Tiedt, Claude McGee, Willie Porter, Wes Quilling, Kenneth Boyd, Dock Booker, Arthur Ross Brown, Thomas Moore, Sammy Aire Tucker, Bonnie B. Heady, Carl Austin Hall, Ronald Lee Wolfe, Charles H. Odom, Llyod L. Anderson, and George “Tiny” Mercer.

Escape Attempts

Keeping desperate and restless people behind bars will always present challenges to corrections officials. Early in the Missouri State Penitentiary’s history escapes were commonplace. Between a lack of a secure perimeter and prisoners working in the community, many escapes were accomplished without much planning or ingenuity.

Escapees terrorize town: By 1868, the convict population had grown to 735. Many of them worked outside the walls, and escapes were a common occurrence. Once convict escaped and stole a citizen’s horse to make his getaway. Others terrorized the citizenry. Townspeople armed themselves to the teeth in order to protect their families. In 1868 a spectacular and terrifying story made the headlines; an underground passage was discovered reaching nearly under the wall. It had been detected just in time. The townspeople shuddered at the lurid prospect of 700 loose convicts robbing and ravishing at will. Public outcry demanded that something be done about the prison.

Convicts escape by train: In 1870 some convicts successfully gained their freedom by jumping on board of freight trains. The prison guards complained that the trainmen of the Pacific Railroad were intentionally encouraging the inmates to escape. Guard J.P. Raithel testified, ”I have seen the managers of the train throw apples to the convicts and motion at them. When I arrived at the train, the managers seemed to be angry. I think I would regard the motions made by the trainmen as being friendly to the escape of the prisoners.”

Popular escape trick attempted: While news of an escape from the Penitentiary or from a convict work detail always made headlines, some prisoners never even made it all the way to Jefferson City and had better luck with the “water closet dodge.” Two Vernon County prisoners were en route to the Penitentiary by train, and after they had traveled some distance toward Jefferson City they complained that their leg irons were hurting them. An officer removed them and fastened them over the convicts’ coats instead of over their wrists. Later, the two asked permission to go to the water closet of the car while an officer remained outside and waited, but it was already too late. The two prisoners had easily wriggled out of the wrist restraints, opened a window and leapt out. As the train was traveling at half speed at the time, the pair escaped unhurt. By the time the train was stopped and men sent back to look the convicts had disappeared into the thick forest.

Three convicts hang for attempting escape: At 3:00 the afternoon of November 24, 1905 four prisoners met at the stockade gate. George Ryan handed out Colt .44 revolvers and a large supply of ammunition to fellow convicts Harry Vaughan, Edward Raymond and Hiram Blake. The four then entered the office of Deputy Warden R. E. See and ordered him to put his hands in the air. Instead, he went for his gun and one of the met shot him in the shoulder. After See slumped to the floor he and another person in the office were grabbed and used as shields for the men as they raced across the yard toward a large iron gate that led outside the prison. Guard John Clay was gatekeeper for the day and was ordered to hold up his hands. While in this vulnerable position, one of the four shot him in the head, killing him. Another guard, Ephriam Allison, noticed the commotion through a grated door and yelled, “What’s going on in there?” He was shot twice and also killed. The escapees then placed a charge of nitroglycerin on their last remaining hurdle to freedom; a large gate at the end of the driveway. It blew the lock completely off the gate and made a jagged hole large enough for the men to drive through. The four ran down along the railroad tracks towards the train depot, shooting back at the pursuing guards. One of the fleeing prisoners, Hiram Blake, was shot and killed by police officer John Bruner. The remaining three jumped into a wagon. Using the driver as a shield, they grabbed the reins and whipped the horses to a full gallop down Madison Street south to Dunklin. In front of the Capital City Brewery, Ryan fainted from sheer fright and fell off the wagon. Vaughan and Raymond kept going until a young boy bravely ran into the street and grabbed the bridle of one of the horses, stopping the wagon. Vaughan leapt from the wagon and tried to shoot the boy, but his gun wouldn’t fire. A policeman apprehended the escapees and they were returned to the Penitentiary and placed in solitary confinement. George Ryan confessed to the escape plot and told prison officials that the guns, ammunition and explosives had been brought to them by H.E. Spencer, an ex-convict.

After a series of trials and appeals, the Missouri Supreme Court finally found the three guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced them to hang. Ryan was upset by the verdict, as he felt he should have been treated more leniently for confessing the details of the escape plot. Dressed in suits, the men were hanged side-by-side on June 27, 1907. The hanging took place in the Cole County jail yard on Monroe Street in front of a huge crowd.

Guards man towers to prevent escape over the wall: There were 13 watch towers. These guard stations were numbered and each guard had a special toned whistle signal by which he talked to the central office. Some of the towers were very picturesque and at a distance resembled the old feudal castle towers of the old world. Each guard was heavily armed to prevent escape via the wall route. The guards were always on the lookout, both day and night. They were divided into two watched of 12 hours each. One industrious convict escaped in 1916 using a method that had never been tried before. Convict George Smith, a lifer serving a murder sentence, hid from officers one morning as they escorted the breakfast line to eat. Smith took a 16-foot scantling and dragged it to the east wall. In a feat of extraordinary strength, he climbed hand over hand to the top of the wall, scrambled over and dropped to the ground below. It was a steep drop, but he escaped injury. He then raced for the railroad track and was long gone before discovered missing from his prison factory job. Amazed prison officials could only shake their heads. The Jefferson City Democrat Tribune dubbed Smith the “Human Fly,” and called his getaway a “remarkable feat.”

Escape in the Missouri River: On a bitterly cold January afternoon in 1926, one of the most desperate attempts to escape the Penitentiary made headlines. Two convicts, Carl Pittman and Fred Hildebrand, were working at the machine shop. While the guard had his back turned, the two grabbed a ladder and, quick as a flash, were up and over the wall. Guards on towers 11 and 12 saw the two leap to the ground and opened fire on them as they raced toward the river. They alerted other guards who pursued the escapees with shotguns. Hildebrand reached the river first and began gingerly walking across the ice cakes. Pittman jumped into the icy water and swam toward a cake, clinging to it for dear life. The guards on shore fired their weapons, yelling and cursing. When the two convicts had made it halfway across the river, the current suddenly caught the ice cakes they were riding and swept them back to the prison side of the river. The guards raced alongside them, finally catching up where Prison Farm No. 1 bordered the river. By now, the freezing, exhausted convicts gladly reached for the sticks held out to them by the guards. One of the men was near collapse and was slipping from him ice cake as he was rescued. Both men were bundled in blankets and rushed to the prison hospital in serious condition with frostbitten hands and feet. Later, the two said they had hoped to reach the opposite side and hide in the willows until nightfall. Except for the tricky current, they might have been successful.

Convict escapes through sewer pipe: One man, whose idea to leave town in 1924 was a little premature, earned a place in escape history. While most escape attempts were made by convicts out on work detail, or were carefully planned strategies to scale the wall or storm the gates, Walter Holub had a different idea. Holub had been sent to clean out a sewer pipe that lay within the prison. Not caring much for doing the assigned job, he stuck his head into the 16-inch pipe and wriggled his way to the outside where he emerged coated with sewage. He managed to make his way out of Jefferson City and, in fact, entirely out of the state before he was apprehended in Denver, Colorado six months later after robbing a drugstore.

James Earl Ray escapes: James Earl Ray began a record of scrapes, big and small, with the law serving terms in Joliet and Pontiac prisons in Illinois and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. On October 10, 1959, Ray and James Owens, an ex-convict, held up a Kroger store in St. Louis. Ray was given a 20-year sentence at MSP. A few months into his sentence, Ray made an unsuccessful escape attempt by climbing over the wall on a homemade ladder that collapsed. Five years later, he made it to a roof before beings potted. He became well-known for his ability to disappear for days on end inside the prison. On Sunday morning, April 23, 1967, Ray’s escape plan worked. Reporting to work early in the prison bakery, he was helped into one of the large boxes used to ship loaves of bread. A truck from Renz Farm drove in to pick up bread and Ray rode out of MSP in the bread box, escaping from the truck somewhere between MSP and Renz Farm. Ray later went on to plan and perform the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr

Infamous Inmates

John B. “Firebug” Johnson: In the 1880s, a man caught the public’s attention with his antics in prison. That man was “Firebug” Johnson, one of the most notorious of all the inmates to ever serve a sentence at the Penitentiary. Johnson attempted escape several times but was best known for his most notorious act; setting a fire that destroyed more than $500,000 worth of property and the deaths of several inmates. Johnson was then convicted of arson in a Cole County Court and given an additional 12 years after which he was locked in the dungeon for many years. After he was released, Firebug wrote a book entitled “Buried Alive for 18 Years in the Missouri Penitentiary.”

Katie Richards O’Hare: In 1919, Katie Richards O’Hare began serving a federal sentence at the Missouri Penitentiary that would change her life and contribute to reforms in inmate labor practices. In July of 1918, O’Hare, Chairman of the Socialist Labor Party, gave a speech in Bowman, North Dakota after which she was indicted under the new Federal Espionage Act, convicted of espionage and sentenced to prison. While incarcerated, O’Hare was forced to work 50 hours a week in a clothing factory and prohibited from communicating with her husband and four children. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted O’Hare’s sentence and she was released. She later received a full pardon from President Calvin Coolidge but her life was forever changed by her experience at MSP. She abandoned socialist agitation and pursued prison reform efforts. In 1939, she was appointed by the California Governor to the position of Assistant Director of the California Department of Penology. Her reform efforts had a major impact on California’s penal policies and many of those reforms were implemented throughout the country.

Emma Goldman: While Katie Richards O’Hare was incarcerated at MSP, another international activist shared the women’s quarters with her. Emma Goldman was serving one of several imprisonments for charges ranging from inciting a riot to advocating the use of birth control to opposition to World War I. At the time, the government called Goldman the “ablest and most dangerous” anarchist in the country and she was pursued through much of her life by two of the most notorious law enforcement officials in American History; Anthony Comstock and J. Edgar Hoover. She is credited with having had tremendous influence on the founders of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Not surprisingly, while in prison Goldman was known as an agitator, stirring rebellion among the women prisoners. Prison administrators were glad to see her leave when in 1919, after serving nearly two years, she was arraigned before a US commissioner. When she testified that she did not have the money to pay her $10,000 fine, she was told she was free to go anyways. The two famous activists, Goldman and O’Hare, left their mark on the Penitentiary and their impact would continue to be felt across the country for years following.

Harry Snodgrass “King of the Ivories:” In the 1920s, Harry Snodgrass became known as the “King of the Ivories” because of his exceptional piano playing while serving a sentence in the Penitentiary. Every Monday night, local radio station WOS broadcast from the dome of the Capitol building and the prison band, also known by the “Peaceful Village Band,” was frequently featured. The show was incredibly popular; telegrams from all over the U.S., Mexico and Canada often poured in expressing appreciation of Snodgrass’ music. Soon, the prison band and orchestra were known nationwide and Harry Snodgrass was the featured attraction. When an announcement was made over the air that Snodgrass, due to leave prison the next year, would leave a poor man, more than $2,000 was received for him at the radio station within a couple of weeks. At Snodgrass’ final performance as an inmate in 1925 after his sentence was commuted by Governor Sam Baker, a crowd estimated at more than a thousand people attended. Following his release, Snodgrass traveled with a vaudeville act and made several records for the Brunswick record label. Snodgrass was later granted a full pardon in 1926.

Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd – Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd first arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1925 after pleading guilty for his first offense, a $12,000 St. Louis payroll robbery. Upon his release in 1929, he continued wreaking havoc across the Midwest robbing banks and murdering in cold blood with a notorious band of outlaws. By 1933, Floyd was wanted in several states and known to police as the “most dangerous man alive.” In Missouri, he was wanted for three murders. He was wanted in Toledo, Ohio for killing a policeman there. Numerous Oklahoma bank robberies were credited to Floyd and his gang; he was also wanted in that state for murdering an officer. Police officers were warned that he was heavily armed with machine guns and wore a steel vest for protection. In June of 1933, Floyd and his gang continued on killing sprees across Missouri and Oklahoma and were identified as the prime suspects in an attempt to free Frank Nash, an infamous Oklahoma outlaw, which resulted in the fatal shooting of four lawmen. A massive manhunt ensued for Floyd and the fellow killers. Floyd managed to elude law enforcement for weeks before he was apprehended at a farm and shot dead on the spot after trying to flee.

Charles “Sonny” Liston – In 1950, Charles Liston arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary. He was serving time for two charges of robbery with a deadly weapon and two charges of larceny. Liston was illiterate, one of 17 children, and had rarely held a job. While incarcerated, Liston, soon known as “Sonny,” found his niche in life; he learned to box, and he fought very well. One day the publisher of a St. Louis newspaper saw Liston box and thought he showed promise as a professional. The next day he contacted the Board of Probation and Parole. If Liston could be released on parole, the publisher promised, he would personally see that Sonny received a job and training as a boxer. So Sonny Liston was released on parole in 1952 and his rise to success was meteoric. He learned to read and write a bit and his associations with businessmen and managers taught him grooming and polish. He lived and trained at the Pine Street YMCA and began working at Scullins Steel until he could support himself from his earning as a pro boxer. Almost immediately, Liston was entered into the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament, held in St. Louis. He won, and then went on to win the National Heavyweight Championship in Chicago in 1953.

James Earl Ray – James Earl Ray was raised in Ewing, Missouri, a small, poverty-stricken farming community. The Ray family fell into the low end of the Ewing lower class and was known as the town’s “white trash.” Raised to be suspicious of everybody, little “Jimmy” especially learned to despise blacks, although he had little to no contact with them throughout his life. Ray later moved to Quincy, Illinois, a rowdy river community on the Mississippi River, where he began associating with the town’s “bad element” and getting into minor scrapes with the law. In 1959 Ray and an accomplice held up a Kroger store in St. Louis and after being caught, tried and convicted, Ray was sentenced to 20-years at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Ray had previously served terms in Joliet and Pontiac prisons in Illinois and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. After several escape attempts at MSP, Ray made one final escape plan. In 1967, he reported to his job in the prison bakery early and was helped into a large box that was used to ship loaves of bread. Soon, a truck drove up to pick up a supply and several boxes, including the one containing Ray, were loaded up and the truck left the Penitentiary. It was nearly a year later on Thursday, April 4, 1968 that Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Ray was amazed at the publicity surrounding his deed; he thought that killing King would make him a hero and instead he became a hunted man. Ray was soon apprehended, convicted of murder in the 1st degree, and sentenced to 99 years in prison. He was sent to the maximum security Brushy Mountain facility in Tennessee, where he tried to escape multiple times. In 1991, James Earl Ray was transferred to the River Bend Maximum Security Facility in Nashville. He remains on escape status in the records of the Missouri Department of Corrections.

Lockdown evidence

  • Physical Contact: During the interviews, Zak and Aaron start having a very uncomfortable feeling.
  • Physical Contact/Harm: Zak starts having a sad feeling, moments later he feels very sharp pains in his stomach as if someone was stabbing or twisting it.
  • Residual Noises: LOUD BANGS, Loud noises, Banging, Footsteps, Growling
  • EVPs: "I ain't breathin'"
  • Spirit Box Voices: "sorry"
  • Disembodied Speaking: Male voice, "STOOOOOP", "stop F***ing with me!!", "demon"
  • Apparition: A white dot then manifests into a spinning rectangular shaped anomaly in A Hole by Cell 40.
Season 8 Episodes
Pioneer SaloonBlack Swan InnTuolumne General HospitalMissouri State PenitentiaryYost Theater & Ritz HotelHaunted Victorian MansionExorcist HouseAlcatrazMustang RanchThornhaven ManorBattle of Perryville