Once referred to as “the bloodiest 47 acres in America,” the Missouri State Penitentiary housed hundreds of thousands of convicted felons during its 168-year history. And many believe some of those inmate’s spirits still remain locked behind old bars.
As one of the longest-running maximum security prisons in the U.S., it began housing inmates in 1836 and soon started laboring prisoners to build several mansions near the prison, including the warden’s mansion and the quarry stone wall that still surrounds the prison today. By 1868, the prison continued to expand and built its oldest remaining building, Housing Unit 4, also known as “A Hall,” as a means to house post-Civil War criminals.
“They just pretty much worked a lot of the inmates like slaves; it was pretty brutal,” said Tom Wells, who began working as one of the prison’s guards in 1989.
Wells now leads some of the prison’s ghosts tours, and although he considers himself more of a tour guide, his own paranormal experience as a guard has made him a firm believer of what remains inside the prison’s now vacant cells.
“I’m the guy that lucked into the coolest part-time job in the whole wide world,” Wells said, “because I’m not a ghost hunter. I just happen to be an officer that, when I worked in there, I had an experience one day.”
On a sunny day around 3 p.m., Wells had been talking to an inmate named John when he noticed another inmate with long blonde hair and a white T-shirt walk out a door during count.
“They know they’re not supposed to be outside, and I thought to myself, ‘you S.O.B., I’m going to jump down this guy’s throat,’ and I go out there and there’s nobody there,” he explained. “I thought, ‘Man he’s run around the building,’ so I went up the right side of the building; nobody was there. And the big gate is there and it’s all locked, and I was like, ‘I know I’ve seen this guy,’ so I ran to the left side and there’s a tower right there. I said, ‘Hey, has anybody ran by here?’ and he said, ‘No, it’s count time, it’s locked down.’ So I’m like, OK, and there’s a van sitting there that we used to take supplies up the hill, and I thought, ‘My God, he’s in that van; we got an escape attempt.’
“It’s on a hill so … I’m looking underneath as I walk up and I look in the back windows. The seats are all taken out and I look in there and there’s nothing there. So I open it up, and in the meantime, John, the inmate, had stepped out front and was watching me. I shut the doors and I’m like, ‘What?’ and he goes, ‘You ain’t going to find that guy.’ I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘I saw him.’ I said ‘What did he look like?’ and he said, ‘He had long blonde hair and a white T-shirt’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah.’ He says, ‘Wells, we ain’t got nobody in this building that looks like that,’ and I was just like, ‘Whoa, you’re right.’ It felt like somebody had just punched me in the chest.”
After the prison was decommissioned in 2004, Wells was asked to assist with some of the prison’s ghost tours and has since begun leading the tours with his wife, who he met during his first tour of the prison, and his stepdaughter.
Several of the prison’s tours involve the history of housing and its most infamous inmates including Sonny Liston, who began his boxing career while incarcerated at MSP; women’s rights activists Emma Goldman and Kate O’Hare; and James Earl Ray, who managed to escape the prison in 1967, a year before he murdered Martin Luther King Jr.
However, MSP’s ghost tours allow its tourists to delve a bit deeper into the personal lives of its inmates, many of whom may have been affected by the prison’s more deadly and violent history, such as the 1954 riot where four inmates were killed and its more than 100-year history of prisoner executions.
During tours, which can last two to eight hours beginning at sunset, visitors are welcome to bring their own ghost activity devices or use some of the equipment provided by the prison. Visitors are then given insight into the prison’s paranormal and unusual activities as they are guided around the upper yard, into Housing Unit 1 dungeon cells where prisoners were kept in complete darkness and through the basement of death row chambers in Housing Unit 3 until ending the tour inside the prison’s gas chamber. Investigation time at each destination varies depending on how many hours are reserved for your tour.
If you’re brave enough to take one of the prison’s ghost tours this fall, it is recommended to make your reservations by phone at 866-998-6998 as high numbers of guests visit the prison before tours stop from December through February due to weather. However, if you aren’t able to make a tour before then, you may also be able to catch one of the prison’s Select Mystery Tours where employees choose a date between June through September to have an ex-inmate of the prison lead a tour.
For more information about the prison and their variety of tours offered, visit the Missouri State Penitentiary’s website at missouripentours.com.