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  Cover Story August 19th, 2010     
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by lyle e davis


One wonders what thoughts race through a man’s mind as he stand before the gallows, knowing he is about to be hanged.

Does he think of the crime he has been convicted of, and repent? Does he hope for a last minute stay? Does he wonder if his death will be painful? Or quick and painless? Does he think of his mother, his father, his wife, kids, family, friends? Is he calm and collected? Or, does he border on a panic attack.

One imagines the emotions run the gamut of the above - different condemned men will face their fate differently.

There’s a fair amount of history behind the walls of the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, Missouri. Executions included.

The first man hanged at the Missouri State Penitentiary was D. B. Burr, a prison blacksmith, convicted of killing his wife, and sentenced to death by hanging.

The gallows was on a grassy field close to the penitentiary. It was a public execution and the townspeople gathered to watch the spectacle, women and children included.

It was 1841 when they hanged D. B. Burr on the gallows, next to a hayfield near the prison. D. B. Burr made a short speech to the crowd. He repented of his sins and hoped for forgiveness. Finally, he urged the audience to learn from his mistake.

And then they hanged him.

Later, in 1904, a series of events were to occur which would lead to more eventful hangings. Four convicts had conspired to escape. Somehow, they had acquired pistols and dynamite, to blow the hinges away to the prison gate, and allow them to escape. They commenced their escape plans.

Didn’t work like they planned.

Word got out to the guards and before the plan could be launched they were surrounded by guards and surrendered.

A year later, on November 4, 1905, George Ryan, Harry Vaughn, Edward Raymond and Hiram Blake, had all gotten Colt .44 revolvers and plenty of ammunition . . . all with the design of escaping.

They gained entry to the office of Deputy Warden R. E. See, shot him in the shoulder when he resisted, then used him and another person in the office as shields as they ran across the prison yard to the huge prison gate, the lone obstacle to their freedom.

Guards John Clay and Ephraim Ellison, were both shot dead. The convicts then placed nitroglycerin on the locks of the gate and blew it off its hinges and made their escape, all the while shooting at pursuing guards. One of the convicts, Hiram Blake, was shot dead by guards while trying to escape. The others commandeered a buggy and raced the horses at full speed but were eventually caught and re-arrested in town.

On June 27, 1907, all three men were hanged together. All three were dressed in suits.

Thousands of spectators stood on rooftops and surrounding hills to watch the event.

After the drop, it is reported that Vaughn’s neck was broken and he died instantly; Ryan appeared to suffocate, and Raymond strangled to death.

In September, 1937, Governor Lloyd Crow Stark changed the execution method to lethal gas.

A small rock building was assembled, at a cost of $3570. This was to be the gas chamber. It had two cells, the airtight gas chamber, two perforated steel chairs, and a small viewing area. One cell would house the condemned; the other clay crocks into which was poured sulfuric acid. The crocks would then be placed beneath the perforated chair(s). The condemned was led in, strapped to the chair, and everyone but the inmate left the room and the airtight doors were sealed. When the warden pulled the red lever right outside the chamber, cyanide tablets would drop into the sulfuric acid and release the deadly vapor. After the condemned was pronounced dead, the gas would be vented through a pipe in the chamber’s roof.

John Brown and William Wright were the first condemned to die in the gas chamber. They were executed on March 4, 1938.

The first male and female couple to be executed were Carl Hall and Bonnie Heady. There were convicted of kidnapping and brutally torturing and killing a young boy. They died, together, on December 18, 1953.

Famous and Infamous Inmates of the Missouri State Penitentiary

Remember that big musical hit of the 50’s (1952-53), “Stagger Lee” by Lloyd Price? Well, “Stagger Lee” was a resident of the Missouri State Pen, several times. In fact, he died there. His real name was Lee Shelton. He was a pimp and a gambler.

There are a number of versions about the legend of Stagger Lee, the most credible of which seems to be . . . around Christmas of 1895, two friends, Lee Shelton and his friend, Billy Lyons, age 25, were having drinks together at a St. Louis bar. After a few drinks too many, the two friends got into an argument when Billy grabbed Shelton’s hat and wouldn’t give it back. Lee pulled a nickle plated revolver from his pants, shot Billy in the belly, retrieved his hat and calmly walked out of the bar into the St. Louis night. Mortally wounded, Billy died the next morning.

In the lyrics to the famous recent song, the story is told a bit differently. It was all about gambling:

Stagger Lee
by Lloyd Price

The night was clear, and the moon was yellow
And the leaves came tumblin' down. . .

I was standin' on the corner
When I heard my bull dog bark.
He was barkin' at the two men
Who were gamblin' in the dark.

It was Stagger Lee and Billy,
Two men who gambled late.
Stagger lee threw a seven,
Billy swore that he threw eight.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"I can't let you go with that.
"You have won all my money,
"And my brand-new Stetson hat."

Stagger Lee went home
And he got his .44.
He said, "I'm goin' to the ballroom
"Just to pay that debt I owe."

Go, Stagger Lee

Stagger Lee went to the ballroom
And he strolled across the ballroom floor.
He said "You did me wrong, Billy."
And he pulled his .44.

"Stagger Lee," said Billy,
"Oh, please don't take my life!
"I've got three hungry children,
"And a very sickly wife."

Stagger Lee shot Billy
Oh, he shot that poor boy so hard
That a bullet went through Billy
And broke the bartender's bar.

Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!
Go, Stagger Lee, go, Stagger Lee!

Well, there are about four or five different versions as to what happened on that historic night . . . and at least that many different songs by different artists. It just happens that Lloyd Prices’s was the most popular, and most recent.

Lee was in and out of prison several times, ultimately dying in prison in 1911, of tuberculosis.

He was a small time pimp, crook, hoodlum . . . but he had become legend.

Shoo Fly - Admitted Thief - Serves Five Terms

“Shoo Fly,” whose real name is Henry Holmes, managed to amuse and endear himself even to prison guards as well as fellow inmates for his ability to steal anything, anywhere, given time.

Shoo Fly had lots of time. Five separate prison terms.

Henry “Shoofly” Holmes

He was said to be polite, not a troublemaker, and one of those inmates who could procure almost anything for anybody, even while in prison. He did it continually to the amazement of his guards and fellow inmates.

“Dutch Charlie” an Inmate at age 88

“Dutch” Charlie, so-called because of the several Germanic names he used while being registered in prison, was a habitual criminal, proof of which is evidenced by his record of entries into the Missouri State Penitentiary:

October 25, 1904 - Dutch shuffles into prison to serve his 12th sentence! Seems he just couldn’t stay away. He had served 11 prior terms for a variety of offenses including burglary, grand larceny, violating probation . . . you name it, he broke it.

Women Make History at Missouri State Pen

In many ways, prison reforms we see today, are due in large part to several women who were incarcerated at Missouri’s State Penitentiary.

Kate Richards O’Hare comes to mind. In 1919 O’Hare began serving a prison sentence that would wind up changing prison conditions throughout the nation.

Kate O’Hare

She, through her writings, pointed out the harsh living conditions, the verbal and physical abuse inmates suffered, and cruel punishments meted out if quotas were not reached on contracted labor. Rations consisted of a half teacup of water and two thin wafers of bread per day. Readers were horrified to learn of the “black hole” of a cell inmates were confined to as punishment.

On April 15, 1918, following a speech she had made, she was arrested for espionage. Kate was a political activist and dared to suggest that women should be allowed freedoms, including the vote. She was a pain in the politican’s posteriors. They tried to silence her by sending her to prison.

It backfired.

Missouri was soon to become known as the state with the most wretched and congested prison in history.

On May 20, 1920, she was released from prison. Ironically, in 1939, she was appointed Assistant Director of the California Department of Penology. She was now in a position to help implement more prison reform. O’Hare died in Valencia, California, on January 10, 1948.

Another inmate shared prison time with O’Hare. Emma Goldman. She was a pistol, this woman. She was in prison on a variety of charges, inciting a riot, advocating the use of birth control, and opposition to World War I.

She was a radical. An anarchist, an outspoken femninist. (See her photo on the cover of this issue).

She irritated people. Important people. Teddy Roosevelt called her “ a mad woman, a mental as well as a moral pervert.” J. Edgar Hoover made it one of his prime hobbies, chasing down Emma Goldman.

Emma arrived on July 17, 1917. The Missouri State Penitentiary was never quite the same after that. Inmates were denied permission to talk to one another. Didn’t work with Emma. She talked to anyone and everyone. She was punished. Didn’t stop her. The other women inmates drew strength from her.

On Septembe 27, 1919, Emma Goldman left the prison, much to the relief of prison officials.

Harry Snodgrass, “King of the Ivories”

Harry Snodgrass was in prison because of a botched robbery. He claimed it was his first and would be his last crime.

Missouri State Penitentiary Band

Harry was also a terrific pianist. In those days, the prison had formed an orchestra and every Monday night, the prison broadcast music via Radio Sation WOS. Harry was a big hit, drawing hundreds, and then thousands of letters, cards, and telegrams.

He was offered a job if he would be released from prison. The warden declined. However, on January 16, 1925, the governor commuted his sentence. He was a free man. On February 1, 1926, he received a full pardon.

“Pretty Boy” Floyd

On December 18, 1925, Charles Arthur “Pretty Boy” Floyd arrived at the prison gates, having plead guilty to robbery of a $12,000 payroll. This was his first offense, at least for which he was caught and convicted. He was known in prison as “a good prisoner.” Didn’t start a lot of trouble but was also known to have a short temper.

He was released on March 7, 1929, but would then go on to commit many crimes, including multiple murders. He robbed many banks and was known for carrying machine guns and wearing steel vests for protection.

On October 2, 1933, “Pretty Boy”Floyd was tracked down by, among others, Melvin Purvis, of the Department of Justice. Floyd was gunned down while trying to flee. “The Most Dangerous Man Alive,” no longer was. (See photo on cover).

Charles “Sonny” Liston

A young black kid, Charles Liston, wound up in Missouri State Penitentiary. Arguably, it was one of the best things that ever happened to him.

While in prison for two counts of robbery with a dangerous weapon, Liston learned how to box. Someone saw him and thought he had potential. Upon his release, that potential was developed in the gym and Liston eventually became Heavyweight Champion of the World. For a time. Before Cassius Clay, who later became Muhammad Ali, took the title away.

But Liston had enjoyed fame and fortune. He had also learned to read and write a little, having been totally illiterate when he entered prison.

There are a number of other infamous alumni from the Missouri State Penitentiary: James Earl Ray, the convicted murderer of Martin Luther King, The Reno Gang, Firebug Johnson, George Thompson - they’re all there - a veritable rogues gallery.

The Missouri State Penitentiary was old. Too old. Built in 1836, it finally closed in 2004. 168 years of warehousing criminals, from petty criminals, to activist women, to robbers, burglars, rapists, and murderers.

Finally, the prison was just too old to be of any further service and a new one was built.

Today, the ‘old’ Missouri State Penitentiary is a well maintained tourist stop in Jefferson City.

Administered by the Jefferson City Visitor and Convention Bureau, visitors are invited to tour the facilities on the “Hard Hat” tour . . . to see the cell where Sonny Liston stayed; where “Baby Face” Nelson stayed. To visit the gas chamber . . . to view hundreds of pieces of memorabilia, wanted posters, records and photos of inmates . . . and there are tour guides to answer your questions and to lead you along.

You can contact the Visitor and Convention Bureau at:
1.866.998.6998, or via their website at:

You may also email them at:

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