Infamous Missouri Prisoners

Public attention on the 1883 trial of Frank James prodded citizens of Daviess County to look at upgrading its jail, eventually leading to the construction of the Squirrel Cage Jail in 1889. Thus, the most famous outlaw affiliated with Daviess County was never incarcerated in the historic Rotary Jail. Can you name some of Missouri’s other infamous prisoners?

Public attention on the 1883 trial of Frank James prodded citizens of Daviess County to look at upgrading its jail, eventually leading to the construction of the Squirrel Cage Jail in 1889. Thus, the most famous outlaw affiliated with Daviess County was never incarcerated in the historic Rotary Jail. Can you name some of Missouri’s other infamous prisoners?

  • John Reno of the Reno Gang, considered the world’s first train robber, 1860s-1870s
  • Gen. John McDonald, who once served in President Grant’s administration, convicted of a whiskey tax scheme, 1870s
  • Kate Richards O’Hare, a social reformer, 1919-20, convicted of sedition. She was pardoned by President Wilson and helped reform the penal system.
  • Charles "Pretty Boy" Floyd, notorious bank robber, 1929-33. While at the prison, he was suspected of stealing potatoes to make moonshine.
  • Charles "Sonny" Liston, armed robber, 1950-52. Learned to box at Missouri State Penitentiary, and later claimed the title of Heavywieght Boxing Champion by defeating Cassius Clay in 1964.
  • James Earl Ray, armed robber, 1960 until his escape from prison baker in 1967. Assasinated Martin Luther King, Jr., in April, 1968.

Missouri’s old state penitentiary in Jefferson City officially closed on Sept. 15, 2004 — a day when nearly 1,300 prisoners were moved to a new facility outside of Jefferson City. Gone are many of the state’s original penetentiary buildings of beautiful stonework, built when A.M. Dockery of Gallatin served as governor.

Since its beginnings in 1836, the state penitentiary expanded and suffered from growing pains. Riots and murders insde the walls, combined with an explosion in the prison population after World War II and other societal changes, made it necessary to expand and adapt the facility. With new prison buildings came new ideas about rehabilitation — thus educational opportunities, improved health care and recreational services appeared.

The penitentiary once held the reputation as "the bloodiest 47 acres in the nation" (according to a movie magazine in the 1960s). The prison exercise yard was once an old stone quarry, where the rock was cut to make the surrounding walls. The facility once had a slaughterhouse, saddletree factory, harness works, binder twine factory, clothing factory, furniture factory and many shoe factories. More recently, it operated a metal tag shop which produced license plates and adhesive license tags.

Reprinted, in part, from “Lock Down in Time” by Barbara Baird, published in the Missouri Ruralist, November 2006