Historic prison tours attract wide audience

Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune photo: Tour guide Mike Lear talks about Missouri's history of capital punishment Sunday while leading a tour of the gas chamber at Missouri State Penitentiary. The chamber was used to execute 40 men and women before the state authorized the use of lethal injection.

It's peak tour season for "The bloodiest 47 acres in America."

Coming off a successful school group season, tours of the old Missouri State Penitentiary are "in full force for the Halloween season," according to Alexandra Bobbitt, spokesperson for the Jefferson City Convention & Visitors Bureau.

The Missouri State Penitentiary was built in 1836 and housed inmates for 168 years until it was decommissioned in 2004. It was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi and once called "The bloodiest 47 acres in America" by Time Magazine.

JCCVB has offered history tours of the prison since 2009 and a corresponding museum contains historic items made by inmates, artwork and equipment carried by guards. Ghost tours of the prison were added in 2011.

"I think it was just one of those things where it's like, 'What else can we bring to the table? What's going to interest people?' And of course history is always loved, but the paranormal has really intrigued people," Bobbitt said.

During the past decade, MSP was featured on episodes of "Destination FEAR," "Ghost Hunters" and "Ghost Adventures" on the Travel Channel. Bobbitt said the "hype" around paranormal shows has helped attract visitors from around the state, country and globe, adding, "We've become very popular in that aspect."

"If we had any overnight paranormal investigations, those typically sell out in the spring or summer time frame," she said. "People who tend to call now are too late."

Ghost tours pick up in September and October, Bobbitt said, and most of the remaining two-hour tours this season are full or overbooked. Tours usually slow down in November and end for the season by Dec. 1. The season runs March to November each year.

The historic prison has had more than 27,100 visitors so far this year, according to JCCVB, including more than 9,600 people arriving for history tours and more than 6,800 people arriving for ghost tours. Another nearly 10,700 people visited for school groups, private tours or paranormal investigations.

Tour guides have led more than 600 tours so far this year, including 387 history tours and 221 ghost tours.

"If there was a place going to be haunted, this is it," tour guide Mike Lear said.

Lear led two history tours through the prison Sunday. He spoke about structures remaining at MSP, helped visitors imagine daily prison life in different decades and shared some of his own paranormal experiences.

Lear, who has been studying the prison for more than a decade, said he's fascinated by the penal mentality it symbolized for generations of Missourians. It wasn't too long ago that people supported public hangings and various forms of torture for inmates, he said.

"It's really a reflection of the state's history. It's a reflection of Jeff City's history. It's a reflection of our history as a people, not only in this country but in the world," he said. "In this part of the world, for recorded history, this is about as old as it gets."

Lear recalled leading tours with people from England, New Zealand and China who arrived specifically for the prison. Interest in the paranormal certainly drives tour attendance, he said, but history and the paranormal tend to go hand in hand.

"People don't just want the ghost story, they want to know the story behind it," he said. "And that can lead to so many other rabbit holes."

Lear said he gets asked about his ghost experiences constantly. And he's had more than he can remember.

One that sticks with him happened while leading a tour through the prison's oldest housing unit from 1868, when he saw a man he figured to be a guest. It wasn't until Lear did a headcount a few minutes later and didn't see the man again that he realized he wasn't there for a tour.

"Like so many times in this prison, it was a good two or three minutes before I even knew I had an experience," Lear said. "And by then, he was long gone."

Lear said he's had countless other experiences in which he thought he was talking to another guide or staff member, only to find out later they weren't in the building at all.

Doug and Libby Hartzog, a married couple from South Carolina, attended one of Lear's tours Sunday. Doug Hartzog said they were in Missouri for a college football game and decided to check out what was in the area.

"I saw the prison tour pop up and it seemed interesting to me," he said. "My brother's a retired prison guard in South Carolina, so we talk a lot and I guess that spurred my interest in it. I hear him talking about the prison system all the time, but this is a real prison. He just worked at a small prison."

Libby Hartzog said the tour helped her understand prison history, adding "the brutality was overwhelming."

"I mean, I knew prisons were no playground, but early on it sounds horrible," she said. "It was very interesting."

Doug said his biggest takeaway from the tour was he "wouldn't want to be in here, that's for sure."

Daniel Li, a student from St. Louis, said he liked learning about history through the lens of the prison. There are many stories about humanity contained within the walls at MSP, he said.

Li said seeing the different parts of the prison, from historic cells to the gas chamber, gave him a better understanding of the lives prisoners lived.

"A lot of lives changed there," he said. "It makes me feel complicated."



  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune Tourist Doug Hartzog of South Carolina points to the ceiling of the gas chamber at Missouri State Penitentiary while on a tour Sunday. The prison has had more than 27,000 visitors so far this year.
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune Tour guide Mike Lear points Sunday to the Missouri State Penitentiary while leading a group through the historic prison. Lear described several activities inmates did, such as boxing matches, in the area that now contains a parking lot for state employees.
  photo  Ryan Pivoney/News Tribune A tour group sits in the lobby of the Missouri State Penitentiary Sunday before entering the historic prison. The Jefferson City Convention & Visitors Bureau has led more than 600 history and ghost tours through the facility so far this year.