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Jefferson City expands Missouri State Penitentiary tours,
focuses on ghost & paranormal activity at prison


by JENNIFER BONDURANT
Walking down a deserted prison catwalk, passing barred doorway after narrow, barred doorway is a little eerie, even in the daytime. Imagine passing through to the other side of the prison wall at night, and you’ve got an experience that promises to be downright spooky. Travelers who love the thrill of chilling tales will enjoy a new, unique step through Missouri history at Jefferson City’s historic Missouri State Penitentiary tour this spring.

“The creep factor will definitely jump up as soon as the light goes down,” says Marie Lacey, who has taken the historic walking tour at the prison four times since tours began in 2009. A history buff and a member of Jefferson City Paranormal Investigations, she worked with the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau to help develop the new ghost tour and ghost hunt, both of which will debut in March.

Offering a ghostly tour option was a natural development for the attraction.
“Not many a tour has gone by that someone didn’t ask about unnatural occurrences in the prison,” says Sarah Alsager, communications manager for the Jefferson City CVB.

Lacey has been waiting for this opportunity for two years, citing it as a natural because of the history and location. The penitentiary closed in 2004 after 150 years of housing criminals, including such notorious names as “Pretty Boy” Floyd and James Earl Ray. In 1888, the prison was named the largest in the world, and 2011 marks the prison’s 175th anniversary. In comparison, the prison is 100 years older than Alcatraz.

The 2011 tour season kicks off for the historic state penitentiary site on March 1 and runs through November. Twilight ghost tours, which will cost $25 per person for a two-hour tour, will feature a guided walk-through of Housing Unit 1 (Control Center), A-Hall (circa 1868, the oldest building still standing on the site), Dungeon Cells, the Gas Chamber and more. Battery-powered lanterns will illuminate the way for those braving the dark to learn about the strange and unusual occurrences that have been noted over the years.

For those that want to take the experience a step further, the Ghost Hunt Tour, $25 per person for two hours, will provide both history and interactive discovery. Participants can use “activity finding” devices to research and document their own paranormal experiences. For an overnight experience, the historic state pen emerges as Jefferson City’s newest accommodations with an Open Paranormal Investigations experience from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. at a cost of $100 per person. Prepare to find out what happens behind the bars in the dead of night. The Open Paranormal Investigation includes a guided history tour followed by a supervised investigation.

Alsager says that approximately 30 organized paranormal investigation groups from across the United States have contacted the CVB with a desire to research the site themselves. To accommodate, the CVB will allow overnight private paranormal investigations.

Other new tours in 2011 will include specialty history tours that will highlight particularly notable themes, including the Sonny Liston Birthday Tour on May 8, the 1954 riot, women in prison, escapes, executions and infamous inmates.

Lacey says that research for the ghost tour has included extensive interviews with past inmates and corrections officers. Numbers are important, according to Lacey, to validate occurrences.

“We approach each story we hear as brand-new, even if it is the 45th time we’ve heard about footsteps in the same hallway,” she says, explaining that several different versions help validate a story.

Lacey says the ghost hunt activities will be documented to continue the story gathering process, but she is careful to not label occurrences with names, never knowing when a recent event or tragedy might connect by family ties with someone in the tour.

“2004 was not that long ago,” she says, referring to the year the prison closed its doors to its last prisoners. “If there is a gray mass or a lady in white, we don’t really know who that apparition is supposed to be so we refer to it by description.”

Megan Wadley, prison tour coordinator for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, stresses that the ghost tours are not part of a cult or séance.

“We’ll be using scientific equipment to look for things,” she says. Every organized public tour is carefully controlled and includes tales of the prison’s history.

The history draws Lacey in. “The 1880s aspect—that’s what I find really interesting. Things weren’t really pretty back then. The kind of healthcare they did or did not receive was pretty scary,” she says. “We’ve learned so much since then.”

Tour reservations are required. Visit www.missouripenttours.com or call (866) 998-6998. The historic Missouri State Penitentiary is located at 115 Lafayette Street in Jefferson City.