In 2011, visitors came in droves to get locked up inside the Missouri State Penitentiary. The 2011 season saw a 47 percent increase in tour attendance – more than 17,000 people stepped through the Missouri State Penitentiary gateway and heard the cool clang of the metal bars slam shut behind them.
What happens once inside the walls of the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) is different for everyone.
Some people come to tour MSP because of the extraordinary background and history of the site. Opened in 1836, the prison operated continually for 168 years, until 2004 – longer than any other prison west of the Mississippi. Dubbed the “most historical place in the Midwest” and the “bloodiest 47 acres in America,” MSP housed tens of thousands of prisoners during its tenure.
The History Tours are led by various guides, many of whom once worked at MSP as prison guards and wardens. The guides bring their own unique, first-hand perspective of their experience while employed at the penitentiary.
In 2011, History Tours accounted for more than three-fourths of the total tours given at MSP. Though the History Tours still clearly bring in the most visitors at MSP, a new type of tour was offered last year and is quickly gaining in popularity.
Rumors swirl amidst former MSP employees and those who have toured the prison in recent years – some claim the penitentiary is haunted by spirits of prisoners who lost their lives inside the walls.
Level-headed, reasonable, trustworthy individuals share spine-tingling stories of ghostly images and inexplicable occurrences witnessed at the mysterious site. In response to the interest in the possibility of supernatural activity at the prison, MSP launched a selection of Ghost Tours in 2011.
Visitors can now choose from a variety of paranormal options, including guided Ghost Tours, Ghost-Hunt Classes and even an Overnight Paranormal Investigation which involves searching for scientific proof of supernatural presence in the dead of the night.
In 2011, the SyFY channel featured the Missouri State Penitentiary in an episode of its hit show “Ghost Hunters.” The show generated national exposure for MSP and sparked an immediate desire in paranormal enthusiasts to see the site in person. The show aired at the end of the 2011 tour season and left many on the edge of their seats waiting for the gates to re-open in 2012.
Local, regional and national media have taken notice in the increase in traffic at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Midwest Living, a nationally recognized publication, recently listed MSP No. 3 of its Top 25 New Places to Stay, Eat and Play. The magazine credited the prison’s Ghost Tours for “pushing the interest in the creepy complex to a stratospheric level.”
Jefferson City Magazine, a local publication, awarded MSP in their “Best of 2011” issue with the No. 2 Best Place for Tourists. Headlines have proclaimed “Popularity of prison tours escalates,” “Big House proves big draw,” and “MSP listed as top new destination.”
Whatever the personal reason for touring the Missouri State Penitentiary one thing is clear: the site has become an incredibly enticing attraction for tourists visiting Jefferson City. Visitors have come from 43 of the 50 states and countries such as Germany, India, and Canada. The positive response is indicative of great things to come when tours re-open in March of 2012.
Follow the Missouri State Penitentiary on Twitter at @MissouriPenTour.
Submitted by Ryan Winkler, communications manager, Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau; Photographs of the Missouri State Penitentiary used with permission from Michael Schlueter.