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Idaho – A tour within The Old State Penitentiary

Boise, Idaho was the stop for a very interesting and thought provoking place on my Oregon Trail adventure. The Idaho Old State Penitentiary! A place that opened in 1872 as the prison for the then Idaho Territory. As I wandered around it was chilling to realise that it was in use all the way up to 1973. One hundred and one years, over 13,000 inmates, men, women, children. This tour was an incredible preserved insight into justice of the 19/20th century and more.

In 1973 the prison closed after a series of big riots. Riots about conditions mainly, and now I have wandered through some of the blocks and cells I can agree conditions must have been pretty darn terrible. Frozen in time, remnants of human occupation remain within the buildings and on the walls. Built of sandstone with no real ventilation. The hot summers made them feel like in cramped ovens and in winter there was no adequate heating. What started out as a single block became this complex of building over time. Built by the inmates, the stone was also mined by the inmates.

Oh these cells I have shown you so far are nothing… There is solitary confinement and then there was the super solitary confinement area.. with the nickname ‘Siberia’ A place no prisoner wanted to end up. Freezing cold, a dark windowless row of cells, each for one man. Measuring only 6 foot long and 3 and a half feet wide, a small hole in the ceiling for shaft of light and a hole in the floor for water and your human waste. If you was sent here you did not know when you would be out.

A lot were lucky.. to spend only a few days or weeks continuously locked up in Siberia… Some though were kept in for up to 18 months! Yes, the result was often insanity or suicide. Graffiti on the walls and tales of mad screaming from ex guards tell of a harsh reality. It was of course better to behave and stay out of this frightening block… that was in use right up to the 1960s! I think normal solitary or maximum security must have been like luxury compared.

Out in and around the buildings of the old penitentiary you can look around and see buildings of old and the newer ones built up in the 20th century. A block for women was added in 1906 so they could finally be segregated. 215 women became inmates over the time. The most famous of which was Lyda Southard, whom murdered four husbands, her daughter and her brother in law.. for the insurance payments.

The Rose Garden outside is where most of the 10 executions took place over time. Eventually an indoor gallows was built next to death row. It was only ever used once, in 1957 on a man named Ray Snowden. He was brought from death row, and not given a chance for last words, and when the trapdoor was opened it took over 15 minutes for him to be strangled to death by the rope due to an error making the noose.  An eerie tour this was, but educating and thought provoking.

Past is past and cannot be changed. The tour guide was a wonderful font of factual knowledge and little historical nuggets about certain inmates of yonder years or about conditions etc. Eerie doesn’t begin to touch on the feeling as I wandered through. It is a good lesson in humanity and times of the past, USA or otherwise.

The museum parts had items and stories from throughout the years. Marshals whom made a mission to persecute the polygamists of the Mormon faith, attire that was worn to keep people inside, items confiscated from over the years and tales of child prisoners, deaths within, histories of the buildings and much more. For all the scenes and for all the history this now historical place is shown very tastefully and respectfully. And honestly.

You don’t get a place like this without tales of hauntings. Many people have said to have seen or felt strange happenings here. From Ray Snowden seen passing throughout since that day in 57, to visitors taking a closer look in the cells and a feeling touches or pulling sensations. A popular place for researchers of paranormal activity it is too.

This was of course a different kind of stop I had on the Oregon Trail. Sobering and a great learning experience. A physical sign of the times for some of the criminals in the West of the late 19th Century and into the 20th.

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