A deadly place

This old cell block at the historic Missouri State Penitentiary is spooky and has a checkered past. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

Chairs in the gas chamber at the old Missouri State Penitentiary had holes to allow the lethal gas to rise from a bucket below. On a few occasions, two people were executed at the same time. (Pamela O’Meara/Review)

As I write this, people around the world are talking about the botched execution of a death-row inmate in Oklahoma on April 22. Less noticed was an execution of a man in Missouri the following day - the same day I toured the historic Missouri State Penitentiary, including the gas chamber, and learned that being gassed was ordinarily the most painful death an inmate could experience.

In view of these executions, I felt a little funny walking into the small, no-longer-used gas chamber, so I didn’t sit in the execution chair, but the middle school kids on the tour felt no such compunctions.

Our tour guide and former employee in the old Jefferson City penitentiary, Gary Jobe, explained how it once worked. The condemned inmate was strapped into a chair and blindfolded. A big mirror was positioned in front of him so reporters and family members of the victims could watch from benches outside the chamber.

A cyanide pill was dropped into a bucket of sulfuric acid and placed under a white metal chair filled with small holes and one large one.

“It was a terrible death - the gas ate your insides,” Jobe told us. The gas was so toxic the gas chamber was fitted with a submarine door to seal it tightly, and the guards in the guard towers had to leave their posts temporarily. He said the resulting pollution of the surrounding air would never be allowed today.

Jobe said 40 executions took place there from 1937 to 1989. Prior to that, death row inmates were sent back to the county where they committed their crime for a public hanging. After 1965, executions were done by lethal injection, including the most recent one.

Eighteen states do not have a death penalty. Some that do have it do not use it. In Minnesota, capital punishment was abolished in 1911 after a death by hanging didn’t take into account the rope might stretch. The prisoner, William Wiliams, who was convicted of murdering a mother and son, took 14 1/2 minutes to die. His feet hit the ground and authorities frantically tried to pull the rope up higher.

Public interest in the bungled execution was high, just as it is today, and six years later, Minnesota abolished the death penalty. More than 22 attempts have since made to reinstate it but all failed in the state Legislature.

The botched Oklahoma execution was not unique. But the U. S. Supreme Court declared in 2008 there’s no constitutional right to have a painless execution, and if a botched execution is an isolated event, it is not considered cruel and unusual punishment, regardless of what some people argue today.

Cruel treatment

The spooky old sandstone Missouri State Penitentiary opened in 1836 around the time of the Alamo and Daniel Boone, and closed in 2004. At its peak, 5,500 inmates lived there, and it was the largest prison on the U. S. Though now in a state of disrepair, most of it was saved from being torn down and tours, including ghost tours, are now offered.

The prison was a terrible place in the 1800s, Jobe said. There was no running water or electricity, bathroom facilities or heat so it could be 30 to 40 degrees inside in the winter months. Men were housed sometimes five to seven in a small cell with a chamber pot on one side and bucket of drinking water on the other side.

They’d sleep on the cement floor covered with straw. Food was limited. Baths were allowed once every three to four weeks in a tub of cold water brought up from the Missouri River. If you were the 100th person to bathe, the water would be warmer but filthy.

By contrast, in 1917 a few blocks away, the beautiful Missouri state Capitol, also open for tours, was built with stained glass windows, a lovely 238-foot dome, a colorful Thomas Hart Benton mural about the settlement and development of Missouri, a grand staircase and columns. I wondered how a beautiful setting versus the stark environment of the Dickensian-like prison affects a person.

The prison tour showed how treatment of prisoners did improve over the years, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the inhumane treatment at the old Missouri State just bred more violence once the prisoners had served their sentences and were released.

And is there evidence the death penalty does any good? Does it deter others from committing unspeakable crimes or is it merely retribution? My visit raised a lot of questions -- ones that people have been pondering for generations.

Pamela O’Meara can be reached at pomeara@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7818.


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