Opened in 1836, the Missouri State Penitentiary was one of the nation's longest-operating prisons, housing felons for more than 150 years. This prison is so old, it received its first prisoner while the Alamo was under siege, and it operated for 100 years before Alcatraz opened. At one time, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the world's largest, with 5,200 inmates. After being closed in 2004, the prison reopened its doors for public tours in mid 2009 and has become one of Jefferson City's most popular tourist attractions. A two-hour tour describes the prison's history and includes stories of its most famous inmates (including Sonny Liston and Pretty Boy Floyd) and details about daily life for the prisoners and their guards. Guides share some of the creative ways inmates tried to escape and display an assortment of prison equipment, from barber chairs to pool tables, some of which will likely end up in the prison museum currently under construction. The Missouri State Penitentiary is not for everyone. For starters, there's a lot of stair-climbing and walking, often over rough terrain. Wear closed-toe shoes for safety, bring your own water (especially during warm weather) and take a small flashlight. Beyond the physical challenges, the State Pen may be kind of creepy for some. In the 1950s and 60s this prison was called "the bloodiest 47 acres in America" for the number of inmate deaths. Especially disturbing is the visit to the prison's gas chamber, where guides typically go into some detail about the executions that occurred there.
If your taste runs to the creepy though, take a nighttime ghost tour. These atmospheric tours cover similar territory and information as the daytime ones with the twist that the stories detail hauntings. As the guide told us: “I’ve had experiences I can’t explain." It is the perfect venue for such a tour: dark cells, peeling paint, abandonded furniture, and pitch-black darkness of the dungeon.