Old Missouri jails now open doors to visitors

Museum director Susan Church peers through a cell door during a tour of the 1859 Jail, Marshal's Home and Museum in Independence, Mo.

? Inside Jackson County’s impregnable 1859 limestone jail, outlaws including Frank James and Cole Younger heard the ominous clang of heavy steel doors — and sometimes the sharp creak of the indoor gallows creating an immediate vacancy.

Now the jail is visited by tourists of all ages, as costumed interpreters talk about life on both sides of the cell doors.

“This is American history, and it’s part of real life in America,” says Susan Church, director of the restored jail and marshal’s home just off the Independence courthouse square.

Across Missouri, communities are finding new uses for old jails, primarily as ways of teaching history and luring tourists. Restored jails are open to visitors at locations including Liberty, Neosho, Nevada, Springfield, East Prairie, Boonville, Vienna, Lebanon and Farmington.

Church says the attraction is easy to understand: The old ways and places seem quaint and interesting in today’s world of court decrees about overcrowding and the rights of inmates, not to mention high-tech hoosegows with electronically controlled doors, high-voltage fences and video surveillance everywhere.

Seeing the other side

The Independence, Mo., museum features period furniture, including this desk and chair. Costumed interpreters, including Church, above, guide museum visitors and answer questions.

Back in the late 1800s, prisoners in Independence were heated by a single wood stove in the middle of the cell block — and on the other side of the steel doors. There were sometimes complaints about the quality of the food — although marshals’ wives often did the cooking and said they served better meals to the prisoners than to their kinfolk.

Not all prisoners had it rough. Although Jesse James’ older brother Frank spent 87 days in the Independence jail prior to his trial for murder, one newspaper said sympathetic supporters helped make him comfortable.

“His cell in the jail at Independence is furnished with elegant Brussels carpet, the walls are decorated with pictures, and such furniture as he has room for is said to be of the best sort,” The Rock Port Sun reported on Nov. 22, 1882. “He sits for hours at a time conversing with his friends and giving them a history of ‘life in the saddle.'”

The jail’s official history relates that a deputy marshal was sacked for being too lenient with James, including taking him to plays at the old opera house and allowing the prisoner to wander out to buy tobacco.

These days, Frank James is depicted during jail tours by Independence resident Gregg Higginbotham, who bears a strong resemblance to the dour, Shakespeare-reading elder partner of the James Gang.

“I love interacting with these students, and so many of them really know their history,” Higginbotham says. “It’s important for people today to be able to see what life was like long ago — including what life was like in custody.”

Truman to the rescue

Visitors wouldn’t have been able to walk through the neatly restored jail, marshal’s home and adjacent museum if Independence’s most famous son — former President Harry Truman — hadn’t stepped in to save the property.

That was in 1959, when the structure’s owners proposed razing it. After a new jail was built in 1933 the building was put to other uses, including a cannery and a sewing factory. The American Legion met in it for years before deciding to tear the decaying jail down.

Decades earlier, Truman had been instrumental as a Jackson County judge in restoring and expanding the Independence Courthouse. His first fund-raising call for the jail, to Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall, netted a $1,000 pledge and the restoration was off and running. In 1970, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today the complex of period structures offers a living immersion in the late 19th century. Visitors first stroll through the carefully restored first floor of the house that was furnished as part of a county marshal’s compensation (pay was $35 monthly).

Next to the formal parlor is the marshal’s office, complete with a desk facing the door, a shotgun positioned for easy reach, and a checkerboard and spittoon for loafers. Upstairs are three bedrooms, including quarters for children.

The 1859 Jail, Marshal’s Home and Museum in Independence, Mo., is in the center of a community with rich history and lots of interesting places to visit.The jail complex is at 217 N. Main St., northeast of the Independence Courthouse Square. Take the Noland Road exit from Interstate 70 and head north.The jail and museum complex are open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday in April through October.Admission is $4 for adults, $3.50 for senior citizens, $1 for ages 6 through 16 and free for children under 6.For more information, contact the museum office at (816) 252-1892. Or check the city’s promotional Web site at www.visitindependence.com for information about the jail and other attractions.