Friday, June 04, 2010

We Go to Prison

The Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum, that is. The original prison was completed in 1901 and had 104 cells.  There was no running water, no electricity (there would be no electricity until the 1950s) and little heat.  And let me tell you, the building was extremely cold when we visited when the outside temperature was in the mid-50s so I can't even imagine what it would have been like when the winter temperatures dropped below zero.  The building was in use from 1901 to 1981 when it was closed and the prisoners were transferred to a new penitentiary.  In 1987 the building was used in the filming of a low budget horror movie and a lot of damage was done to the building which the film company was not required to repair.  In 1988 the prison was established as a museum and daily tours of the premises are held with the Halloween tours being very popular.  I won't tell you what they do on the Halloween tour, but let me tell you I wouldn't want to have done the tour then!  Our tour guide was very knowledgeable about the building, its former inmates and the grounds and made the tour very entertaining.  One fact I found interesting is that there has never been a formalized search of the buildings and grounds for artifacts--the tour guides just wander around on their time off and have found weapons, diaries, paintings on the walls, prisoners' personal belongings, etc.  These items have been placed in a small museum within the building and are quite fascinating on their own.  There is also a tiny Wyoming Peace Officers museum inside.  While I'm not a history buff per se, I find the way we treat our fellow man fascinating and the tour included information on some of the prison's more interesting inmates.

The windowed side of the original cell block A, four tiers high with 104 individual cells.

The back side of cell block A where the interior of the cells were so dark the guards couldn't even see if the prisoners were inside, which led to the prisoners on this side being able to hide contraband.

Prisoner artwork in cell block A.

The Julien Gallows in the Death House.  Touted as a "humane" method of hanging prisoners because it involved no action on the part of jailers--the weight of the prisoner caused him to hang himself.  The prisoner stood on a platform with the noose around his neck, a weight was placed on another platform and water was poured into a bucket on another side.  Once the spout on the bucket was opened, the water emptied out a hose into another container and the weight that was attached to the now-emptying bucket slowly raised until it hit the point where it pulled on the jointed supports of the gallows, causing the joints to collapse, the gallows platform door to open and the prisoner to drop down and be hanged.  (You can see the slightly bent jointed supports above, as well as the weight).  Unfortunately, usually the prisoner's neck didn't break as planned but they strangled slowly so the gallows was replaced with the gas chamber.

A working model of the Julien Gallows in the museum.

The gas chamber, which used cyanide pills dropped into a container of water.  The windows on the rear are for viewing by witnesses to the execution. Note Denny seems to think it was an electric chair rather than a gas chamber.

 All of the prisoners were expected to work in the factories or cafeteria or gardens, but there was a one-armed prisoner who was asked to paint the walls of the cafeteria due to his disability.  Fortunately, he appeared to have been a decent artist and the variety of paintings ranged from big horned sheep to a Tuscan style patio scene to a jungle bird to scenery similar to an Arizona desert.  There is no information that explains where he got his inspiration but the artwork is surprisingly good.  Only one prisoner ever refused to work and he was so hated and so disagreeable that he is the only prisoner in the state ever to have been granted a pardon based on his bad behavior.  The agreement was that he leave the state of Wyoming and never return.

For an hour's tour and the ability to wander the two small interior museums you get a lot for your $7 ($6 for seniors) entrance fee.  There is a lot of information to browse on the lives of the prisoners, some of them quite interesting in that if all that ingeniousness and creativity had been channeled for good, they could have been outstanding citizens and inventors. The Wyoming Frontier Prison is definitely worth a stop.


SkippyMom said...

Denny looks none to comfortable in that chamber. Yikes!

Very fascinating.

Gloria said...

Reminds me of Alcatraz Island. Creepy, but interesting. Thanks.

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