60 years ago the prison that had helped Jefferson City to remain the state’s capital city threatened to turn on the town. The biggest riot in Missouri State Penitentiary’s 168-years of operation kicked off shortly after 6 the evening of September 22, 1954, and what would follow was hours of chaos and 50 years of recovery.
MSP had been built in Jefferson City largely to solidify its status as the state capital when many in the 1830s were calling for that distinction to be given to St. Louis. By 1954 the prison had long been overpopulated. Due to a low staff-to-convict ratio, the inmates were responsible for many important duties such as carrying out head counts, or even making the keys for the cell blocks. The Truman Commission that studied the prison after the September 1954 riot used the word “deplorable” repeatedly in its report on the conditions and state of the facility.
The riot began in E-Hall, a brick housing unit built in the 1880s, of which the third floor was a segregation unit for incorrigibles. A 19-year-old in that unit named William Donald DeLapp called a guard to his cell complaining that his sheets were wet due to a broken pipe that had been repaired earlier, and he didn’t feel well. When the guard came, DeLapp overpowered him, grabbed his keys and began turning other inmates loose.
Eventually prisoners from five buildings were freed. Estimates of the number of those who participated in the riot range from as few as 500, up to nearly half of the 3,361 the prison held at the time.
Causes of the riot, inmates at the time claimed, included “brutal” punishments of prisoners by some among the prison staff, changes that had recently been made in the state’s parole board, and poor administration of medical care. Some the next morning said they had been served rotten watermelon with the evening meal before the riot, and said that had been a final straw of sorts.
One of the men sometimes remembered as a “ringleader” in that riot rejects the watermelon claim.
“No, no, no, that’s fabrication there, you know? Fabrication and exaggeration … the reason why the riot kicked off is because of brutality, cruel and unusual punishment by the guards, the clothes they wore was raggedy clothes that didn’t fit them, the shoes they wore didn’t fit them and … you were short-changed on medication there, too,” he claims.
“He,” is Joseph Vidauri, who entered MSP in 1952 a the age of 17. Vidauri, who asks to be referred to by his Confirmation name, Barabbas, is now 79 and serving two consecutive 30-year sentences for rape at the Correctional Center in Bowling Green. He says prisons and their guards today are nothing like they were in 1954.
Below: Joseph Vidauri on what he claims led to the riot at MSP in September, 1954
The inmates look to settle scores
Vidauri was once convicted of taking part in the murder of a fellow inmate, Walter Lee Donnell, during the September 1954 riot. That conviction was later overturned.
Donnell, 30, was considered a “snitch” by the other prisoners because he had testified against members of a gang that had carried out armed robberies in St. Louis. He was in protective custody in “death row” in the lower level of B and C Hall, a stone housing unit built in sections completed in 1914 and 1918.
After death row guard Clarence Dietzel threw his keys behind locked bars and out of the reach of inmates storming the unit, those inmates broke through a wall into the unit using a sledgehammer. That sledgehammer was later one of the tools used by other inmates to kill Donnell.
In the cell next to Donnell’s was James Creighton, who rioters also wanted to kill, but they couldn’t get to him because he jammed his cell’s lock with pieces of paper, cardboard and match sticks. He did suffer a facial wound made by a sharpened broom handle that his attackers used to gouge at him through the bars.
It was Creighton and another man who later testified against seven inmates who were accused of murdering Donnell, but some debate continues among historians as to what actually happened in death row that night.
The riot is quelled
Donnell’s body was still in his cell when Highway Patrol troopers including Tom Ferguson of Springfield swept the prison as the riot was being put down.
“I looked at him,” says Ferguson, who remembered Donnell being battered beyond recognition.
Ferguson remembers entering the prison roughly three hours after the riot began, having driven to Jefferson City from Hamilton as fast as his patrol car could take him.
He and all the troopers in the state were called to the prison and led the effort to put the riot down. Other responding law enforcement included the Jefferson City Police Department, the Cole County Sheriff’s Department, the St. Louis Police Department and the Missouri National Guard.
Approaching the capital, Ferguson remembers seeing the fires set by the prisoners in MSP’s factories. He and other troopers arriving at the prison were told to take in their shotguns and ammunition.
“The prisoners were right up to the gate and they were throwing chair legs and everything they could break up at us,” recalls Ferguson. “Sergeant [Herb] Brigham had a .45-calibur machine gun, Thompson, and he fired it up in the ceiling … and they retreated real fast.”
Corky Cundiff was a trooper in St. Joseph and remembers making the drive to Jefferson City faster than ever before or since. He says local law enforcement along his route had blocked off the highways to let troopers get through without slowing down.
His car was one of those whose engines were pushed too hard, though it made it to about a block from the prison entrance before it gave out. By the time Cundiff arrived the inmates had been driven back into housing units.
“It was just putting them in cells as you went along,” Cundiff says of his job when he entered the prison with a group of other troopers. “There wasn’t any argument about whether [an inmate was assigned to a particular cell] or not, you went in there anyway, and just getting them locked up so there wasn’t any running around the Penitentiary.”
The last building to be retaken on the morning of September 23 was B and C Hall. Some inmates there refused to back down and surrender until one was fatally shot by a trooper.
The damage is assessed
No inmates had escaped in the riot, which was fortunate for the people of Jefferson City given the prison’s location near the heart of the city. Many of those residents had spent the night armed with their own rifles and shotguns, prepared to respond if any convicts did manage to breach the wall. Some banded together to search a wooded area outside the east wall when rumors circulated that some inmates had been freed and were hiding among the trees there.
The riot left four inmates dead and about 60 injured. Among the facilities that had been destroyed were the prison’s recreation building, vocational building, tobacco shop, license plate factory and the dining hall that also housed a chapel and school. Damage estimates at the time were between $4-million and $5-million.
Several guards had been held hostage and some, including Dietzel, had been beaten. Dietzel had been carried out of B and C Hall by two inmates who didn’t want to see him killed because, “he was a decent man.” There were other such stories of inmates helping to rescue staff and fight fires, and many others didn’t participate in the riot for reasons including being too near the end of a sentence and not wanting to risk more time.
The legacy of the September 1954 prison riot
The tension did not ease with the end of the September 1954 riot. Even as the Truman Commission was beginning its review of the prison, another, smaller riot broke out on October 23, 1954. Though it was said to have been put down in roughly an hour it left one inmate dead, shot by a guard, and about 40 inmates injured.
Historian and former MSP Deputy Warden Mark Schreiber says the Missouri Department of Corrections learned many lessons from the riots of 1954.
“Though Missouri was, in my opinion, rather slow to respond to a lot of the needs, we certainly made some changes,” says Schreiber. “We added another maximum security institution, that being the Potosi Correctional Center, we added a good classification system, we devised training for staff; a rulebook for staff and for offenders, we implemented … the first emergency squads … so that prison staff, themselves, would be able to respond to emergencies once they first occurred.”
Perhaps the greatest response to the riot was the construction of the rest of Missouri’s prison system. MSP was only one of two true prisons in the state in 1954, the other being Algoa Correctional Center, then an intermediate reformatory. The state spent the next 50 years adding to its prison system, culminating with the construction of the maximum-security Jefferson City Correctional Center, where roughly 1800 inmates were transferred when MSP finally closed September 15, 2004.
Today MSP stands at last decommissioned, many of its buildings having been demolished, but much of its wall and four of its most historic structures still stand, visited by tens of thousands of tour guests a year. A multi-year lease agreement between Missouri and the City of Jefferson seems to assure that those buildings will be around to mark the 70th anniversary of the riot as well.
Tour guests hear these and other stories of that night, and Schreiber says it’s for good reason.
“In presentations that have been done regarding the riot or whatever, there’s certainly no attempt to glamorize or romanticize what happened,” says Schreiber. “Any time you have a loss of life, any time you have property damage, any time you have individuals that are lawless, resulting in injury … that’s always a tragic event and it always has impact.
“It certainly had impact on the state of Missouri.”
More videos below:
Vidauri on how the riot of September 1954 began
Vidauri gives his version of how Walter Donnell was killed