A new tool is online for those who want to research people who spent time in Missouri’s historic state prison.
The Secretary of State’s office has added to its other online, searchable databases, records from the Missouri State Penitentiary. So far that includes the register of prisoners from the prison’s opening in 1836 through 1931.
“In addition to that there are a lot of mug shots and other kind of secondary and tertiary records that we’re going to add to this as well,” State Archivist John Dougan told Missourinet. “Right now there are just a handful of the mug shots from before 1928.”
Dougan says the search is very popular with genealogists, as well as those who just want to research some of the historic figures who did time at MSP, including Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd; John Reno, who led the gang that carried out the first train robbery in the U.S.; and famed socialist and prison reformer Kate Richards O’Hare.
Those who search for family members could learn interesting details about them.
“It will tell them the name, the age, the county, the crime that was committed, and you can also filter by when they were in the penitentiary,” said Dougan. “It lists the next of kin, so that helps you decide whether it’s your relative or someone else by the same name, it says whether they escaped and whether they were recaptured, and one of my personal favorites is it has a marks and scars column that lists all the tattoos and the scars and the broken bones and things like that.”
For example, this reporter could learn whether he is related to Fred Lear, who spent more than a year and a half at MSP starting in July, 1926, for “giving hooch, moonshine, corn whiskey away.” This was Lear’s second term at MSP. Records list the name of his father, where his father was from, that he worked as a painter, and other information that when plugged into other archives, could help determine whether there was any connection.
Some records will also tell what cell block or blocks an individual was held in, whether he or she escaped from MSP or perhaps died there, and the mug shots that exist are being added to the database.
“Sometimes if they were there for a long time period, there are actually multiple mug shots in their file where maybe they were there when they were first incarcerated, and then 15 or 20 years later there’s a mug shot of them while they’re still there, or maybe they’re back.”
When combined with other archives the Secretary of State’s office and others provide, Dougan says researchers could be led to a great deal of information.
“Prison registers will give you an inkling that you need to look in this county for a criminal court proceeding, or for newspapers about whatever may have placed the individual into the state penitentiary,” said Dougan. “It gives you clues to a lot of different record series that we have online.”
Dougan thanks the volunteers who are scanning and uploading the prison records into the database. He says it could eventually include records through the MSP’s closure in 2004.
“That’s going to be probably a long process. You have to remember that Missouri State Penitentiary was one of the largest prisons in the United States … you’re talking about a significant number of inmates,” said Dougan. “The database right now is 62,000-plus inmates but I think in the more modern period, you’re going to be talking about a database that’s two or three, maybe even four times as large as what we have for this earlier period.”
Missouri State Penitentiary has gained national and international attention in recent years as a tourist attraction. Its popularity in that regard continues to grow, in part because of some of the television shows that have filmed there in recent years including Ghost Hunters, American Pickers, Who Do You Think You Are, and Ghost Adventures.
The prison, located in Jefferson City, was the oldest in operation west of the Mississippi when it closed in September, 2004.