Exploring the Best of Boise: Old Idaho Penitentiary
Posted by Lisa Kohl on Tuesday, October 22nd, 2019 at 6:50pm
Whether you’re a history buff or not, it’s easy to see why the Old Idaho Penitentiary draws a regular crowd of visitors. When it first began operating in 1872 and throughout its 101-year history as Idaho’s state prison, it was home to some of the West’s most notorious criminals. Its infamous inhabitants included the man dubbed “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper,” the assassin of Idaho’s fourth governor, and even an alleged member of Butch Cassidy’s nefarious gang.
Built of sandstone from the nearby quarry by prisoners’ labor, the Old Pen building is a unique and fascinating sight. It finally closed its doors in December of 1973 after two destructive prisoner riots, and today, the cells, solitary confinement quarters, and gallows room still stand as a historical site operated by the Idaho State Historical Society.
Must See Exhibits at the Old Idaho Penitentiary
If you visit the Old Pen today, you’ll be able to view thrilling exhibits that give glimpses into the colorful past of Idaho and its most well-known criminals of yesteryear.
- Faces of the Idaho State Penitentiary, a ground-breaking display, reveals a lesser-known history of religious persecution and discrimination. While the Old Pen’s inmates were predominately white males, people of color and women were also imprisoned there, and this exhibit explores the diverse backgrounds of many inmates.
- The J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit features one of the largest collections of weaponry, historic arms, and military memorabilia in the nation. The collection is an educational close-up look at warfare during the World Wars as well as ancient weaponry such as medieval arms and armor and Luristan bronzes.
- Crafty Cons explores the fascinating world of inmate artistry, hobbies, and creativity.
- Idaho Crime, Boise Time looks at the fascinating history of why Boise was chosen as the site for a territorial prison and what the often brutal conditions were like for early prisoners.
- Marked Men takes a deep dive into the culture and history of prison tattoos.
- The Women’s Ward exhibit explores the scandalous and exhilarating stories of the West’s wildest women, including escape attempts and daring crimes.
Old Idaho Penitentiary: Famous Inmates
The Old Pen holds the keys to some of Idaho’s most fascinating and shocking history. Murders, insurrections, suspicious disappearances—the inmates who ended up at the Old Pen were often embroiled in the state’s most dramatic historical moments. If those sandstone walls could talk, they’d tell you tales of bloody murders, bank robberies, and executions. Ten men were executed during the years the Old Pen operated, and some say former inmates still haunt the grounds.
Raymond Allen Snowden was an Old Idaho Penitentiary inmate in the 1950s and was eventually executed by hanging for the murder of a woman named Cora Dean. Snowden killed Dean after a night of heavy drinking, stabbing her nearly 30 times. In prison, he bragged of killing other women, although he was never convicted of additional crimes. Prison records show that Snowden’s hanging was a grisly one, as the drop failed to break his neck and he slowly suffocated over 15 minutes. Snowden’s execution was the last to take place at the Old Pen.
Lyda Southard is known as one of the nation’s very first female serial killers. The Twin Falls resident was arrested after the suspicious deaths of her multiple husbands and family members. All told, Southard was suspected of the poisoning deaths of four husbands, her brother-in-law, and her young daughter, all before the age of 30. Southard reportedly laced innocent home-baked apple pies with arsenic and collected life insurance policies.
Harry Orchard eventually confessed to the killing of 17 people as the hired assassin of the Western Federation of Miners. Orchard also murdered Frank Steunenberg, Idaho’s fourth governor. Defended Orchard’s case was fascinating and dubbed the trial of the century. During the trial, Orchard revealed his real name was Albert E. Horsley and spent the rest of his life at the Old Pen after his conviction. He converted to Seventh Day Adventist after Steunenberg’s widow publicly forgave him and died after 46 years in prison.
Old Idaho Penitentiary Events
Throughout the year the Old Pen is home to many popular events, including:
- Sleepless in Stripes, an event where patrons can stay the night in cells and experience firsthand what it was like for inmates.
- Frightened Felons is a terrifying night of experiencing the only haunted cell house in Boise!
- Scavenger Hunts throughout the year invite you to solve riddles and look for clues all around the Old Pen grounds.
- 32 Cells Art Show is a popular event featuring the work of local artists as they interpret the stories of former inmates in art.
Plan Your Visit to the Old Pen
Before you head out for a visit to the Old Idaho Penitentiary, get prepared for your visit.
- Dress for the weather: During the summer, the grounds and cells of the Old Pen reach high temperatures. Bring water, wear hats, and apply your sunscreen! During the winter, especially in the evenings, temperatures can plunge quickly, so be sure you’re ready for the extremes.
- Keep children close: While children are welcome, they should be supervised at all times.
- Plan ahead for tours: Guided tours are included with regular admission, but are only offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Capacity is limited for tours, so be sure to call ahead if you’re hoping for a guided tour rather than self-guided.
The Old Idaho Penitentiary website notes that guided tour times are always subject to change. Call for the most up-to-date tour times. Self-guided tours are always available during operating hours.
Current Guided Tour Schedule:
Monday-Friday: 10:30, 12:30, 2:30
Saturday-Sunday: 10:30, 12:30, 2:30
Location and Admission Costs
2445 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise, ID 83712
Open daily - except for major state holidays.
Memorial Day to Labor Day: 10:00 am - 5:00 pm
Regular Hours (fall, winter, and spring): 12:00 pm - 5:00 pm
An adult MUST accompany children 12 and under.
Adults 13+: $6
Seniors 60+: $4
Children 6-12: $3
Children under 6: Free
Lisa Kohl is a top Idaho Realtor and creator of WeKnowBoise.com. From Southeast Boise to the North End, up to Eagle and west to Meridian, or right in the middle of the Boise Bench and downtown - We Know Boise. Whether buying or selling a home, we provide full-service real estate solutions dedicated to helping our clients achieve their goals.
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