150 Boise icons: The Old Pen

awebb@idahostatesman.comJune 29, 2013 

  • MARK YOUR CALENDAR

    • Idaho State Penitentiary 1872-1890: Amber Beierle speaks on the prison's territorial years. Noon to 1 p.m., Tuesday, July 9, at the Old Pen, 2445 Old Penitentiary Road. Admission is free for ISHS members, otherwise general admission fees apply (part of the talk is outdoors on the prison grounds). 334-2834.

    • "Dead and Buried: Old Idaho Pen Cemetery Secrets:" Beierle discusses the lives and deaths of inmates buried at the Old Pen cemetery. 7 p.m., Tuesday, Aug. 20, at the Idaho Botanical Garden, 2355 Old Penitentiary Road. $5; $3 for members and seniors. The presentation will include a stroll through the cemetery. 343-8649.

The Territory of Idaho built its first prison in 1870, 20 years before Idaho became a state. At the time, Boiseans considered the location, at the foot of Table Rock - a former Shoshone lookout - remote.

No one anticipated that Boiseans would begin drilling for geothermal water near the prison in 1890, or that the explorations would kick off an era of residential development along Warm Springs Avenue.

Like other territorial-era buildings, including the Assay Office on Main Street and the structures at Fort Boise, the original territorial cell house at the Old Pen was built of local sandstone using federal design specifications.

The first 11 inmates arrived in 1872 from the Boise County Jail in Idaho City. Guards put them to work cutting sandstone in the quarry nearby to construct more prison buildings.

Officials condemned the original cell house in the 1930s. A Works Progress Administration project converted it into a chapel.

The prison operated for a century. In the early 1970s, plans were underway to move inmates to a new, larger prison south of the city. A riot at the Old Pen in 1973 hastened the move.

Prisoners burned the original cell/chapel building in the riot. It still stands, but today is a roofless shell.

The prison includes a 68-grave cemetery on a slope outside the prison walls. Amber Beierle, interpretive specialist at the Old Pen, shared a few stories about the inmates buried there.

A court sentenced Rufus Roy Liggins to five to 10 years in the 1950s for writing a bad check. Liggins was a Purple Heart veteran. He died in prison from the effects of his war wounds. A military headstone marks his grave.

One convicted robber, William Trent, escaped in 1880. He was injured in a shoot-out with guards and cavalry officers dispatched from Fort Boise to find him. Trent ended up in the prison infirmary where he revealed that he was from a prominent East Coast family. When he died from his injuries, his family paid to erect one of the most elaborate stones in the cemetery.

Another notable grave is a monolith with the inscription "In memory of Bud Ray."

Police arrested Bud Ray, 18, as he was riding a horse stolen from a rancher in Blackfoot. Ray got a two-year sentence for grand larceny. He died of a heart ailment in 1897, nine months into his sentence.

Raymond Snowden, convicted of murdering a woman in Garden City, was the last man hanged at the Old Pen in 1957. He's buried on the hillside, but records are vague about the exact location of his grave.

Beierle said she's always intrigued by what draws the prison's many visitors to the site.

"We have those interested in the paranormal and the macabre," said Beierle. Others come to see "bonus" exhibitions like that dedicated to the Morrison Knudsen employees taken as prisoners of war on Wake Island during World War II. Another attraction: The J. Curtis Earle arms collection. Yes, there is a Gatling gun with a wagon mount dating to the 1860s. Yes, there is a sword from India that dates to the 9th century.

Even visitors without a particular agenda step back in time to get a clearer picture of how the West dealt with criminals.

Some inmates had the misfortune of spending time in solitary confinement, or "Siberia." Bare, unheated cells have tiny holes for light in the ceiling. One cell has a chilling bit of graffiti etched into its wall: "Every man has to walk a road right to the end and this is the end by God."

Anna Webb: 377-6431

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