Old State Penitentiary - From Limestone to Learning Center

Old State Penitentiary - From Limestone to Learning CenterAt the base of the Boise Foothills awaits a limestone complex older than the state of Idaho itself. Within the hallowed halls, the daring explorer has often reported hearing of mysterious voices and unexplained feelings, as if an invisible hand had reached for their shoulder. The site of intrigue, executions, and scandal, these empty buildings remind all those who dare tread near the unabridged horrors that occurred within its walls.

The Old Idaho Penitentiary was a territorial prison that was built less than ten years after the Idaho territory was founded, and was in operation for over one hundred years before being shut down. In that time, it saw more than 13,000 inmates pass through its cells. Nowadays, it exists as a popular Idaho attraction for those interested in history, mystery, and yes - the paranormal. So how does “The Old Pen” fit into Idaho’s culture? To understand that, we’re going to take an in-depth view of the history of one of Idaho’s most famous landmarks.


Before the Old Idaho Penitentiary was named as much, it was the Idaho Territorial Prison. The Idaho territory, after being officiated for less than decade, needed a central jailhouse to lock up the more serious offenders. Officials determined that the best location would be near Boise. At that time, Boise was an up and coming farming community, within close proximity to large amounts of sandstone in the Boise Foothills. This sandstone was integral to the construction of the prison, and local inmates quarried the stone to construct the main walls and buildings of the prison as it was constructed.

The prison began as a single jailhouse on a 4 and ½ acre site in 1870, and construction continued until the prison was officially opened in 1872. When Idaho became a state less than twenty years later, funding for the prison was passed from the federal government to the state, and the facility was again renamed - this time as the Idaho State Penitentiary. At any point during its use, the Idaho State Penitentiary held a maximum of 600 prisoners a time. These inmates included men, women, and even children. Famous examples of these inmates include:

Raymond Allen Snowden, a man convicted of murdering a woman by stabbing her repeatedly with a pocketknife and severing her spinal chord. He would later confess to doing the same to two other women prior, earning him the title of “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper.” Snowden is likely most remembered for the manner in which he was hung. One of only ten inmates to have ever been executed in the Idaho State Penitentiary, and the only one to have been hung in the indoor gallows built in 1954, Snowden’s execution was marred by the force of the fall not snapping his neck, and he spent fifteen minutes suffocating on the noose before he died.

Albert Horsley (or Harry Orchard) was the man who was in the center of a turn-of-the-century  conspiracy that attracted the entire nation’s attention. Horsley is credited with the murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. Horsley was a Canadian natural who moved to Idaho to find work in a silver mine in Burke, Idaho. There, Horsley joined the Western Federation of Miners, a labor union who Horsley later accused of ordering him to assassinate Steunenberg and sixteen other people. Though the allegations were never proven, Horsley’s spent the rest of his life in the Idaho State Prison until his death in 1954.  

Lydia Trueblood was twenty-nine when she entered the Idaho State Penitentiary. A “black widow” serial killer, Lydia was accused of killing four husbands, one brother-in-law, and even her own daughter as she seeked to claim money from their life-insurance policies. After Lydia’s fourth husband was discovered to have been killed by arsenic poisoning, law enforcement finally caught on to Lydia’s scheme. Lydia was eventually found and arrested in 1921...but escaped after ten years with another man who had fallen in love with her in prison. She was eventually recaptured fifteen months later.

The inmates were responsible for most of the construction on the Penitentiary grounds, which were added as the prison grew over the years of its operation. However, by the 1970s, living conditions had started to deteriorate in the worst ways. A modern prison was in the process of being built south of Boise, but it was not quite done. Prison riots began to break out, until finally on March 7, 1973, the ultimate riot occurred. The prison chapel, which used to be the original prison house a century earlier, was entirely firebombed. Several inmates were severely injured, and the State began to move the four hundred or so prisoners into the new Idaho State Correctional Institute. The prison was finally closed later that year, and waited to be demolished.

Idaho was not done with the institution yet, though - the Idaho State Historical Society got the “Old Pen” placed on the National Register for Historic Places almost as soon as the last prisoners left their cells. Currently still run by the Idaho Historical Society, the Old Idaho State Penitentiary is now an artifact to the changing social standards of crime and punishment over a century. The building is a popular attraction for those who visit Idaho as well as those who already live in the area.

The Old Pen Now

The penitentiary could now be compared to something akin to a museum and a social media center. The complex is open seven days a week almost year round, and offers both guided and unguided tours through the site. Educational programs for students from fourth grade to college level are also available, teaching topics like inmate rehabilitation and weaponry. The latter is usually taught in conjunction with the impressive weapons collection, donated to the prison by J. Curtis Earl, which spans from the Iron Age to WWII, entitled the J. Curtis Earl Memorial Exhibit: Arms and Armament through the Ages. An inmate catalogue is also available for those who wish to learn about the thousands of prisoners that once walked within the old prison’s halls.

The Idaho State Historical Society seeks to include the community in the rich history of the penitentiary year round, with community exercises that keep the penitentiary popular. One of the most beloved of these events is the Frightened Felons event, which happens annually on Halloween night. The Old Penitentiary is known for its paranormal activities, especially in Cell House 5, which was the last structure built on the premises in 1954. It housed the indoor gallows - the same gallows which executed only Raymond Snowden. Since the penitentiary opened for tours, many people have reported strange sights and feelings within Cell House 5 and the rest of the complex. The Frightened Felons event offers spooky fun as people explore the haunted cellhouses in the cover of night, perhaps finding ghosts of their own.

Despite the macabre and solemnity that the Old Penitentiary stands for in Idaho’s state history, it is a fascinating place that offers invaluable education for all those who want to learn from it. The Idaho State Historical Society, and other groups like, try their hardest to assure the past is not lost to contemporary cultural identity. It is those who learn from history who don’t have to repeat a cliched parable, after all. To learn more about the historic building, visit the website. 


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