It wasn’t all that long ago really when Dad, Mom, and the kids joined the vendors around the scaffold of a fine day, in, say, Dodge City or Denver. A row of men (usually, anyway) kicking and bouncing around at rope’s end, trying to touch the ground or breathe, their hands behind their backs, provided entertainment with a morality lesson. If a subject wasn’t an especially repulsive individual, or the executioner got a few pence, the latter might calculate the rope-length/body-weight ratio and the neck would snap with the drop. We Westerners have outgrown treating executions as a spectacle to be looked forward to, though. We’re familiar with the stonings in the Middle East, the amputations for thievery and such, and are properly repulsed.
That interest in gruesome fates hasn’t fully faded yet. Picture a group of witnesses, some somber, some thinking right on! Picture them seated on a little set of bleachers so close they can touch the glass of the chamber. A man (again, usually) is strapped into a chair and the cyanide is released. The guests watch him hold his breath, and they watch as the inevitable happens. If they want, they can see every horror-driven distortion of the condemned’s wrinkled face while his lungs sizzle.
The gas chamber being held in awe in the above photo is at the recently-decommissioned Missouri State Pen, a place with an utterly gruesome past and an oddly active present.
Cell 76 on the second floor in building 4, or A-Hall, is one with a busy repute, where two inmates slipped in to gouge out the eyes of one of its tenants and let him stew on that while they sliced him further until he crawled out onto the catwalk and bled to death. Shivs have always been a way of life in prison, and that was as true here at “The Walls” of Mo State as anywhere.
Gougings and related murders were a daily occurrence for long periods of time in this penitentiary, one of which inspired, after the warden offed his own self, Time Magazine to dub Mo State as “The bloodiest 47 acres in America.”
The prison opened in 1836 and before it closed in 2004, was the oldest operating prison west of the Mississippi. Plumbing came in the 40s, and off-the-floor sleeping probably before that.
Still, the violence only got worse. So then, do spirits of humans who spent their last seconds here still hang around? Imagine 5 or 6 or 8 guys squeezed into a tiny, frigid or baking cell with straw mats on the floor for bedding, one bucket of filthy water for drinking, and one bucket to shit in, while the din from whipping posts in concert with insane, echoing howls competes with the smells for the attention of the senses. It doesn’t take some childish eagerness-to-believe in unscientific phenomena to imagine that events where human emotion is stretched beyond all conceivability might just be capable of leaving a stamp, or a historical impress, that can be picked up on now and again. As for real-time interaction with the world of the dead, that’s not for me to adjudicate for you.
Below ground in A-Hall, a large number (documentation verifies 13 on one occasion) of inmates are forced into a limestone cubby hole where light equals what one finds in the depths of a cave when the last lantern battery dies.
Blindness. A thick wooden door covers the steel door to ensure nothing resembling light will find a crack. The prisoner-quarried stone entombs the cell’s denizens at a thickness that promises no cracks of which any accident of sound might take advantage, either. There are two buckets. Which one has the water? The shit bucket will not be emptied by a guard for days. The dead bodies will be removed then too. No sooner.
James Earl Ray, cell 45, escapes in a 4×4 box in the back of a bread truck. Less than a year later, he kills MLK. (Or was at least arrested for it, but I’d like to stay on target.)
Cell 40 has made a name for itself, I see, on You Tube. I spent a few minutes in there alone, very quiet I did stay.
But other than the temperature dropping about 40 degrees, not much action. Kidding. It doesn’t matter. The history is enough.
On the east coast of Ireland is a prison that has existed in one form or another for three centuries. Wicklow Gaol. A prison for all the people—men, women, and children—and for all the Catholic people in particular. The rebels of 1798, the croppies. The Popish.
Women were thrown in with the men and if they had children, the British government would be damned if they were going to be babysitters.
They did however provide an area for schooling. One of those children has never left, many people swear.
You slept on the straw or the dirt. You worked.
Sometimes men broke rocks and women took them to pave the road. During the years of rebellion, however, work was much more about punishment.
Back-breaking work to produce nothing—a good way to fuck with their heads. Pick up a cannonball chest high, walk two steps, set it down, repeat for four more hours in the heat of the day.
Like the decommissioned penitentiary in Missouri, Wicklow Gaol suffers from no shortage of adamant witnesses to the paranormal. The true (verified or silenced) horror stories that accumulated in Wicklow throughout all those decades doubtless left marks that can still be felt.
Humans may grow intellectually, societies may become more sophisticated, but the fascination with horror is a part of us. The chief rule of the sane is to maintain a handle on fascinations.
Finding the truth about what lies beyond may be a hobby for those who don’t deride it as silliness, but it is also, in another sense, a way to get a handle on the dangers that intrigue us.