The Old Idaho Penitentiary

I usually always visit museums and historic places and the Old Idaho Penitentiary was walking distance from my hotel. It’s listed as the #1 attraction in Boise on Trip Advisor so I figured it would be worth checking out.

As a curious traveler and someone who has an interest in haunted places I was unaware of the paranormal activity that had been recorded at this site. I don’t watch any of the “ghost hunting” television shows because I feel like they are just overly dramatic for the sake of entertainment and I’ve never been a fan. According to Zac Baggins on Ghost Adventures the Old Idaho Penitentiary was “abandoned” but it is actually run by the Idaho State Historical Society. They charge $6 admission and $2 for a guided tour and offer special events such as paranormal investigations and sleep overs. They also have a museum gift shop.

I asked the women at the front desk for any information or anything notable that had happened at the prison and she gave me a map, told me that terrible things had happened here and noted the “Cooler”, “Siberia” and “Death Row”. The map also had “Dennis the Cat” and she explained that in 1952 an inmate smuggled a kitten in his pocket and for some reason the guard missed it. The kitten was allowed to stay and when Dennis passed the inmates were allowed to have a funeral procession and to make a plaque and burial site for him. Dennis the Cat “served” 16 years in the prison.

Dennis the Cat Grave Marker

The prison was opened in 1872 and closed permanently after a major riot in 1973. During it’s 101 years of operation it saw 13,000 inmates and 129 deaths. It was built out of sandstone which made it incredibly hot during summer and freezing during winter.

As soon as you enter the prison yard you can see rusty metal cellar doors for Cell No. 20, aka “The Dungeon”, a 4′ x 4′ x 4′ enclosure. It was clearly evident that the prisoners sentenced to time here were tortured and living in brutal conditions.

Cell No. 20 – The Dark Cell aka The Dungeon

A bucket or “honey pot” was used in each cell where multiple inmates resided, and the bucket was only cleaned once a day and the cells were cleaned once a month. The prison did not have any modern plumbing until 1920s.

This prison did not discriminate, it held men, women and children. The youngest prisoner held was an 11 year old boy, James “Jimmy” Whitaker who was convicted for stabbing his mother in 1912. The women were not separated from the men. They became pregnant and were raped by prisoners and guards and eventually a separate women’s ward was built in 1920.

The “Cooler” was built in 1923 for solitary confinement but the small cells often held more than one prisoner. A more inhumane solitary confinement facility “Siberia” was built in 1926, it had 12 cells that were 3′ x 8′ and each one held one prisoner. The prisoners were fed oatmeal 3 times per day and used a honey pot. They were taken out for one hour per week for a shower and then returned to their cells. “Siberia” was referred to as “the end of the world”. There were constant screams and many prisoners went mad while in Siberia.

The prison has a list of inmates that committed gruesome crimes and I chose to tell the story of inmates Douglas Van Vlack and Raymond Snowden.

Tacoma, Washington resident Douglas Van Vlack had courted his neighbor Mildred Hook and soon after they were married things quickly fell apart. Van Vlack was physically and emotionally abusive. Mildred divorced him but he began stalking her and he eventually kidnapped her. During the kidnapping he shot and killed 2 police officers. While he was fleeing from law enforcement he murdered his ex wife by hitting her on the head with a pistol, shot her and ditched her body. He was convicted and sentenced to death at the Idaho Penitentiary in 1937. On the day of his execution, he escaped from the guards in Building 4, climbed up 3 tiers of cells and fell to his death 30ft onto concrete floors. He was sentenced to be hanged that day but he exclaimed that he wanted to choose how he was going to die. I later read another inmate had committed suicide in 4 House.

I had a difficult time staying in Building 4 and Building 5. It was almost like my body was having an involuntary response not to move closer to the cells and a feeling that someone was going to push me down the stairs. I lean more on the side of being a skeptic when it comes to paranormal activity and hauntings but the feelings I experienced in these buildings have definitely changed my position to “not so skeptic” and into the believer zone.

Raymond Allen Snowden had met Cora Lucille Dean at the Hi Ho Club, a bar just outside of Boise. They were drinking and having a good time but when Raymond pushed himself sexually on Cora, she refused his advances and he threatened her with a knife, telling her that she had to choose between rape or death. He stabbed Cora 29 times, cut her spinal cord, removed her right nipple, and made cuts to her face and body including her vagina. He ditched his bloody knife in a sewer near Hannafin’s Cigar Shop. Witnesses told police they saw the couple at the Hi Ho Club leaving together and the police already had Raymond Snowden on their radar because an ex girlfriend of his had previously reported that he threatened to cut her spinal cord. The weapon was found still covered in blood by the police. In 1957 he was convicted and sentenced to death at the Idaho Penitentiary. He was held in Death Row and hung in the gallows. When the floor dropped, Raymond’s neck did not break. The counter weight was not set to Raymond’s height or weight, and some speculated this was done intentionally so that Raymond would have a more painful death. He hung for 15 mins before he suffocated to death.

I was so physically uneasy and uncomfortable while I was in death row, I couldn’t get myself to take a closer look at the cells. I took a video from a distance and it wasn’t until I listened to it when I returned to my hotel that I heard a whisper on the recording. While I was in the building there was no one else in there and it wasn’t windy.

In 1971 during a prison riot, 2 inmates were shivved to death and another inmate was murdered in the showers after he was brutally gang raped.

The prison had 3 major riots over living conditions including poor ventilation and plumbing. They occurred in 1952, 1971 and 1973. The riots burned the dining hall and chapel down and the prison was permanently closed in 1973.

I had another visit to Boise the following week and another opportunity to walk over to the Old Idaho Penitentiary. I decided I wasn’t ready to go back just yet. It would have been a great opportunity to take some more photos, video and do some more research but my senses were telling me “F that place!”

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