Old prison cells now hosting willing visitors

Posted: Sunday, June 22, 2003

INDEPENDENCE, Mo. Inside Jackson County's impregnable 1859 limestone jail, outlaws including Frank James and Cole Younger heard the ominous clang of heavy steel doors and sometimes the sharp creak of the indoor gallows creating an immediate vacancy.

Now the jail is visited by tourists of all ages, as costumed interpreters talk about life on both sides of the cell doors.

''This is American history, and it's part of real life in America,'' says Susan Church, director of the restored jail and marshal's home just off the Independence courthouse square.

Across Missouri, communities are finding new uses for old jails, primarily as ways of teaching history and luring tourists. Restored jails are open to visitors in Liberty, Neosho, Nevada, Springfield, East Prairie, Boonville, Vienna, Lebanon and Farmington.

Church says the attraction is easy to understand: They seem quaint in today's world of court decrees about overcrowding and the rights of inmates, not to mention high-tech hoosegows with electronically controlled doors, high-voltage fences and video surveillance.

Back in the late 1800s, prisoners in Independence were warmed by a single wood stove located outside the steel doors in the middle of the cell block. Marshals' wives often did the cooking and said they served better meals to the prisoners than to their kinfolk. Still, prisoners complained about the food.

Not all prisoners had it rough. Although Jesse James' older brother Frank spent 87 days in the Independence jail prior to his trial for murder, one newspaper said sympathetic supporters helped make him comfortable.

''His cell in the jail at Independence is furnished with elegant Brussels carpet, the walls are decorated with pictures, and such furniture as he has room for is said to be of the best sort,'' The Rock Port Sun reported on Nov. 22, 1882. ''He sits for hours at a time conversing with his friends and giving them a history of 'life in the saddle.'''

A deputy marshal was sacked for being too lenient with James, including taking him to plays at the old opera house and allowing the prisoner to wander out to buy tobacco, according to the jail's official history.

These days, Gregg Higgin-botham, who bears a strong resemblance to the dour, Shakespeare-reading Frank James, dresses up like him for the tourists. Higgin-botham is an old hand at the role, which he played in a 1998 ''trial'' to raise money for the jail. Then, as in 1883, James was acquitted. In the real trial, the jury included many of his fellow ex-Confederates.

''It's important for people today to be able to see what life was like long ago,'' Higginbotham says, ''including what life was like in custody.''

Visitors wouldn't have been able to walk through the neatly restored jail, marshal's home and adjacent museum if Indepen-dence's most famous son former President Harry Truman hadn't stepped in to save the property.

That was in 1959, when the structure's owners proposed razing it. The building had been put to other uses since a new jail was built in 1933, including as a cannery and a sewing factory. The American Legion held meetings in it for years before deciding to tear the decaying jail down.

Decades earlier, while serving as a Jackson County judge, Truman had been instrumental in restoring and expanding the Independence Courthouse. His first fund-raising call for the jail, to Hallmark Cards founder Joyce Hall, netted a $1,000 pledge and the restoration was off and running. In 1970, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, visitors stroll through the carefully restored first floor of the house that was furnished as part of a county marshal's compensation (pay was $35 monthly).

Next to the formal parlor is the marshal's office, complete with a desk facing the door, a shotgun positioned for easy reach, and a checkerboard and spittoon for loafers. Upstairs are three bedrooms, including quarters for children.

Church says there have been strange happenings at the old place an unexplained scent of rum-soaked tobacco on the staircase, the air suddenly become chilly. Church says her office radio has been turned on while the place was locked overnight. And there are generally creepy sensations inside the cramped cells, where up to 20 pro-Confederate women and children were jammed into each small space during the Civil War.

''We have had people work and volunteer here who just refuse to go through the jail in the dark or at night,'' Church says, ''and they are very serious-minded folks.''

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