Notorious Prisoners of the MSP
A former Union General, the first train robber, 1930s gangsters, world champion athletes, and the assassin that killed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. all came through the gates of the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) as inmates. Some left MSP for successful careers in the arts, sports, and even state government; others chose a life of more crime.
In 1919, Katie Richards O’Hare began serving a federal sentence at the Missouri Penitentiary that would change her life and contribute to reforms in inmate labor practices. In July of 1918, O’Hare, Chairman of the Socialist Labor Party, gave a speech in Bowman, North Dakota after which she was indicted under the new Federal Espionage Act, convicted of espionage, and sentenced to prison. While incarcerated, O’Hare was forced to work 50 hours a week in a clothing factory and prohibited from communicating with her husband and four children. In 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted O’Hare’s sentence and she was released. She later received a full pardon from President Calvin Coolidge but her life was forever changed by her experience at MSP. She abandoned socialist agitation and pursued prison reform efforts. In 1939, she was appointed by the California Governor to the position of Assistant Director of the California Department of Penology. Her reform efforts had a major impact on California’s penal policies and many of those reforms were implemented throughout the country.
While Katie Richards O’Hare was incarcerated at MSP, another international activist shared the women’s quarters with her. Emma Goldman was serving one of several imprisonments for charges ranging from inciting a riot to advocating the use of birth control to opposition to World War I. At the time, the government called Goldman the “ablest and most dangerous” anarchist in the country and she was pursued through much of her life by two of the most notorious law enforcement officials in American History; Anthony Comstock and J. Edgar Hoover. She is credited with having had a tremendous influence on the founders of Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union. Not surprisingly, while in prison Goldman was known as an agitator, stirring rebellion among the women prisoners. Prison administrators were glad to see her leave when in 1919, after serving nearly two years, she was arraigned before a US commissioner. When she testified that she did not have the money to pay her $10,000 fine, she was told she was free to go anyways. The two famous activists, Goldman and O’Hare, left their mark on the Penitentiary and their impact would continue to be felt across the country for years following.
James Earl Ray was raised in Ewing, Missouri, a small, poverty-stricken farming community. The Ray family fell into the low end of the Ewing lower class and was known as the town’s “white trash.” Ray later moved to Quincy, Illinois, a rowdy river community on the Mississippi River, where he began associating with the town’s “bad element” and getting into minor scrapes with the law. In 1959 Ray and an accomplice held up a Kroger store in St. Louis and after being caught, tried, and convicted, Ray was sentenced to 20-years at the Missouri State Penitentiary. Ray had previously served terms in Joliet and Pontiac prisons in Illinois and Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. After several escape attempts at MSP, Ray made one final escape plan. In 1967, he reported to his job in the prison bakery early and was helped into a large box that was used to ship loaves of bread. Soon, a truck drove up to pick up a supply and several boxes, including the one containing Ray, were loaded up and the truck left the Penitentiary. It was nearly a year later on Thursday, April 4, 1968, that Ray assassinated Martin Luther King, Jr. in Memphis, Tennessee. Ray was amazed at the publicity surrounding his deed; he thought that killing King would make him a hero and instead he became a hunted man. Ray was soon apprehended, convicted of murder in the 1st degree, and sentenced to 99 years in prison. He was sent to the maximum-security Brushy Mountain facility in Tennessee, where he tried to escape multiple times. In 1991, James Earl Ray was transferred to the River Bend Maximum Security Facility in Nashville. He remains on escape status in the records of the Missouri Department of Corrections.
Charles “Pretty Boy” Floyd first arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary in 1925 after pleading guilty for his first offense, a $12,000 St. Louis payroll robbery. Upon his release in 1929, he continued wreaking havoc across the Midwest robbing banks and murdering in cold blood with a notorious band of outlaws. By 1933, Floyd was wanted in several states and known to police as the “most dangerous man alive.” In Missouri, he was wanted for three murders. He was wanted in Toledo, Ohio for killing a policeman there. Numerous Oklahoma bank robberies were credited to Floyd and his gang; he was also wanted in that state for murdering an officer. Police officers were warned that he was heavily armed with machine guns and wore a steel vest for protection. In June of 1933, Floyd and his gang continued on killing sprees across Missouri and Oklahoma and were identified as the prime suspects in an attempt to free Frank Nash, an infamous Oklahoma outlaw, which resulted in the fatal shooting of four lawmen. A massive manhunt ensued for Floyd and the fellow killers. Floyd managed to elude law enforcement for weeks before he was apprehended at a farm and shot dead on the spot after trying to flee.
In the 1920s, Harry Snodgrass became known as the “King of the Ivories” because of his exceptional piano playing while serving a sentence in the Penitentiary. Every Monday night, local radio station WOS broadcast from the dome of the Capitol building, and the prison band, also known by the “Peaceful Village Band,” was frequently featured. The show was incredibly popular; telegrams from all over the U.S., Mexico, and Canada often poured in expressing appreciation of Snodgrass’ music. Soon, the prison band and orchestra were known nationwide and Harry Snodgrass was the featured attraction. When an announcement was made over the air that Snodgrass, due to leave prison the next year, would leave a poor man, more than $2,000 was received for him at the radio station within a couple of weeks. At Snodgrass’s final performance as an inmate in 1925 after his sentence was commuted by Governor Sam Baker, a crowd estimated at more than a thousand people attended. Following his release, Snodgrass traveled with a vaudeville act and made several records for the Brunswick record label. Snodgrass was later granted a full pardon in 1926.
In the 1880s, a man caught the public’s attention with his antics in prison. That man was “Firebug” Johnson, one of the most notorious of all the inmates to ever serve a sentence at the Penitentiary. Johnson attempted to escape several times but was best known for his most notorious act; setting a fire that destroyed more than $500,000 worth of property and the deaths of several inmates. Johnson was then convicted of arson in a Cole County Court and given an additional 12 years after which he was locked in the dungeon for many years. After he was released, Firebug wrote a book entitled “Buried Alive for 18 Years in the Missouri Penitentiary.”
In 1950, Charles Liston arrived at the Missouri State Penitentiary. He was serving time for two charges of robbery with a deadly weapon and two charges of larceny. Liston was illiterate, one of 17 children, and had rarely held a job. While incarcerated, Liston, soon known as “Sonny,” found his niche in life; he learned to box, and he fought very well. One day the publisher of a St. Louis newspaper saw Liston box and thought he showed promise as a professional. The next day he contacted the Board of Probation and Parole. If Liston could be released on parole, the publisher promised, he would personally see that Sonny received a job and training as a boxer. So Sonny Liston was released on parole in 1952 and his rise to success was meteoric. He lived and trained at the Pine Street YMCA and began working at Scullin’s Steel until he could support himself from his earning as a pro boxer. Almost immediately, Liston was entered into the Golden Gloves Amateur Boxing Tournament, held in St. Louis. He won, and then went on to win the National Heavyweight Championship in Chicago in 1953.