6 Haunted and Historic Jails in Missouri (for a 3 Day Road Trip)

The historic jails in Missouri offer an intriguing glimpse into the state’s past, colored by notorious inmates, unique architecture, and ghostly legends. So, why not make a road trip out of it and see all six?

On a 3-day road trip through Missouri, you can explore these venerable institutions that stand as quiet testaments to times of turmoil, their stories resonating with themes of law, disorder, and societal evolution. I have visited five of the six jails (the only one left on my list is the Missouri State Penitentiary).

dimly lit old prison cell, showing signs of decay and neglect. Rust and peeling paint cover the bars and walls of the cell, which contains a simple bed.

At each stop, we’ll delve into tales that are intrinsically woven into Missouri’s identity, reflecting both human resilience and fallibility. From the Civil War’s scars, prominently featured at the 1859 Jail & Marshal’s Home in Independence, to the spectral whispers haunting these jail corridors, this road trip is more than a tour of physical remnants; it’s an immersive dive into the human narratives embedded in stone and memory, challenging us to reflect on the intricate nexus of history, humanity, and even the supernatural.

Road Trip Overview

The below route is great if your starting point is Kansas City. If your starting point is St. Louis, simply reverse the order.

  1. Day 1: Start in Independence to explore the 1859 Jail & Marshal’s Home, and then head to the Historic Liberty Jail in Liberty, Missouri and finally the Davies County Squirrel Cage Jail. Then drive to Hamilton for the night.
  2. Day 2: Travel from Hamilton to Boonville to visit the Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn and then onto Arrow Rock to see the One-Room Jail Cell.
  3. Day 3: Travel from Arrow Rock to Jefferson City to tour the Missouri State Penitentiary.

How to Spend 3 Days Visiting the 6 Haunted and Historic Jails in Missouri

As I mentioned above, I have visited five of the six jails on this road trip itinerary. Next on my list is the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City and I can’t wait for that tour!

Missouri Historic Jail Road Trip Itinerary: Day 1

Day one includes three of the jails and is about 70 miles and 1 hour 15 minutes drive time.

1859 Jackson County Jail and Marshal’s House

1859 Jail Museum cells

The 1859 Jackson County Jail and Marshal’s House in Independence, Missouri, stands as a significant historical landmark, opening its doors in 1859 and ceasing operations as a jail in 1933. This site is infamous for housing notorious figures such as William Quantrill, a leader of Confederate guerrillas during the Civil War, and Frank James, the elder brother of the infamous outlaw Jesse James.

Renowned for its ghost stories and paranormal activities, the jail is said to be haunted, with visitors and staff reporting unexplained occurrences and eerie sensations. The facility now serves as a museum, offering tours that transport visitors back to the 19th century. These tours provide insights into the jail’s history, the lives of its inmates, and the Marshal’s family who lived on-site, making it a fascinating destination for those interested in both history and the supernatural.

Open April-November, Tuesday-Saturday 11 am – 4 pm | Closed Sundays-Monday

1859 Jail Museum; 217 N Main St, Independence, MO 64050

Top 5 Additional Things to Do in Independence:

  • Visit the Vaile Mansion for a tour (built in 1881 and there are some haunted tales)
  • Visit the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum
  • Take the Truman Home Tour
  • Have lunch at Dixon’s Chili Parlor (President Harry Truman’s favorite)
  • Visit 3 Trails Brewery

Historic Liberty Jail

Historic Liberty Jail
Photo Credit: Historic Liberty Jail

The Historic Liberty Jail, located in Liberty, Missouri, is a site rich in religious and historical significance. Built in 1833, it gained notoriety during the winter of 1838-1839 when Joseph Smith, the Prophet and leader of the Latter-Day Saints, along with five others, were imprisoned there for approximately five months. These events marked a pivotal moment in the history of the Latter-Day Saints movement.

Today, the jail is encapsulated within a granite rotunda, allowing for year-round visitation. Owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the site offers educational tours that include a partial replica of the original dungeon.

This setup provides visitors with a tangible connection to the past and an insight into Joseph Smith’s experiences during his confinement. The Historic Liberty Jail stands as a testament to a significant period in religious history, drawing visitors interested in the early struggles of the Latter-Day Saints.

Monday – Saturday: 10:00 am – 7:00 pm | Sunday: 12:00 pm – 7:00 pm

Historic Liberty Jail; 216 N Main St, Liberty, MO 64068

If you have more time to spend exploring (and eating), some additional stops in Liberty include:

  • Jesse James Bank Museum (location of the first successful daylight, peacetime bank robbery in the United States that took place in 1866)
  • Lunch at La Costa Mexicana (5 E Kansas St, Liberty, MO 64068)
  • Stop at Belvoir Winery for a tasting of Missouri wines (1325 Odd Fellows Rd Liberty, MO, 64068)
  • Jesse James Birthplace (Located 16 minutes away in Kearney, MO. This is the birthplace, farm and home of Frank and Jesse James.)

Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail

Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail

The Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail in Gallatin, Missouri, is an architectural marvel completed in 1889. This unique jail, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, features an octagonal rotary design for increased security. It consists of a rotating deck divided into eight pie-shaped cells, all made of steel except for the concrete walkway for the sheriffs. The innovative design allowed for controlled movement of prisoners and minimized escape risks. This jail was one of only eighteen such structures built based on a patented design by the Pauley Jail Building & Mfg. Company of St. Louis, with just three remaining today.

Visits to the Squirrel Cage Jail are by appointment only, offering an insightful tour led by docent Trudi Burton. While the jail has its share of paranormal tales, Trudi emphasizes its historical significance over ghost stories. Visitors can learn about the jail’s construction, the functioning of its caged cells, and its place in Missouri’s history. For those interested in a unique piece of penal history or architectural ingenuity, the Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail stands as a fascinating destination. To arrange a visit, contact Trudi Burton at 660.663.7342.

Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail; 310 W Jackson St, Gallatin, MO 64640

If you have more time to spend exploring (and eating), some additional stop near the Squirrel Cage Jail is the Amish town of Jamesport which is just 10 miles away. Here you’ll find bakeries, restaurants, grocery stores and gift stores all selling Amish items. There is also some beautiful countryside.

Accommodation: Elms Hotel or the Gingerbread House in Hamilton

A detour on day one could be the Elms Hotel & Spa for a ghost tour and overnight. This would add a longer drive time on day two, but if you are into haunted hotels, this is my recommendation!

Otherwise, after you tour the Daviess County Squirrel Cage Jail head another 13 miles to Hamilton where you’ll find a very cute 4 bedroom vacation rental called Gingerbread House.

Located in Hamilton is one of our favorite Missouri breweries; Levi Garrison & Sons Brewing Company and a few other road side attractions you can check out such as; the world’s largest spool of thread, the boyhood home of J.C. Penney and the Missouri Star Quilt Company.

Missouri Historic Jail Road Trip Itinerary: Day 2

Day two includes two jails and is about 135 miles and 2.5 hours drive time.

Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn

Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn

The Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn in Boonville, Missouri, served as the oldest continuously used county jail in the state until its closure in 1978. Constructed in 1848 for $6,091.50, the jail’s walls were built from limestone blocks quarried by slaves. Notable for its “bullpen” where slaves were held before auction, the jail’s design included shackles and iron box cells, added in 1871.

Famously, Frank James, the brother of outlaw Jesse James, was briefly incarcerated here in 1884. The jail also witnessed one of Missouri’s last public hangings, the execution of Lawrence Mabry in 1930, contributing to the eventual abolition of county capital punishment.

Declared as “cruel and unusual punishment” by a Federal Court in 1978, the jail closed, ending an era in Cooper County’s history. Preserved by the Friends of Historic Boonville and the Kemper Foundation of Kansas City, it stands today as a historical monument, its cells echoing stories of the past. Visitors can explore this poignant site, imagining the days when the jailer’s keys echoed through its halls.

Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn; 614 E Morgan St, Boonville, MO 65233

If you have more time to spend exploring Boonville some additional stops include:

  • Katy Trail State Park (101 Lewis St Machens to Clinton, Boonville, MO 65039)
  • River, Rails & Trails Museum (100 E Spring St, Boonville, MO 65233)
  • Eat at Main Street Diner (201 Main St, Boonville, MO 65233)

Arrow Rock Jail

one room jail in Arrow Rock

The Arrow Rock jail, nestled in the tiny village of Arrow Rock, Missouri, part of the National Historic Landmark Arrow Rock Historic District, is a unique historical site. Built in 1871 from sandstone blocks to replace a log jail destroyed by arson, this small single-cell jail was primarily used to detain intoxicated individuals.

With only a single door and a small rear opening for a stove pipe, the jail lacked basic amenities like eating facilities, lighting, or plumbing. Though records of its last use are unclear, it’s believed to have been operational until the 1930s.

Today, this quaint jail, amidst a town with a population of just 62, offers a quick, intriguing glimpse into the past, free of charge. Visitors to Arrow Rock can also enjoy the town’s historical significance as a key crossroads in America’s westward expansion on the Santa Fe Trail.

Arrow Rock Station, 818 Main St, Arrow Rock, MO 65320

If you have more time to spend exploring Arrow Rock some additional recommendations are:

  • Go to the Visitor Center, that is also a museum where you can learn about the area’s first inhabitants and the salt works that put the area on the map in the early 1800s.
  • Explore the Main Street, a living museum with many old-time shops.
  • Eat at the J. Huston Tavern, which dates back to 1834 and is the oldest continually serving restaurant west of the Mississippi River.
  • Visit George Caleb Bingham’s, a renowned painter’s home that has been transformed into a museum, showcasing his iconic works and offering a glimpse into his creative process.

Accommodation: Borgman’s Bed & Breakfast

Experience modern comfort steeped in history at Borgman’s Bed & Breakfast, a charming bed and breakfast in the Village of Arrow Rock. Choose from King or Queen beds, unwind in a cozy seating area, and enjoy a private bath with amenities like hairdryers, USB charging stations, and high-speed internet. Wake up to a delectable, freshly cooked breakfast to start your day right.

Check Borgman’s Bed & Breakfast reviews on TripAdvisor.

Missouri Historic Jail Road Trip Itinerary: Day 3

Day three includes the final and biggest jail on the road trip and is about 75 miles and 1.5 hours drive time.

Missouri State Penitentiary
Photo Credit: Missouri State Penitentiary

The Missouri State Penitentiary, a monumental structure in Jefferson City, bears a profound historical significance. Opened in 1836, this penitentiary operated for 168 years before closing its doors in 2004. Throughout its long history, it housed a variety of infamous inmates, including heavyweight champion Sonny Liston, who learned to box during his incarceration, and James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

The penitentiary is also shrouded in ghost stories and paranormal activities, making it a hotspot for enthusiasts of the supernatural. Visitors often report eerie sensations, unexplained noises, and ghostly apparitions, fueling its reputation as a haunted location.

Today, the Missouri State Penitentiary offers 15 tour options, ranging from historical tours that delve into its rich past, to overnight ghost tours that explore its spine-chilling paranormal aspects. These tours provide an immersive experience, allowing visitors to step back in time and explore the stories of those who once walked its corridors. The penitentiary not only offers a window into the evolution of the American penal system but also serves as a stark reminder of the complex human stories within its walls.

Tour season runs from March through November.

Missouri State Penitentiary, 115 Lafayette St, Jefferson City, MO 65101

Sweet Smoke BBQ for Lunch

A road trip in Missouri would be incomplete without some barbecue, so you’ll want to take a pit stop to end your Missouri historic jail tour at Sweet Smoke BBQ (127 E. High St. Jefferson City, MO). This highly rated restaurant slices and pull everything to order and everything is smoked with a dry rub. Just choose one of the 4 house made BBQ sauces and you’ll be in flavor heaven. Get the Boss Hog to try the brisket, pulled pork, turkey, sausage, 4 ribs and 2 sides.

If you have more time to spend exploring Jefferson City some additional recommendations are:

  • Take a tour of the Missouri State Capitol (201 W Capitol Ave, Jefferson City, MO 65101)
  • Visit the Lewis & Clark Monument At The Lewis & Clark Trailhead Plaza (101 W. Capitol Ave. Jefferson City, MO 65101)
  • Try another Midwest specialty at Freddy’s Frozen Custard (2103 Missouri Blvd, Jefferson City, MO 65109)

***

Journeys like this, a 3-day road trip exploring haunted historic jails in Missouri, remind us that captivating adventures and rich history can be found close to home! Discover the hidden gems of Missouri on this three-day excursion, and you’ll quickly realize why this state is an underrated treasure waiting to be explored.

Discover the chilling past and paranormal encounters in Missouri's historic jails. Explore ghostly tales in our haunted penitentiaries.

Additional Missouri Road Trips

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Book Your Trip

If you’re planning a Missouri trip, there are several tools and services that can help you find the best deals, experiences, and protect yourself from unexpected events. Here are some recommendations to consider:

Book Your Accommodation
If you’re looking for a comfortable and affordable place to stay during your travels, I love VRBO for vacation rentals. My favorite hotel booking sites are Hotels.com and Booking.com. I love that Hotels.com gives you one free hotel stay for every 10 you book.

Rent a Car
Missouri is a big place and renting a car is the best way to explore and enjoy off-the-beaten path recommendations. I’ve used RentalCars.com for more than a decade to find the best rental car rates—it’s an aggregator that scours the web for the most competitive prices.

Find Interesting Things to Do
Viator, a TripAdvisor property, offers a wide range of tours and activities in Missouri, from city tours of St. Louis and Kansas City to outdoor adventures in the Ozark Mountains.
GetYourGuide is another great option, with a variety of tours and experiences in popular Missouri destinations like Branson and Springfield. Whether you’re interested in exploring historic sites, enjoying the outdoors, or trying local cuisine, these companies can help you find the perfect activities to make your trip to Missouri unforgettable.

Protect Yourself With Travel Insurance
It’s never fun to think about what could go wrong on a trip. A good plan can ensure that emergencies that may come up – medical trouble, stolen items, damage to your belongings, etc. – are easier to handle, and at little to no extra expense to you.

I highly recommend checking out World Nomads before you travel. World Nomads travel insurance has been designed by travelers for travelers, to cover trip essentials and is very reasonable.

I recommend Travelex for family travel insurance. Not only does this company offer ‘cancel for any reason’ policies, Travelex also includes coverage for children under 17 when traveling with an adult at no additional cost. (Be sure to read all terms and conditions.)

About the Author: Alexa Meisler is a travel writer living in Kansas City, Missouri. She specializes in uncovering the hidden gems of Missouri’s big cities and historic towns. Since relocating to Missouri in 2020, she’s shared her adventures and experiences through the Travel in Missouri website, offering a unique perspective on her new home state. Read Alexa’s full bio here.

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