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Out & About: Unlocking stories at the Old Idaho Penitentiary

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Photo: Video by IdahoOnYourSide.com

Out & About: Unlocking stories at the Old Idaho Penitentiary

By Rachel Garceau. CREATED Jul 18, 2013

In this edition of Out & About, we visited a place almost every Boisean knows about, but surprisingly, not many may have experienced.  We're talking about the Old Idaho Penitentiary, a piece of Gem State history that's been sitting at the base of the Boise foothills since the late 1800's.

13,000 prisoners, 100 years, and one historic site to house it all.  It's the Old Idaho Penitentiary, an impressive stone compound tucked up against the Boise foothills. Site Manager Amber Beierle told us, "In 1872 the doors opened for inmates and since that point, for 101 years, the Old Idaho Pen was open as a prison and closed its doors in December of 1973."

The Pen is now an iconic piece of Idaho history, a unique and rather large museum open to visitors year-round. Self-guided tours are always available, but it's the guided tours that offer a bit more insight into the old prison, including some of the countless stories. Ironically, one of the most unique tales to come out of the Old Pen had nothing to do with a human inmate, but instead, a cat named Dennis.  He was snuck into the pen by an inmate in 1952, and become part of the prison family. "This cat was so well loved," says Beierle, "that when it died, 16 years later, they had a special burial for him in the prison yard. " If visitors to the penitentiary are curious enough, they may stumble across the new Dennis, a female kitten rescued by historical society volunteers, and named after the old prison feline. Look hard enough, and you'll also find the old Dennis' grave marker -- the only such marker you'll find at the old pen. "Dennis the cat is the only inmate that is buried here on the penitentiary grounds. "

The only inmate buried there, yes. But Dennis wasn't the only inmate to die inside prison walls. The place played host to 10 executions in its 100-year history, and you can walk right up to -- and even on -- the areas where those death sentences were carred out, including the gallows.  For all the drama surrounding the gallows room, though, it really didn't get much use -- only 1 inmate was ever hanged there: Raymond Snowden in 1957.

The trapdoor inside the gallows room is now bolted shut, but head downstairs to see where it leads: the "drop room," where Snowden's life officially ended in 1957. And if that's not eerie enough for you, visitors can also meander through maximum security (where the names of former inmates can be seen carved into the walls) and you can step right into the "punishment rooms." They were created in the 1920s to house inmates who didn't follow prison rules. With up to six men being crammed into each tiny cell, Beierle says, the conditions weren't pretty. "There was not indoor plumbing, and so they would have just a bucket in the corner to use the facilities."

 No matter what you're hoping to find at the Old Idaho Penitentiary -- be it historical artifacts, maybe a few heebie jeebies or some possible paranormal activity -- you may be surprised at how much you discover.

For more information on the Old Pen, including operating hours, admission prices & location, click this link.