Gallery I

Wyoming Frontier Prison

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Ghostly Past Occupies Haunted Historical Prison

By James Donahue

Back in the days when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were robbing banks and trains across the wilds of Wyoming, the region was building its first prison and preparing for statehood.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison, also known as the “Old Pen,” was opened at Rawlings in 1901 and continued operations until it was closed in 1981. It has since been used to made a few movies, and now stands as a national historical monument. Its notoriety is centered on a belief that the building is very haunted.

Small wonder the place is bedeviled. It has a grisly history of excessive torture and mistreatment and execution of prisoners.

An estimated 13,500 prisoners were housed in Old Pen during the 80 years it operated. Fourteen of them were sentenced to death either by hanging or later by lethal gassing, and a few others blew themselves up during a failed escape attempt in 1959.

As the story is told, the prisoners in Death Row were tunneling their way out of the old prison when they came upon and apparently cut open an underground gas line. They died in that tunnel after someone struck a match to examine what was obstructing their dig.

Two other prisoners froze to death when confined to an unheated “dungeon-house” added in 1906 for special punishment of the incorrigibles.

The first two executions were conducted with the “traveling” Julian Gallows. This was a torture device designed by architect James P. Julian that made the condemned prisoner hang himself. The person to be executed stood on a trap door connected to a lever that pulled the plug out of a barrel of water. As water flowed from the barrel, it caused a lever with a counterweight to rise, pulling on the support beam under the gallows. They said the first man to be executed by this device waited some 30 minutes before the trap dropped and he was hung.

The prison added a “death house” in 1916 which included eight cells to house death row prisoners and an indoor version of the Julian Gallows. This device was even more of a horror than the original “traveling” gallows because of a poor design. The gallows didn’t drop the condemned prisoner far enough to break his neck so they died a slow death by strangulation. Nine men were hung this way.




Unfortunately, this do-it-yourself gallows didn't drop the condemned man far enough to break his neck, and they died a slow death through strangulation. Nine men were hung in his fashion.

The last five executions were conducted in a gas chamber that was installed in 1936 to do a “more humane job.” The condemned men were killed by the use of hydrocyanic acid gas. This is not really a humane way to be killed since it takes up to ten minutes for death to occur, but obviously an improvement over the system of hanging used prior to then.

There were numerous other killings within the walls of that old prison, usually during attempted prison breaks. In 1907 an inmate that acquired a gun and some dynamite smuggled into the prison fatally shot a guard before the break was thwarted.

Another guard died during another attempted prison break in 1911.

In 1912, 30 prisoners successfully escaped the wooden stockade and barbed wire and during the hunt, a Rawlings resident was murdered by one of the escapees. The last successful prison escape occurred in 1927 when seven prisoners made a break for freedom.

During the early years after the prison opened the place was equipped with some extremely cruel types of “special” punishment for inmates who got unruly. Not only was a special dungeon prepared, but there were variations of solitary confinement and a punishment pole on which men were handcuffed and whipped with a rubber hose. The latter was discontinued after it was deemed illegal in 1930.

Prisoners were put to work in various factories that produced brooms, shirts, wool blankets for the military during the war and finally automobile license plates.

The stories of strange “feelings” and ghostly apparitions experienced by visitors to the old prison have been so numerous that it has become a popular place for paranormal investigation teams. There have been so many wanting to work in the building the museum now charges the groups by the hour.

Among the research groups has been the Cheyenne Paranormal Investigation team, which claims the prison is one of the most active places they visit.

Using sensitive recording devices, the team claims that in one visit in July, 2008, it recorded more than 50 sounds within a few hours. There were at least 10 different voices, drips where there was no water and footsteps where there were no people.