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The Old Idaho Penitentiary: A Recipe for Supernatural Activity

Old Idaho State Penitentiary Facade. Image Source: Peter Wollheim – Idaho Issues Online http://www.boisestate.edu/history/issuesonline/spring2005_issues/gallery-correction/gallery_correct1.html

This is a guest contribution from Desmond Rhodes.

The Old Idaho Penitentiary, or the “Old Pen,” was home to over 13,000 murderers, rustlers, and bank robbers—among other criminals. Over its 101 year span, inmates were hanged, planned escapes, and kept in deplorable conditions. The Old Pen houses a history of famous inmates, stories, and even compelling witness accounts of hauntings.

Famous inmates such as Harry Orchard, Lyda Southard, and Raymond Allen Snowden were charged, and held, for violent crimes at the Old Pen. This post will take a look at what these famous inmates did, and the horrible conditions of the Old Pen — prompting what many consider to be the most haunted building in the state of Idaho.

Harry Orchard

In 1905, Harry Orchard (whose real name was Albert Horsley) began his trip to the Old Pen when he assassinated the then-governor of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg. Orchard had placed a bomb at the entrance gate of Steunenberg home in Caldwell. Orchard was making his living as a miner during strong industrial disputes. The unions of the mining industry had felt betrayed by Steunenberg, who they supported, but he later declared martial law on them. Keeping them in stockades and without trial, the Western Federation of Miners had planned the assassination of Steunenberg—with Orchard as the man for the job.

Original caption: “HARRY ORCHARD From a photograph taken in January, 1906, shortly after his arrest for the murder of ex-Governor Steunenberg.” (from The Confessions and Autobiography of Harry Orchard). Image source: Wikipedia

After investigation, Orchard was caught in a local hotel room he was “conveniently” staying at with dynamite and tripwire. Orchard had tried to convey that he was part of a bigger conspiracy involving union leaders in exchange for a lighter sentence, but it had come to light that Orchard blamed Steunenberg for his socioeconomic problems and interfering with his plans to make money in the mining business. Orchard was found guilty and originally was given a death sentence. However, for his cooperation and information against the union leaders it was appealed and he received life in prison. Orchard died in the Old Pen in 1954.   

Lyda Southard

Of the over 13,000 inmates that inhabited the Old Idaho Penitentiary, 215 of them were women. Lyda Southard was one of those women. Southard went on a killing spree from 1915 to 1920. She used arsenic to poison four husbands, a brother-in-law, and even her own child. She collected a nice bit of insurance money before she was ultimately caught in Honolulu, trying to do the same to a naval officer stationed there. But her mode of murder had been caught onto by then and after trial, Southard was sentenced to 10 years to life in the Old Pen, serving from 1921-1941, when she was paroled.

Image source: Wikipedia

Southard did escape for a brief stint in 1931 to Colorado where she’d hoped to live out a life as a housekeeper for her next husband, and possibly her next victim. However, she was outed by the man she married and sent back to the Old Pen. Paroled in 1941, Lyda Southard lived out the rest of her days in Salt Lake City, Utah until she died of a heart attack in 1958.  

Raymond Allen Snowden

In 1956, Raymond Allen Snowden committed a crime that would lead to him the Old Pen and eventually the noose. Snowden’s affections toward Cora Lucille Dean were unrequited — but things took a dark turn when he went into a rage after his sexual advances were rejected, stabbing her over 30 times, including cutting her throat and severing her spine.

Image source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/68144409

Snowden’s guilty conviction was solidified by the presentation of the murder weapon and the fact that he’d threatened this specific domestic violence before—saying he was going to sever his girlfriend’s spinal cord, but nothing was done about it. “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper,” said he had murdered twice before but was only tried for one and was sentenced to death by hanging.

However, when he was hanged, the rope did not break his neck—which would have killed him instantly—instead, he swung at the end of the rope for 15 minutes fighting for air until eventually, he expired.

Supernatural Activity

The Old Pen met its end in 1973 when a riot over intolerable conditions set fire to many of the buildings. Now a museum for the public, many reports of paranormal activity have documented in many buildings of the penitentiary.

The Gallows, also known as the Rose Garden, stands where 6 out of the 10 people hanged at the Old Pen reportedly cause severe headaches among the visitors of the Old Pen. Also commonly reported are sightings of a red light floating around, and even a ghostly figure of a prisoner tending to the roses — just as they would when they were alive.

The Solitary Confinement section, or “Siberia,” is known for giving its visitors what can only be described as a heavy feeling of a negative emotion, unease, and otherworldly presence.

Remember “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper,” Raymond Snowden from above? He is said to haunt Cell House 5 which is the most haunted building of the Old Pen. The opening and closing of cell doors has been reported, as well as full body apparitions, and the sounds of someone struggling for air — gurgling and gasping as if choked by a badly-tied noose.

Given the history, it’s no wonder the Old Idaho Penitentiary is reportedly haunted. Housing criminals in torturous conditions, not entirely different from the conditions of today’s prison system, shows that not much has changed in modern times. There is always the concern of inmates taking their own lives to escape the pain of today’s incarceration methods, and the crude methods of early prison must have been especially heinous. Death involving pain and anguish seem like a recipe for paranormal activity. The reports have been enough to conduct investigations, including an episode featured on Ghost Adventures. If you don’t believe the reports, you can always go find out for yourself; they are currently conducting tours.   

About the Contributor

Desmond Rhodes is a writer out of the Northwest and an entertainer of conspiracy theories, who predicted the ending to The Sixth Sense.

Courtney Mroch
Courtney Mroch, otherwise known as HJ's Ambassador of Dark and Paranormal Tourism, is an author, traveler, and ghost enthusiast. When she's not writing, jaunting, or planning her next trip, it's a safe bet you'll find her in one of three places: on a tennis court somewhere, on a yoga mat somewhere, or watching a horror movie somewhere. She currently resides in Nashville, Tennessee.
http://www.courtneymroch.com

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