Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Inside the Old Pen

A historic photo of the Idaho Penitentiary's administrative building. Photo courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society

When its cell doors opened in 1872, the Idaho Territorial Penitentiary began its reign as Boise's most menacing residence. During its 101 years in operation, the prison housed over 13,000 inmates, 215 of them women. Today, visitors can tour the 30 buildings of what's now known as the Old Idaho Penitentiary---or more affectionately as the "Old Pen"---which includes the gallows, solitary confinement cells, and an exhibit on the history of weapons. We asked the Old Pen team to share some fun facts and trivia about the prison---check out their answers below!

Youngest prisoner
James Oscar Baker, ten years old

Best escape or escape attempt
There were over 500 escape attempts and at least 90 were successful. Though of those 90, most only enjoyed freedom for a few months, days, or hours. In 1901, Bob Meeks, believed to be a one-time associate of Butch Cassidy, made a daring dash out the front door. A guard was quick with his rifle and shot Meeks in the leg. They had to amputate his leg at the knee.

In 1904, Charles Smith ran away from garden work outside the walls. Believed to be drown in the Boise River, officials were quite surprised in 1940 when he voluntarily gave himself up and returned.

Most notorious criminal and his/her story
The longest sentence and most famous status belongs to Harry Orchard. He served 46 years and died in the prison hospital in 1954. Orchard assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenberg by placing a bomb at his Caldwell, Idaho, home.

Harry Orchard testified against William “Big Bill” Haywood in what many consider the “trial of the century.” Haywood and other labor union leaders were accused of hiring Orchard as an assassin; they were all acquitted. During the trial Ethel Barrymore, of the famous Barrymore acting family, visited Orchard at the Idaho State Penitentiary.

Most unusual crime (at least to modern ears)
There are many crimes that by today’s standards seem odd or archaic. For example several people were in for “adultery,” mostly women but some men. U.S. Marshal and acting warden Fred Dubois became so obsessed with prosecuting “unlawful cohabitation," or “bigamy” and “polygamy," that they were forced to expand the prison.

Here are some more interesting crimes….

  • Larceny of domestic fowls and poultry
  • Selling liquor to an Indian
  • Mayhem
  • False personation
  • Exporting a woman from this state for immoral purposes
  • Passing a fictitious check
  • Sending a threatening letter
  • Transporting intoxicating liquor

Best mug shot

Arthur Allen, inmate no. 1186. Photo courtesy of the Idaho State Historical Society

Most interesting/unusual artifact on display
The “Oregon boot” was a heavy weight attached to the boot of inmates being punished. We have a cane made by an inmate as a gift. It is made from the horns of animals. There are several shanks and other shivs (makeshift weapons) made by inmates and confiscated in a “shakedown” in the later 19th century.

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