The state penitentiary began in 1870 as a one-cell house and quickly grew into a complex of buildings surrounded by a large sandstone wall. As part of their penance, the prisoners mined nearby rock quarries to build the very walls that would hold them captive.
Over the next 100 years, more than 13,000 convicts, including 215 women, would call the Idaho State Penitentiary home. At least 110 of them died within their self-made walls from old age, illness and murder.
In Idaho's history, only 11 state executions took place -- 10 of them were carried out here at this penitentiary.
The penitentiary held up to 600 prisoners at one time, and the inmates suffered through almost inhuman conditions. The sandstone that formed its walls was a plentiful and inexpensive building material, but is also intensified the temperatures inside the cells. In the hot Boise summers, the sandstone retained the heat, creating a stifling oven effect; in winter, the walls held the bitter cold, chilling the prisoners for months.
Proper plumbing didn't reach the prison until the 1920s, an unpleasant condition that also spread disease. This was complicated by the prison's ill-working ventilation system. Conditions like these pushed inmates to the edge and guards answered violence with more violence until 1971, when prisoners reached their breaking point.
In 1971 and again in 1973, riots broke out. Prisoners burned the chapel and dining hall to the ground and damaged many other buildings. The 1973 riot was the more severe of the two, and shortly thereafter prisoners were moved to a more modern penitentiary south of Boise. On December 3 of that year, the penitentiary was closed down. Not long after, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.
The buildings themselves, however, were left exactly as they were at the end of the 1973 riots. From the smoke and fire-blackened stone walls to the calendars still hanging on the cell walls, walking through the cellblock is enough to give anyone a serious case of the creeps.
The most notorious inmate confined to the halls of the Idaho State Penitentiary was Raymond Allen Snowden, a man once dubbed "Idaho's Jack the Ripper."
Snowden was convicted of murder in 1956 and sentenced to death by hanging at Idaho State Penitentiary. He murdered Cora Dean, a local woman and mother of two, during a scuffle after a night of drinking. Snowden claimed he backhanded Dean, she kicked him, and then he snapped. Using a two-and-a-quarter-inch pocketknife Snowden stabbed Cora 35 times. Before his hanging, Snowden confessed to murdering two other women.
At 12:05 a.m. on October 18, 1957, Ray Snowden was brought to the gallows in the prison'[s 5 House. Snowden would never get the chance for last words. At 12:06 a.m., the trap door was pulled, but the noose failed to break his neck. Raymond struggled at the end of the rope for fifteen minutes before finally suffocating.
Another inmate named Harry Orchard died within the prison's walls in 1954. He entered Idaho State Penitentiary nearly 50 years before in March 1908, convicted for the murder of Gov. Frank Steunenberg. However, during the trial for his life, Orchard confessed many darker acts.
For several days in June of 1907, Orchard recounted from the stand the many crimes of his life. He did so in an eerily polite, precise and unhesitating way. Among his sins he listed a career as a union terrorist that resulted in the loss of 17 lives, including that of the Governor. Cross-examined for 26 hours about his killings, bigamy, heavy drinking, compulsive gambling and womanizing, Orchard's disturbing calm on the stand stunned the courtroom.
Although sentenced to death, a judge recommended his sentence be commuted to life in prison, and the Board of Pardons agreed. Orchard lived over 45 years within prison walls -- the longest sentence served by any Idaho State Penitentiary inmate.
There have been many accounts of unusual happenings in the prison complex, but 5 House, the building where Snowden was executed, seems to be the most active. Some speculate Snowden's spirit never left -- haunting the grounds since that October morning in 1957.
About a year after the prison was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, it opened up for tours. Guides and visitors attest to the sinister feelings, strange sounds, voices and the dark entities they feel are still lurking in the cellblocks of Old Idaho State Penitentiary. All of the eerie activity intensifies near the frightening solitary confinement cell (dubbed "Siberia" by the inmates) and the gallows.