Sometimes history isn’t so pleasant. As long as man has walked the earth, crime has been an unfortunate reality. In many instances, the way lawbreakers were treated in the past differs greatly than how they’re treated now, and you can learn all about it at the Old Montana Prison Museum and its sister museums near Deer Lodge in western Montana.
Montana State Prison was the first Territorial Prison in the U.S. West and was built by convict labor. The prison took in its first inmate in 1871 and closed in 1979, and the last inmates were transferred to the new prison, 3.5 miles away. Now a museum, the complex serves as a grim reminder that “bad guys” have always been around.
I interviewed Melanie Sanchez, museum curator, to learn a little more about the Prison.
How did you come to serve in this capacity?
My husband and I moved to Deer Lodge in 2010. I have always had a love for history. When both of my children were old enough to go to school I was asked by a former employee if I would like to come down and volunteer at the museum. Let’s just say after that I was hooked. I was fortunate at the time that I was here, the museum learned that their curator was going to be leaving, and I jumped on the opportunity for the position. I have been working here now for close to five years.
What seems to be the most popular part of the museum to your visitors?
We have five museums here, and out of the five the Old Prison Museum, and our Montana Auto Museum (over 160 autos from an 1886 Benz to 1970’s muscle cars) are among the most popular. Our others are Yesterday’s Playthings (toy museum), Frontier Montana (western museum) and Powell County Museum (history of the area).
What is YOUR favorite part?
If I just choose one thing I would be lying; I truly enjoy all that this place has to offer.
How many inmates were incarcerated when the prison first opened?
On July 2 of 1871, the prison received 9 inmates. The first prisoner received was Samuel E. Hughes, who was serving a year’s sentence for armed assault.
Was there an area for capital punishment at the prison?
Well, no, the prison in those days was not designed for that. All inmates that were condemned to death in the state of Montana never came to the prison. After their sentencing they were hung in the county they committed the crime. But with that being said, we did have an escape attempt in 1908. That failed escape attempt from the prison left Deputy Warden John Robinson dead, and Warden Frank Conley with 103 stitches on his back and neck. The two inmates involved were George Rock and William Hayes. They were hung in the prison yard. Rock and Hayes were also the only two men that capital punishment was ever served to at the prison.
Did any riots take place? Were any inmates killed by riots, etc.?
Yes - we had a major riot in 1959 that made national news. A book has also been written about it called “Jerry’s Riot.” On April 16, 1959, Jerry Myles and Lee Smart led twenty inmates in a riot which left Deputy Warden Ted Rothe dead. Myles and Smart took 18 prison employees and five “stool pigeon” inmates (inmates who had ratted on others) as hostages, soaked rags with flammable liquid and threatened to burn them alive. After 36 hours of mounting tension, Warden Floyd Powell implemented a daring rescue attempt. The National Guard fired the bazooka at the tower where the ringleaders were headquartered. Meanwhile, a team of men burst through the door in the west wall, crossed the yard, and entered the Cell House, freeing the hostages. Myles and Smart were found dead of an apparent murder-suicide at the top floor of the tower. Although the riot focused attention on the overcrowded conditions at the prison, it was 20 years before the last prisoners were finally moved to the new prison.
How many total inmates were incarcerated there throughout the years?
This is a guess, but close to 100,000.
Who was the most infamous prisoner there?
Turkey Pete - In 1918, at age 40, Paul “Turkey Pete” Eitner was sentenced to life in prison for murder. A model prisoner, he was assigned to tend the prison turkeys. As the years passed, reality slipped away from him. One day a man stopped to admire the turkeys and Eitner sold the man the entire prison flock for 25 cents apiece. This ended Eitner’s farming days but marked the beginning of his new fantasy career as an “entrepreneur and philanthropist.” The prison administration humored Eitner and allowed him to have printed checks from the prison print shop. He “purchased” the prison and proceeded to “operate” it. He “paid” all the prison expenses and wrote checks to the guards for their salaries. Eitner Enterprises saved Brazil’s coffee crop, sold pink alligators, purchased alfalfa seed from Poncho Villa, sold grasshopper legs to Fidel Castro and sold ships to the Navy. When Turkey Pete died in 1967 at age 89, his cell (cell #1) was retired and converted into a barbershop. His funeral was the only one ever held within the walls of the prison.
What do you enjoy about working here?
In my line of work here at the museum, I get to be hands-on with our artifacts. That truly is a very special part of my job. I get to hold pieces of history! Every artifact also has a story to tell. Having the chance to get its story out to our visitors, so that they can enjoy them, means so much to me.
The Old Prison Museum and Montana Auto Museum is located at 1106 Main Street, Deer Lodge, MT 59722.
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