Curious about the history of the Old Idaho Penitentiary or planning a visit? Check here for the answers to the site’s most frequently asked questions.
Old Idaho Penitentiary FAQ
The site is open seven days a week except for major state holidays. Summer hours (Memorial Day-Labor Day) are 10am-5pm (last admission 4:15pm).
Regular hours (fall, winter and spring) are Noon-5pm (last admission 4:15pm).
Regular admission is $6 for adults (ages 13+), $4 for seniors (ages 60+) and $3 for children (ages 6-12). Children under age 6 are eligible for free admission.
Children 12 and under MUST be accompanied by an adult.
Guided tours are offered most days at specific times, and Self-guided tours are always available during regular hours. Call for the most up-to-date tour times.
Guided Tours are included with regular admission, but have a limited capacity and are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Idaho’s Merci Train is located at the Old Idaho Penitentiary state historic site, but it is not currently on public display. Please call for more information.
The Old Idaho Penitentiary state historic site includes several rentable facilities. Check out our Facility Rentals page for photos and more information.
Call or email Anthony Parry at (208) 334-2844 or firstname.lastname@example.org to begin your site rental process.
Please visit our Field Trips page for more information, then call the Old Idaho Penitentiary staff at (208) 334-2844 to schedule a field trip.
The Old Idaho Penitentiary Gift Shop is open during regular hours and most special events!
Call the Old Idaho Penitentiary staff at (208) 334-2844 to purchase items via phone.
Our online store is coming soon!
Several paranormal groups, including a team from the Travel Channel program Ghost Adventures, have conducted investigations at the site. While there is no conclusive evidence to suggest there are ghosts at this site, many visitors have seen and heard things they cannot explain. Some, including Ghost Adventures, have captured strange/unexplainable images on their cameras. Others claim to hear voices or be physically touched, or sense a “heaviness” or “strange feeling” when visiting the site, specifically in Siberia (solitary confinement cells) and the Gallows Room in the Maximum Security cell house. We continue to leave it to the individual to decide for themselves whether this is a “haunted” site or not.
Note: Only Raymond Snowden was executed in the Gallows Room.
Where can I learn more about individual inmates or the history of the site (buildings, guards, wardens, photos)?
The Idaho State Archives houses all inmate records from the Idaho State Penitentiary and is conveniently located near the site at 2205 Old Penitentiary Road. Records can include mug shots, “Description of Convict,” pardon/parole papers, punishment notes, etc. The Idaho State Archives also has historic images of the site from individual buildings, cell houses, guards, inmates, and much more. In addition, there are hundreds of oral histories from guards, inmates, wardens and family members associated with the penitentiary. You can also use historic newspapers to learn more about sensational trials, crime sprees, daring escapes and notorious criminals.
For research inquiries, or to learn more about the Idaho State Archives, call (208) 334-3356 or visit their homepage.
The Idaho State Penitentiary inmate catalogs are located online here, within the Idaho State Archives’ collection of searchable indexes.
Construction of the site was commissioned in 1868 and began on July 4, 1870 with a public ceremony. It housed prisoners from 1872 to December 1973.
Prisoners assisted in the construction of almost all the buildings on site. Most of the buildings are made of sandstone quarried by inmates in the foothills above the prison.
Many inmates were notorious in their time period but have since been forgotten. A few are well known in Idaho or the West, but perhaps not nationally. Harry Orchard received the most sensational and international press in his time. The following are just a few “infamous” inmates:
Henry ‘Bob’ Meeks was believed to be a member of Butch Cassidy’s gang which robbed a bank in Montpelier, Idaho. He was shot in the leg during an escape attempt, officials caught him, and doctors amputated his leg. He later climbed to the top of a cell house (with only one leg), jumped off, survived, and was sent to the asylum at Blackfoot.
Harry Orchard confessed to killing more than 17 people. Convicted in Canyon County for the murder of Frank Steunenberg (former governor of Idaho), Orchard claimed to be a hired assassin for the Western Federation of Miners. He testified against William “Big Bill” Haywood, in what many refer to as the “Trial of the Century”, which featured Clarence Darrow for the defense. Ethel Barrymore, of the famous Barrymore acting family, visited Orchard at the penitentiary during the trial.
Orchard eventually became a prison trusty. He started the shoe shop and a successful poultry farm at the penitentiary. He converted to the Seventh Day Adventist Church while incarcerated, oddly enough with the help of Steunenberg’s widow, and was baptized in the old plunge bath beneath the Dining Hall. Orchard eventually built and resided in a small cottage outside the prison walls. In 1954, at 88 years old, he died in the prison hospital.
“Diamondfield” Jack Davis got his nickname when he went west to Silver City, Idaho on the rumor of a diamond strike. After the failed prospecting attempt Davis began working for a cattle company to keep sheep off cattle ranges. When two sheepherders were killed in the area where he was working, Davis became the prime suspect for the killings. Sentenced to hang on June 4, 1897, two other men confessed and he was reprieved. In February 1899, Davis was transferred to the Idaho State Penitentiary where he stayed until December of that year. Davis was then transferred back to a cell in the Cassia County jail.
After Davis had exhausted his appeals another execution date was scheduled for July 3, 1901. By that time public opinion shifted in Jack’s favor mostly due to the confessions of James Bower and Jeff Gray and also to the easing of tension between sheep and cattle herders. The Board of Pardons extended the execution date to the July 17, much to the outrage of state prosecutor and future Idaho Senator William Borah. Three hours before Davis’ scheduled execution, word arrived to the Cassia County sheriff that his sentence had been changed to life imprisonment. Davis was moved back to the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho until he was finally pardoned on December 17, 1902 by Idaho Gov. Frank W. Hunt.
Many consider Lyda Southard the most infamous female inmate to serve time at the penitentiary. The state convicted Southard of the second degree murder of her fourth husband. Her three previous husbands, her brother-in-law, and her child all died under similar, suspicious circumstances. After the autopsy of her fourth husband found a lethal dose of arsenic in his system, the attending physicians of the other deaths agreed on similar circumstances. The prosecuting attorney believed Southard to be, “void of conscience; that she is an unmoral woman, and by that I do not mean immoral, but one void of faculty to discriminate between right and wrong. I do not believe her capable of remorse.” Sentence to ten years to life, Southard escaped when she was not granted a parole after a decade of imprisonment. Fifteen months later, she returned and served the longest combined sentence for a female at nineteen years and ten months. Southard was conditionally released in October 1941 and given a full pardon in April 1943.
A total of ten men were executed at this site:
Tambiago – June 28, 1878, 1:00 p.m., Near Territorial Prison
Edward Rice – November 30, 1901, Northeast Corner (Rose Garden)
James Connors – December 16, 1904, 6:15 a.m., Northeast Corner (Rose Garden)
William Henry Hicks -Fred Bond – August 10, 1906, 6:11 a.m., Northeast Corner (Rose Garden)
Fred Seward – May 7, 1909, 8:09 a.m., Northeast Corner (Rose Garden)
Noah Arnold – December 19, 1924, 12:20 a.m., Northeast Corner (Rose Garden)
John Jurko – July 9, 1926, 12:14 a.m., Northeast Corner (Rose Garden)
Ernest Walrath – April 13, 1951, 12:11 a.m., Near #2 Yard Gate
Troy Powell – April 13, 1951, 12:40 a.m., Near #2 Yard Gate
Raymond Snowden – October 18, 1957, 12:05 a.m., Gallows Room
When the first female inmates arrived there were not adequate separate facilities. Before 1905, female inmates stayed in areas formally used as office space and common areas. Officials strictly forbid interaction between men and women. In 1905, female inmates moved into the Warden’s former residence after male inmates erected a stone wall around it. Workers completed construction on the formal Women’s Ward dormitory in 1920. Idaho used this facility until 1968 when female incarceration was temporarily moved out of the state.
The prison closed after 101 years of operation. By 1973, it was antiquated and outdated in every sense. The water systems caused sickness and created unsanitary conditions. Outdated and non-existent heating and cooling systems made Boise’s extreme weather conditions unbearable. As Idaho’s population grew, so did its crime rate, resulting in a prison population near (and often exceeding) capacity most of the time. Boise also grew rapidly, and it expanded until it was right next to the once distant prison. In short, the rising prison population, growth of the city and state, and higher standards in corrections made the move completely necessary.
There were over 500 escape attempts, of which at least 90 were successful. While officials eventually apprehended most escaped inmates, some remained at large.
There are around 129 recorded deaths at the Idaho State Penitentiary during its 101 years of operation. These include all ten executions, as well as death from various diseases, suicides, murder, and during escape attempts.
This gated cemetery is located near the Idaho Botanical Gardens at the base of the Boise Foothills. You must obtain permission from the Idaho Botanical Gardens before entering the cemetery (Idaho Botanical Garden admission fees apply).