Way Back Wednesday Gives You a Glimpse Inside the History of Wyoming’s Historical Frontier Prison

he eighty year history of Wyomings first state penitentiary, now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison, is as colorful and elaborate as the plot of a classic western movie.

Annaliese Wiederspahn

October 20, 20217 min read

Wyoming Frontier Prison 1

Sponsored by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones

Special thanks to Sarah Trapp and to Historic Site Director Tina Hill, Wyoming Frontier Prison. All photos courtesy of Wyoming Frontier Prison.

The eighty year history of Wyoming’s first state penitentiary, now known as the Wyoming Frontier Prison, is as colorful and elaborate as the plot of a classic western movie. The cornerstone of the prison was laid in 1888, but due to funding issues and Wyoming’s notorious weather, the doors wouldn’t open for thirteen years. In December of 1901, the prison opened and consisted of 104 cells (Cell Block A), no electricity or running water, and very inadequate heating.

Throughout the prison’s operation, approximately 13,500 people were incarcerated, including eleven women. Overcrowding was an almost constant concern, and the first of several additions to the penitentiary was completed in 1904, adding 32 cells to the west end of the original cell block (Cell Block A). Women were housed in the prison until 1909, until the last woman was transferred to Colorado. The addition of the second cell block (Cell Block B) in 1950 temporarily relieved the overcrowding, and also included solitary confinement cells, a much more efficient heating system, and hot running water which wouldn’t be installed in the original cell block for another twenty-eight years. A maximum security addition (Cell Block C) was completed in 1966, but the addition only included thirty-six cells and was reserved for serious discipline cases.

The prison was equipped with several different means of disciplining inmates throughout its operation, including a dungeon, several variations of solitary confinement and a “punishment pole” to which men were handcuffed and whipped with rubber hoses.

The prison also used different execution methods.. The first two executions were carried out using the “traveling” Julien Gallows which were used to hang Tom Horn in Cheyenne on November 20, 1903. In 1916, the penitentiary completed the addition of a “death house” which consisted of six cells to house inmates on death row, and a unique indoor version of the Julien Gallows. The building also housed the gas chamber when it was chosen to replace hanging as Wyoming’s execution method of choice in 1936. Ultimately 14 death sentences were carried out; nine men were hanged, and five were executed in the gas chamber by the use of hydrocyanic acid gas.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison is a remnant of the grizzly past of the old west, but not every aspect of prison life was so off-putting. Over the 80-year operation, the prison produced goods to meet demands of four major industries. From 1901 through 1917 the prison had a broom factory, but inmates burned it down during a riot. The factory was rebuilt and operated as a shirt factory which brought in twice the revenue to the state. In 1934, a federal law was passed to prohibit the sale and transportation of prison manufactured goods from one state to another, which resulted in the loss of significant revenue when the factory closed. In 1935, the factory began operating as a woolen mill which won the “Navy E” in 1942 for the superior quality blankets produced by the prison for the military during World War II. In 1949 the prison changed production one last time, producing license plates until the penitentiary closed in 1981.

After serving the state for eighty years, the prison closed its doors, and sat abandoned until 1987 when a low budget movie titled “Prison” was filmed on location. The movie was one of Viggo Mortensen’s first and featured several other well known actors. Significant damage was done to the prison grounds during filming because it had yet to be considered a historic site. In 1988, a joint powers board assumed ownership of the penitentiary, dubbed it The Wyoming Frontier Prison, and established it as a museum. The Wyoming Frontier Prison has since been listed on The National Registry of Historic Places, and offers tours to approximately 15,000 visitors annually.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum is not only about the inmates, but about the people who worked there. It’s about the history of crime and punishment in Wyoming. It’s about excellent storytelling and an unexpectedly fun way to be entertained. 

But is Wyoming Frontier Prison Haunted?

It’s said that buildings having witnessed great suffering or death will more so than normal have a ghost story or two hanging around, and Wyoming Frontier Prison is no exception. The building is thought to be quite actively haunted with a number of ‘independent witnesses’ capturing strange things on camera.

While from the entire complex forms of paranormal activity have been reported, the hot spots seem to be the shower, the gas chamber and general death row area along with a few specific cells. In the grand scheme of things, the shower is probably the most active with tales of crying coming from it when people are approaching, only to find the area empty on arrival. Wet footprints have also been found here, which is especially odd since the showers haven’t been operational for many years. 

The prison is known for the legends and famous ghost hunters have made the prison a sought-after investigation location. Ghost Adventures on the Travel Channel presented an episode set in Rawlins that included some of the most compelling evidence the crew ever caught, when a camera moved seemingly of its own volition and sounds were heard in parts of the prison where no living humans were walking.

Just as apparitions are frequently reported to be seen out of the corner of a visitor’s eyes, in various cells throughout the cell blocks, unseen presences are felt and disembodied voices are heard. An angry, crazed presence is said to threaten anyone who dares to enter certain sections and the reflection of an apparition of a man wearing a brimmed hat has been seen in the room where men were executed.

One of the most enduring urban legends about the Wyoming Frontier Prison is that of the “Pie Lady,” a story also covered by Ghost Adventures. Legend has it that a Rawlins woman took a motherly role among the inmates of the prison shortly after it was opened. She would bake pies for the men and bring them to the prison each week. One unknown inmate was released on parole, and legend has it that he encountered the “Pie Lady” on the outside. The story is that he raped and murdered her, thus earning his return trip to the inside of Wyoming’s Frontier Prison.

The other prisoners who had grown quite attached to the Pie Lady exacted swift justice, hanging the perpetrator over the balcony on the second floor. They say if you catch it at the right time, you can see the man being punished for his crimes by fellow criminals.

While Wyoming Frontier Prison is generally open for tours and even welcomes special events, October and early November are different and the site is closed from October 15 through November 14 for “Halloween Preparation and Clean-up.” After all, if you have the biggest and the best haunted location in the Cowboy State, you want to do it right, right? 

Special Haunted Halloween Tours run nightly from October 29th through the 31st, 7:00 p.m. until the witching hour of midnight strikes. While these are not historic tours, they will do their best to scare you! Reservations are required and some pandemic protocols are in place; find all of the details for your chosen tour date here. You can also learn more by visiting Wyoming Frontier Prison on Facebook.

This page from Wyoming’s rich history has been presented by Mick Pryor, Edward Jones Financial Advisor. While we can’t change the past, a financial strategy for the future can be planned. If you have questions, concerns or are simply looking for a friendly advisor to discover your goals, discuss strategy and look to your financial future, contact Mick Pryor today.

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Annaliese Wiederspahn

State Political Reporter