‘Haunted’ Hot Spot: Tour guide talks about Missouri State Penitentiary

‘Haunted’ Hot Spot: Tour guide talks about Missouri State Penitentiary

‘Tis the season when all things are haunted — or we wish they were! One of the biggest attractions in the Midwest for paranormal investigators is the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, visited by TV shows like “Destination Fear,” “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures.”

The Missouri State Penitentiary is one of the oldest continuously operating prisons west of the Mississippi, having housed inmates for 186 years until it was decommissioned in 2004. Now, it’s a popular haunt for both history buffs and those who want to “explore the grounds and cells and learn about former inmates who some say still roam the halls,” says spokeswoman Nicole Schulenberg.

Both daytime history tours and after-dark ghost tours are available. Whether you choose to believe is up to you. Tour guide Lisa Barrett, who has worked at the penitentiary since 2012, says in this exclusive Free Weekly Q&A that she is 100% a believer.

Q. How did you get interested in your location? Was it history or paranormal mystery?

A. The first time I entered the penitentiary was as a guest for a history tour. My guide that day was Mark Schreiber, who is a former deputy warden of the penitentiary and a historian of Jefferson City.

During the tour, I asked Mr. Schreiber if he ever saw a ghost during his time at the penitentiary, and he alluded that he had but didn’t seem to want to talk about it. This intrigued me, so I returned for a ghost tour.

During the ghost tour, I entered a cell in Housing Unit 4 and upon clearing the doorway, heard a “pssst” whispered into my ear. I wanted to see if I could re-create that interaction, so I then signed up to attend our first eight-hour overnight investigation.

I had no idea what I was doing but had watched some ghost hunting shows in which the hosts typically used voice recorders, so I purchased a recorder and recorded the entire evening. During the overnight tour, we heard some banging and noticed a window that was open in a locked cell — the window was closed when we looked in later — but nothing jarring until I reviewed my recording the next day.

There were spirits speaking to us throughout the tour that we did not hear with our ears. I was in shock. There were only six guests that evening, but we were definitely not the only ones in those buildings. At one point, I was alone in a building with another lady, and we were in a cell that was painted in a mosaic style. She asked, aloud to the spirits, “This is interesting, did you do it yourself?” She then exclaimed “OUCH!” and said that she felt like she had been pinched. On the recording, there was a man’s voice between her question and the “pinch,” saying “NO!” I could not believe it. I was shaking like a leaf when I heard that.

That was the point when I felt 100% certain that the penitentiary was haunted. I can’t think of any other explanation for it, as we were the only two people in the building.

Q. If history is your favorite part of your location, tell me a little bit about it and why it fascinates you?

A. The history of the penitentiary is incredible. You could take a 12-hour tour and not scratch the surface. The penitentiary operated for 168 years continuously, including a period during the Civil War, when it was occupied by the Union troops. The most fascinating part of the history for me, though, is the few written accounts we have by inmates throughout history. Being able to read personal accounts and then walking though the same buildings where the events took place is just incredibly surreal and humbling.

Q. If the paranormal is your favorite part, same question?

A. Exploring the paranormal presence is just wild! I don’t know how to even explain it. The prison is extremely active paranormally. We’ve experienced shadow figures, disembodied voices, partial and full-body apparitions and had a couple of seasons with high doppelganger activity. I realize all this sounds crazy to non-believers, but I would just say come see for yourself. We have made many a skeptic turn to a believer, including our police officers that we have as security.

Q. Did you come to this job as a believer in the paranormal side of it? Or have you since been convinced?

A. I would say I was about 60% believer when I first came to that history tour. I’m now at a solid 100%.

Q. What’s the most interesting/weird/scary experience you’ve had at your location?

A. I would have to say the doppelganger experiences are the most jarring, because they are the most mysterious. Are they residual energy? A spirit mimicking us? If there is intelligence behind them, why are they choosing to take the form of living people? That’s part of what keeps us coming back — we want to figure these things out. But some things, I believe, are not for us to know. I really enjoy chatting with the guests and other guides and exploring different theories about our hauntings.

Q. Do visitors come because they believe or are many of them skeptics? Have you seen lots of opinions change?

A. At the start of our tours, we often ask for a show of hands to gauge how many skeptics and believers we have. I would say it’s usually a pretty even split. Being skeptical is crucial in paranormal investigation though, so we love our skeptics. And yes, we have changed many over, including myself.

Q. What would you say to people about visiting your location versus visiting the “haunted house” that somebody just creates?

A. Do you want a typical scare, or do you want the chance to experience something that you will never forget?

Q. What other locations would you send visitors to if they’re looking for ghosts?

A. There are so many places to visit, but I am currently recommending the 1889 McInteer Villa in Atchison, Kan. We get to speak with investigators who travel the country and visit a lot of locations and they have really been raving that this one does not disappoint. The owner, Stephanie O’Reilly, is really lovely to work with as well.



Find Out More

You can find a whole list of Missouri’s “most haunted places” at https://www.visitmo.com/articles/missouris-most-haunted-places

Categories: Cover Story