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Death Row roster.
Death Row roster.

Museum of Colorado Prisons

Field review by the editors.

Canon City, Colorado

US 50 slices Canon City like a shiv through a jailhouse stoolie, and just off the highway in town is the Museum of Colorado Prisons -- an attraction worthy of murderous metaphors.

Colorado's gas chamber on display.
Colorado's gas chamber on display.

Promising "Something for everyone!" in its literature, the museum occupies the former Cell House No. 4 of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, known locally as "Old Max," where convicts have been imprisoned since 1871. Unlike other open-to-the-public penitentiaries that retain their crust of horror, this prison attraction has been cleaned up for tourists. Attentive visitors can sometimes hear inmates in the yard of Old Max next door, behind the prison's high stone wall.

The museum's star attraction is Colorado's state gas chamber, a solid steel purveyor of capital punishment. The prison's first chamber could kill three prisoners at the same time, reflecting the style of then-warden Roy Best, who was a bit of a show-off. The gas chamber on display, a modest single-seater, was built after Best was fired. It executed eight inmates, the last in 1967.

Photo op jail cells.
Photo op jail cells.

Formerly displayed outdoors, the gas chamber was in rough shape before it was moved into a little protective house, given a good scrubbing, and covered with a fresh coat of insane-asylum-green paint. Its airtight door is open, but the chamber entrance is blocked by a chain with a sign: "Please Do Not Climb Into Gas Chamber." An accompanying display calls attention to the triangle-shaped cutout in the chamber's metal seat. It helped speed circulation of the death gas.

Women in prison.
Women in prison.

The museum's collection is a Greatest Hits of Colorado penology. "Hits" is an appropriate word, as one of the items on display is a replica of "Old Gray Mare," a sawhorse used for prisoner flogging. The Mare was popular with warden Roy Best. "When prisoners were whipped," the display notes, "he did the job himself." The first two Mares, according to the exhibit, were worn out from overuse, and the third was burned by prison officials to destroy it as evidence.

A wide main hall in the prison-museum leads to 32 former cells that have been turned into galleries devoted to all aspects of convict life, with themes such as "Gangs," "Escape," and "Women Behind Bars." Riot damage is illustrated in a cell with a trashed bed and smashed toilet. The "Prison Arts and Crafts" cell has framed oil portraits by inmate Joe C. Nunez, a professional artist jailed for drugs in the 1960s, and a freestanding coat-and-hat rack that was made from the prison's old wooden scaffold, where convicts were hanged before the arrival of warden Best's triple-seat gas chamber.

Movie released about Canon City prison.
Movie released about Canon City prison.

The Warden, Hollywood-bound.
The Warden, Hollywood-bound.

Oh yeah, the tally: 78 executions: 45 by hanging, 32 by gas, 1 by lethal injection. The "Execution Suite" cell lists them all. It has the table used for the lethal injection ("Please Do Not Touch or Stand on Execution Table" warns a sign) and the noose of Walter "Shorty" Jones, the last prisoner hanged in 1933. This is exhibited next to a display about Old Max's 19th century "Do-It-Yourself Hanging Machine," a contraption of valves and pulleys that was triggered when the condemned convict stepped on a hidden switch.

A gallery of notables who did time in Old Max (and survived) includes Alferd Packer, the Colorado cannibal, and two 11-year-olds: Antone Wood, who killed a man for his watch in 1893; and Jimmy Melton, who killed his sister in 1947 because "she was always nagging me."

Ready to bury.
Ready to bury.

"Little Siberia" is a solitary confinement cell -- the prison once had a dozen of them -- with a solid steel door. Solitary confinement inmates were given a Bible (their only reading material) and were fed, through a door slot, two cold meals of prison leftovers a day. The cells each had one light bulb and it was never turned off. There was no ventilation. "Imagine the body smells," suggests a helpful sign.

One entire cell is devoted to the 1948 Hollywood B movie Canon City, based on a real prison escape at Old Max. It was partly filmed at the prison, and among the cast was DeForest "Dr. McCoy" Kelly and -- you probably guessed this -- warden Roy Best, playing himself in a supporting role. His comparatively brief screen time was not reflected in the film's Colorado newspaper coverage, which featured Best's name more prominently than the actual stars.

Another cell, complete with a convict corpse dummy in a shipping crate, is devoted to the prison cemetery. A sign explains that this particular dummy-corpse was not bound for burial; he would instead be sent to a "medical research facility" in Denver, and then the crate would be returned and used over and over for more prisoners.

Scale model of a gas chamber.
Scale model of a gas chamber.

The main hall displays a model of the gas chamber complete with a tiny hooded convict in the death chair, and a table top made out of confiscated weapons (The weapons confiscated after killing someone are identified with helpful little stick-on dots). Escape ropes and ladders, fashioned by desperate convicts, hang above the cell doors. There's an electric shock machine "used to control the behavior of the problem prisoners," a pane of smash-proof glass that survived a 20-minute attack with a sledgehammer, and a "Visiting Rules" sign that lists regulations such as "No excessive hugging or kissing" and "Shirts must be buttoned at all times."

Out on the grounds by the gas chamber are two cells with plywood cutout caricatures of headless convicts in striped suits. Visitors can stand behind them, rest their heads on the plywood necks, and pretend to be one of Old Max's prisoners before they were shocked, flogged, hanged, or gassed, and then shipped out in a box for anatomical dissection. No wonder there were so many escape attempts. Lemme outta here!

The museum gift shop sells aprons with convict stripes, metal prison food trays, and Alferd Packer t-shirts.

Museum of Colorado Prisons

201 N. 1st St., Canon City, CO
West edge of the city. From US-50 turn north (no stoplight) at the brown Prison Museum sign onto 1st St. Drive two blocks to the museum, on the left.
May-Sep daily 10-6, Oct-Apr W-Su 10-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $12.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Dinosaur Built by Prison EmployeesDinosaur Built by Prison Employees, Canon City, CO - < 1 mi.
Bird Millman, Highwire DancerBird Millman, Highwire Dancer, Canon City, CO - < 1 mi.
Chrome Bumper WarbirdsChrome Bumper Warbirds, Canon City, CO - < 1 mi.
In the region:
MLK Statue With Big Head, Pueblo, CO - 36 mi.

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