No one ever successfully escaped from Brushy Mountain, hemmed in on three sides by the Frozen Head Wilderness.
No one ever successfully escaped from Brushy Mountain, hemmed in on three sides by the Frozen Head Wilderness.

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Field review by the editors.

Petros, Tennessee

"I'll show you where i saw my first stabbing," said George Wyatt as he guided us through the empty cellblocks of Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. George, a former Brushy Mountain convict, was called "Bomber" by his fellow inmates because he'd blown up a Tennessee country club with 16 sticks of dynamite. "I done it for money," George told our tour group. "I was dumb."

Dummy prison coal miner. At Brushy Mountain, you made your coal quota or you were whipped.
Dummy prison coal miner. At Brushy Mountain, you made your coal quota or you were whipped.

The penitentiary, open from 1896 to 2009, stands in a notch in the Cumberland Mountains, hemmed in on three sides by the forbidding Frozen Head Wilderness. Over the years a surprising number of convicts escaped from the prison and headed into the hills -- including its most famous inmate, MLK-assassin James Earl Ray -- but none made it to freedom. "James Earl Ray was from Memphis, but I'd call him a Yankee, excuse my language," said George. "He was out three days and only got eight miles! You give old George three days and I'm gonna be gone a hundred."

Despite his bravado, George did not to try to escape Brushy Mountain Penitentiary. He served his time, walked out a free man in 1986, and stayed out of prison until August 2018, when Brushy Mountain opened as an attraction and hired him as a tour guide. "I'm back now, but I get to go home at night," said George.

Tour guide George
Tour guide George "Bomber" Wyatt recalls the deadly hostage shooting of 1982.

The old jail is only part of the rebirth of the property, which already has a "Warden's Table" restaurant where visitors eat off of metal prison trays, and a concert stage on the old softball field, and future plans for a Brushy Mountain brewery, RV park, and hotel. George tells our tour group to check out the prison's "End of the Line" moonshine distillery; it features a still that belonged to his grandfather.

Helpful signs direct the prison's self-guided tour.
Helpful signs direct the prison's self-guided tour.

Back to George's first stabbing: it happened in the prison's chow hall, where some of the worst killings took place, according to George, because of all the nearby butcher knives and meat cleavers -- although every spot in Brushy Mountain prison was potentially lethal. The penitentiary had no gas chamber or electric chair, but hundreds of its inmates died anyway, worked to death in the prison's slave-labor coal mines or simply murdered by each other. The penitentiary produced so many dead bodies -- no one knows how many -- that it had its own morgue and crematorium. George recalled one night when a convict was stabbed to death, then was skinned, gutted, and flushed down a cell toilet, piece by piece, to hide the evidence. In the morning, all that was left was a garbage bag of human bones. "There was some bad, bad boys in here," said George.

Prisoners who failed to mine their daily quota of coal, or who otherwise angered the guards, were tied to the exercise yard whipping post. George said that his granduncle was one of them, whipped so hard through his prison uniform that the cloth embedded into his flesh. Others were banished to The Hole, a lightless cellblock where each inmate was given two buckets: one for water and one for a bathroom. "You'd try to make a mark on one bucket so they wouldn't get switched around," said George. "One guy was locked down in there 29 days. He put his head through the wall to kill himself."

Knives cut out of a steel prison bunk, probably with a guitar string or dental floss.
Knives cut out of a steel prison bunk, probably with a guitar string or dental floss.

Hypodermic Bible.
Hypodermic Bible. "90 percent of the boys in here were dopers," said George.

Visitors to Brushy are first escorted to its prison museum, where they can watch an introductory video, wander among displays of shanks and other Brushy Mountain memorabilia, or simply explore the grounds and buildings at their own self-guided pace. Guided tours, like the one we had with George, have to be arranged in advance, but George -- as well as fellow former inmates and guards -- are stationed throughout the property to answer questions from all visitors. Nearly everything is open except for the cells, which had to be locked because tourist kids kept slamming the steel doors.

The museum building, by the way, is the former prison law library where James Earl Ray was stabbed 22 times by a black inmates. "It didn't kill him," said George, but the assault did mark the end of Ray's stay at Brushy. "They took him to Nashville, gave him a blood transfusion, and he died of hepatitis."

George, like any good prison tour guide, is a nonstop monologue of horror tales. "People think a lot of these stories are made up, but I've seen things," he said. George recounted one time that a prisoner was beaten dead in the gymnasium bathroom. Another convict was deliberately crushed to death on the exercise yard weight bench. A third was burned alive in his own cell by a molotov cocktail tossed through the bars. Even the non-fatal stories are unsettling. George said that his prison blanket turned black from roach poop, and that one time it was so cold that it froze to the wall of his cell. "It'd get colder than a wooly-wooly bugger in here," he said. It's true: the unheated prison is closed to tourists from December through March because it's so cold.

George offers a peek at his prison tattoo.
George offers a peek at his prison tattoo.

Although George said he feared death every single day he was in Brushy, he also said that he was glad he was caught ("Who knows what I would've blown up next?") and that modern prisons have moved too far away from the Brushy Mountain approach. "It needs to be hardcore," George said of prison life, "so you don't want to come back." George then lifted his shirt to show us his back, covered with an elaborate prison tattoo. "Cost me two cartons of cigarettes," he said. "It took just one day but, man, it hurt."

Brushy Mountain Penitentiary has all the familiar touchstones of other old prison attractions: flaking paint, leprous walls, harsh echoes, the faint stink of terror-sweat -- and, as a bonus here, occasional poisonous snakes (visitors are cautioned to be careful where they walk) -- but George insists that Brushy was, as he put it, a different kind of prison. "I've been in law enforcement," said George -- and in fact he was the security guard at the country club that he blew up -- "but I wouldn't have been a guard in here for a thousand dollars a day. I know what these boys were thinking. It was all bad."

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Address:
9182 Hwy 116, Petros, TN
Directions:
Take TN-62 east eight miles from Wartburg, or west eight miles from Oliver Springs. Turn north onto TN-116. Drive less than three miles. You'll see the prison entrance on the left.
Hours:
Prison open April-Nov. daily 10:30-6:30 (Call to verify)
Phone:
423-324-8687
Admission:
Adults $12.
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights

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May 26, 2019

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