My family and I are standing outside a gas chamber on death row at Wyoming Frontier Prison. The whole thing is made of stainless steel (the better to hose it clean with) and the original chair with its leather restraints sits isolated in the middle.
When the guide asks if anyone would like to sit in the chair, my 8 year old son is game. He has barely hopped onto the chair when I see his face crumple into tears. A teenager who is also on the tour has slammed the steel door shut locking him in the gas chamber. I go into mama tiger mode and quickly rescue my son. It was only a few minutes but I could have killed that older kid. In doing so, I would have joined a long history of murder and mayhem at the prison.
The Town of Rawlings
The town of Rawlings in Wyoming is a small town with not much going for it in terms of tourist spots. It’s main claim to tourist fame is that it is a very good stopping point halfway between other places that you may want to visit – Denver International Airport to the South and Yellowstone National Park to the north.
Rawlings was famous for being the home of the Wyoming Frontier Prison from 1901-1981. During its 80 years of existence, the prison was housed some of the roughest, toughest men in Wyoming. Unlike the Philadelphia prison we visited which was based on Quaker principles of penitence and reform, the Wyoming Frontier Prison was all about meting out punishment. The unrenovated prison really gives a sense of the stark conditions faced by the prisoners.
The Wyoming Frontier Museum
The prison is now a museum and listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. We stayed in the charming historic Ferris Mansion B&B nearby and thought we might as well visit this piece of frontier history. The museum gets approximately 15000 people visiting annually. It was a completely fascinating look into the lawlessness of the Frontier.
Our tour guide, a local high school kid, relished in telling us about the prison’s dark past.
- The architect who created the prison also designed Alcatraz in California.
- The original cells were small and dark. There was one line of cells that had no natural light either day or night. Can you imagine? It was luck of the draw who was put into those cells.
- There were nine men executed by gallows at the prison using the do-it-yourself Julien Gallows mechanism. Basically, the condemned would stand on a trap door which would open due to his weight and the man wouldfall down and break his neck. The last man to be so hung did not weigh enough to break his neck. They added weights to his feet but that still wasn’t heavy enough. Finally one of the guards had to hold his legs and fall down with him to provide the necessary weight.
- After this travesty with the gallows, a gas chamber was installed. Five men were executed using poison gas until this procedure too ended in tragedy. The final round of men condemned to death row had been secretly digging themselves out of the building at night using matches for light in the dark. They formed a line where they would pass the dirt that was dug out and hide it in the building’s ceilings. Unfortunately, one night the man digging the hole hit the gas line and they blew up in spectacular fashion.
- The guides will let you sit in the actual chair of the gas chamber if you so wish.
- The prison held 13,500 prisoners over the years including 11 women. The women were not segregated from the men.
- The most severe punishment was being put in “The Hole” – a small windowless cell which was so small the prisoner had to stand for days. The prisoner was given enough food to survive but otherwise left naked in the dark to stew in his own bodily functions.
- The prison is supposed to be a hotbed of paranormal activity filled with the restless sprits of all the unhappy people who lived and died there. In fact, it is in the top 10 of the most haunted places in the USA.
- The 1987 low-budget horror movie Prison was filmed at the Wyoming Frontier Prison. It was one of the earliest roles of Viggo Mortenson before he found a better use of his talent in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
The Wyoming Frontier Prison is located at West Walnut Street in Rawlins, Wyoming. Open 8-5 daily during the summer, you are allowed inside only on a guided tour. There is no minimum age requirement for children to go on the tour. Use your discretion with children because the place is spooky. Our tour guide wouldn’t tell us some of the gorier stories because we had children on the tour.