When you own your life, you know that the life best lived is one fully lived. That’s why on occasion I’ll post about one of the four main life areas, or what I call the spirit, the heart, the mind, and the body.
Today we look at the mind, which treats the intellectual/mental aspect of life as well as culture. I love history, so I often go there to improve my mind.
And when it comes to history, nothing beats being in the places where history was made.
Seeking out history
History is made everywhere. And it’s very much worth knowing if it relates to you. For instance, many of my ancestors lived in Idaho, so knowing more about Idaho’s history can help me know more about them and the heritage I have received from them.
And that brings me to the Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historical Site.
Visiting the Old Idaho Penn
Not that my ancestors were criminals. At least I don’t think they were. But how society treats its derelicts reflects cultural values, and those values influenced the people living then, including my ancestors.
The Old Idaho Penitentiary State Historical Site (hereafter called the Old Pen) is only a few miles east of downtown Boise. The facility operated for just over a century (1872-1973) and housed over 13000 inmates, 215 of whom were women.
In fact, there was a separate women’s ward built outside the walls of the Old Idaho Pen between 1905 and 1920. Not a single one of these women were executed, although seven had convictions for second-degree murder and one for first-degree murder. That last one was given a life sentence, of which she served only 13 years.
Not so for the men. Ten were executed. A gallows in the yard provided death by hanging until the Maximum Security Building was completed in 1954. And they constructed the hanging room right next to death row. I guess that just minimizes the chances of escape (not that they were that good otherwise).
Witnesses could watch through a glass window while the condemned, bound at both hands and feet, stood on a trap door with a noose placed around his neck.
The other end of the noose is attached securely to this ceiling hook.
The executioner pulls this lever when the final moment comes, and the condemned falls through the trap door.
Underneath the gallows floor is a place called the Drop Room. Here the body was collected and a doctor examined the body to verify death. An adjacent door led outside the building where a car could transport the body to a funeral home for services.
Idaho used this operation only once, just after midnight on 18 October 1957 on Raymond Snowden, also known as “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper.” If you follow the link to learn more about the execution, I warn you that it’s no bedtime story. It may also explain why Snowden was the only one to die here. Later in 1978 then Governor John Evans replaced hanging with lethal injection as Idaho’s method of prisoner execution.
A blaze of glory (or not)
Perhaps the most notorious resident of the Old Idaho Pen was Harry Orchard, who assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. Steunenberg quelled violence at a northern Idaho mining town in 1899 by declaring martial law and requesting federal troops. Many labor unionists felt betrayed by Steunenberg. Five years after leaving office, Steunenberg died outside his house after a bomb rigged to a side gate exploded.
I've known about the Steunenberg statue in front of the State Capitol for years, but I always thought it was erected because he had some influential reputation as a statesman. Now I see the statue was constructed to memorialize an assassinated governor. I had no idea that Idaho’s history had any assassinations. Looks like I got another rabbit hole to explore.
Bringing it all home
So what’s in your backyard? It’s really common to think you don’t have anything, but once you start looking you’ll find lots of rabbit holes to go down. And knowing more about what's down those rabbit holes can help make you a more interesting conversationalist. Both learning more and sharing what you learn help you live life more fully.
So find your rabbit hole and start exploring. You never know where it might take you.
Howdy! I'm Lance, host of Joy in the Journey Radio. I've been blogging about LDS singles life since 2012, and since 2018 I've been producing a weekly Internet radio show and podcast to help LDS singles have more joy in their journey and bring all Latter-day Saints together. Let's engage a conversation that will increase the faith of LDS singles and bring singles and marrieds together in a true unity of the faith.
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