Touring the Big House in Canon City

Article by Nancy Ward

Prison Museum – July 1999 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Doing time” is no one’s goal in life, but the invitation to “Come do time with us” annually entices 20,000 people into the Colorado Territorial Prison Museum at Cañon City.

At the museum, 30 original cells are packed with reminders of the colorful history of Colorado, Cañon City, and 130 years of prison system “happenings.” There are first-hand tales of inmates and guards, and of life behind bars. Here, personal battles and riots come alive.

Territorial Prison was constructed in 1868 as part of the federal prison system, and after being convicted of larceny, John Shepler was received on June 13, 1871 as Prisoner Number 1.

In 1876 when Colorado achieved statehood, Territorial was deeded to the state. It was the first of nine Colorado and four federal prisons now located in Fré mont County.

The museum site, Cellhouse No. 4, at First Street and Macon Avenue, is located outside the east wall of Territorial Prison. Cellhouse No. 4 was the original women’s correctional facility, used for that purpose from 1935 to 1968. Before that, female inmates were housed in the original Territorial Prison, “Old Max,” and segregated from the male prisoners.

In the front yard is a gas chamber. Between 1937 and 1967 executions were by gas. Lethal injection became the method of execution in Colorado in 1992. The last hanging was in 1933. Contrary to popular belief, the electric chair was never used in Colorado. For many years, a wooden coffin was used and reused to transport convict bodies to Denver for medical research, but that practice has since been discontinued.

Inside, the self-tour begins at Cell No. 1 where Edna Vanausdoll, mother of five, spent time during the 1960s after being convicted of arranging the murder of her fifth husband. Mary Salander, prisoner No. 60, was convicted of manslaughter in 1873 and is immortalized in Cell No. 2.

(The polite modern terms are inmate, not prisoner or convict as in historical years, and corrections officer instead of guard.)

When prisoners, both male and female, entered Territorial, the newcomer was frisked, disrobed, sprayed for bugs, and then issued regimental prison clothing and bedding, fingerprinted, and photographed with an assigned number.

For today’s museum visitor, it’s easy to envision their guarded walk to the tiny impersonal cell, a “home” with no privacy, alongside humans who likely didn’t make good neighbors. It’s easy to imagine the sounds and smells created by other inmates, and to imagine life without a friend and without family.

“Little Siberia” depicts the isolation cell for early-day inmates who broke prison rules. They had no communication, no knowledge of date or time. They sweltered in summer and shivered in winter, and received less than desirable meals.

Obsolete behavior control devices are displayed: ball and chain, shackles, cattle prod, whipping rack, gas guns, and paralyzing sprays.

TERRITORIAL’S “Wall of Fame” features notorious cannibal Alferd Packer; Henry Starr, nephew of outlaw Belle Starr; murderer James Sherbundy who escaped twice before being gunned down in Denver; and female escapee Jean Anderson who, like many male escapees, lasted only one day on the outside. An example of how soon life can go wrong is obvious in a display featuring 11-year-old murderer Antone Woode.

Several cells are dedicated to officers. Cell 14 shows early-day tower duty with a rifle, a jug of drinking water, a straight-backed chair, and a chamber pot. Elsewhere, officers killed in the line of duty — in riots, fights, escapes, and escape attempts — are memorialized. In a 1929 escape, eight guards were murdered, one each hour.

A display of miscellaneous contraband confiscated in shake-downs presents weapons of every size and shape, including shivs and shanks, brass knuckles, a tomahawk, a cleaver, but mostly knives, smuggled in or fashioned from materials stolen inside the walls.

Even so, fourth- and fifth-generation family members still work in the prison system. Sometimes five or six members of a family are all employed at the same time by the Department of Corrections (formerly the State Prison System) which provides Frémont County’s largest payroll.

Positive aspects of prison life are also explained. These include academic and vocational learning privileges, and worship opportunities. Various “approved” organizations behind bars have included Chess Club, Bridge Club, Theatre Arts Workshop, American Legion, Colorado Jaycees, and the Lifeterm Prisoners Union.

FOCUS, Families and Friends of Convicts United for Support, is based on the premise that “when one member of a family is in prison, the entire family does time.” The New Life Program is recognized nationally for its fight against substance abuse. A display of confiscated drug paraphernalia and hiding places is an eye-opener.

Shape-up is a program initiated by inmates of Old Max to help troubled youthful offenders “shape-up,” to avoid doing time. It boasts a ninety-percent success rate for deterring teenagers who have made a down payment on a ticket to a penal institution.

A half-dozen shown-on-request videos are available in the museum’s viewing area. Various printed booklets about the history of Colorado and its correctional system, plus T-shirts, and prisoner-made hobby and craft articles are sold in the gift shop.

The Colorado Territorial Prison Museum is non-profit and supported solely by donations, admission fees, and gift shop income.

Last fall, Pat Kant, Executive Director during half the museum’s ten-year history, said the organization is developing a new long-range plan to expand and enhance exhibits and reach more visitors than the 170,000 who had already passed through the prison doors.

Why does John Q. Public do time in a prison museum? Kant said many are just interested in history, many are curious, some are present and past Department of Corrections employees from Colorado and other states, and some are former inmates or relatives of inmates.

The museum hosts many school and bus tours, groups of Scouts and senior citizens.

When I took the tour, it elicited mixed visitor comments

From: “Prison life is too soft.”

To: “I couldn’t stand confinement in a cell less than seven by eight feet, no privacy for toilet or bed, one small barred window, a door made only of bars, looking out to other cells, inmates, guards.”

“A fun place to visit — but I’d never want to be locked up here.”

“Prison provides a chance to learn skills they can use when released, change their way of thinking so they can become successful.”

For my grandsons and me, the tour was enlightening and thought-provoking.

Museum hours are 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily in summer. Winter hours are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday through Sunday only. Reservations for guided group tours at special rates may be made at 719-269-3015 or P.O. Box 1229, Cañon City, CO. 81215-1229.

And there’s ample parking.

Nancy Ward, a free-lance writer, once lived in Cañon City, but it was by her choice, rather than the judge’s.