Old Cooper County Jail & Hanging Barn
614 E Morgan Street
Boonville, MO 65233
Guided tours of the Old Jail & Hanging Barn are available during normal business hours. No appointment necessary. Cost is $5.00 per person.
While jails are not the most attractive buildings in a community, they have nonetheless always played an important role in a developing society. Such is the case with the Cooper County Jail.
Until its closing in 1978, it was the oldest continuously used County Jail in Missouri. The original structure was completed in 1848 for $6,091.50. Slaves quarried the 2½ foot thick limestone blocks which they used for construction of the two-story building. Each story had one large room, reminiscent of old dungeons, equipped with 1 ¼ inch round rings bolted into the outer walls. The prisoners were shackled to these rings at the feet. The large room on the ground level, known as the “bullpen” held slaves destined for the auction block on Main Street. In 1871, the appearance of the second-story room was changed with the addition of iron box cells. Brought to Boonville by steamboat from St. Louis, these were installed using the occupants of the jail as laborers. The jail was to receive no additional major changes for another century.
The most famous of the many prisoners associated with the Jail was Frank James, brother of Jesse. On April 24th, 1884, James was brought to the Cooper County Jail by Sheriff John Rogers to answer a warrant for his arrest for a train robbery that took place in 1876. Sympathetic citizens of Boonville raised his bond in a matter of hours. The case was later dismissed for lack of evidence. In 1871, the County Court also authorized the construction of an adjoining sheriff’s residence consisting of three rooms. In a matter of months, it was expanded to include a second story as well as a kitchen addition to the back of the main floor. Numerous other improvements were made including a brick privy, a cistern and a smoke house but none of these out buildings survived.
The last major construction occurred in 1878 with the building of the “stable/jail barn” designed to house the horses of the sheriff in case a posse was needed. It was in this building that one of the last public hangings in Missouri took place.
On January 31st, 1930, Lawrence Mabry, 19, climbed the 13 steps to the loft and was “hung by the neck until dead” for a robbery and killing in Pettis County. This hanging was a contributing factor in the elimination of the county capitol punishment. In 1971, the Jail Barn became the first restoration project of the newly created Friends of Historic Boonville.
Every cell has its own history, its own stories to tell. The graffiti-carved limestone rock walls stand as silent witnesses to a way of life beyond our comprehension.
The cells are empty now. But with a little imagination, you can hear the footsteps of the sheriff as he walks across the floor to one of the cell doors. The huge jailer’s keys clang against each other. There is a pause and then the sound of a brass key entering one of the old iron locks. For some, it turns to the right, opening the door and letting them out, giving them a second chance. For others, the key turns to the left, closing the door behind them, sealing their fate.
In 1978, a Federal Court declared the Cooper County Jail “cruel and unusual punishment”, therefore closing the cell doors permanently and bringing to the end of an era of Boonville and Cooper County history. The generosity of the Kemper Foundation of Kansas City and the restoration efforts of the Friends of Historic Boonville have insured that this history will not be forgotten.