Home » History » Boonville’s Reformatory for Boys: 1941-1957

Boonville’s Reformatory for Boys: 1941-1957

Hey y’all. This took a lot longer than I thought it would, but I’m really pleased with the result. Here’s part II of the Missouri Training School for Boys saga. Part I can be found here, and I’ve also started a Patreon Page for KatyTales. Thanks to Erica and Erin for proofreading. Also thanks to Boyfriend who was very nice and only made fun of me and my research, like, one time.

The early 1940s passed the Boonville reformatory quietly, if not peacefully, although three superintendents had come and gone within six years. With each new administration came new promises of change and reform, but rumors about Boonville still persisted.

Then it was 1947, and John C. Tindall, forty-one, signed on to become the superintendent at Boonville’s notorious state reformatory. He was idealistic, progressive and energetic, and had thirteen years of administrative experience with the United States Medical Center in Springfield, Missouri.


Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 28, 1948.

Tindall wasn’t naïve. He knew the previous superintendent, Leroy Munyon, a political appointee by Governor Phil Donnelly, had been asked to resign by the state board of training schools for misconduct. He knew the reformatory was grossly underfunded and there were near-constant escapes. He had heard rumors about the Boonville’s conditions through his work in Springfield, but assumed they were exaggerations.

“They told me stories which seemed unbelievable,” Tindall said via the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “Even though I discounted a lot of it, I was shocked.”

At first, Tindall wanted nothing to do with the institution. But after a call from training school director Louis J. Sharp and pleading visits from board members, he accepted the role of Boonville reformatory superintendent without visiting the premises.

He arrived in Boonville on October 1, 1947, and was initially puzzled by the beautiful landscape. The hills were still bright green from summer and the trees around the institution were changing colors in the fall sunshine. There was no fence — the buildings looked more like a university than a reformatory.

“No college campus I had ever seen looked more pleasant or peaceful,” he said. “But when I got closer, I could see that the buildings, big, old and ugly, looked more like old apple bins than a home for human beings.”

As Tindall pushed open the door of one dorm and stepped inside, his jaw dropped. It seemed like the horror stories he’d heard down in Springfield had not been exaggerations after all—there was something radically wrong with the reformatory.

“Such filth and squalor as existed in the cottages is hard to conceive,” he said. “If it were not for the groups of dejected, miserable boys standing in corners you would have said the place had not been used in years.”

The reformatory was beyond disgusting. Dust rose from every corner, and the rickety beds were filled with lice and bedbugs. Torn up newspapers and magazines were scattered everywhere. The toilets were broken, and their contents leaked onto the floor and seeped into the rock walls.

The dorms were segregated by race in accordance to Jim Crow laws at the time, and the black cottages were, if possible, even more dismal. In one dorm, a long iron pipe was secured in the basement where drops of water dripped slowly onto the floor. This was where the inmates were meant to bathe.


Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 9, 1947. Tindall’s description of the dorms are even worse.

Worst was the smell of the Reformatory—it was nearly unbearable. Tindall described it as the “odor of habitual filth:” a combination of old sweat and dirty bodies.

It was clear his work was cut out for him, but something needed to be done, so Tindall decided to stay in Boonville. He moved his young family to the superintendent’s house on Morgan Street and set to work, keeping a journal to record his experiences.

As he began his tenure at Boonville, he learned other disturbing facts about the reformatory. The boys had only one set of clothes, and sometimes worked without coats in the winter. There weren’t any towels, so forty of them used one rag to dry themselves. There were no toothbrushes or toothpaste, and the food was often crawling with cockroaches.

Sanitation issues aside, Tindall was most worried about the violence. Because of staff shortages, guards used older inmates to keep the younger ones in line. They were known as lieutenants, or “Dukes,” while the younger kids were known as “Sanks” – short for sanctified. At best, the Dukes were thugs who were friendly with the guards and often allowed special privileges like roaming the grounds at night, drinking whiskey or taking Benzedrine. At worst, they were tyrants who beat the hell out of smaller kids and forced them into a kind of indentured servitude.


Tindall’s journals were turned into a first-person story (complete with Archie-esque illustrations) in Everyday Magazine, a special section in the St. Louis Post Dispatch. This is from the February 8, 1948 edition.

Other problems were with the staff themselves. Higher-ranking officials were often political appointees and had no experience; other employees were underpaid and brutal. There was a constant shortage of guards, and the ones that stayed were described by Tindall as positively sadistic.

He attempted to fire the nastiest employees, but sometimes couldn’t prove anything: the guards wore gloves to prevent skinning their knuckles, and constantly lied. He would find that inmates with a misdemeanor had been lashed 100 times instead of the 5 reported, or that the funds intended to give the boys more than one set of clothes were instead spent on a new fishing pond. In one instance, he gave a puppy to each company to raise as a pet, but the guards forbade the boys from feeding it, content to watch the dog slowly starve to death.

Tindall began to install some reforms as superintendent: for starters, he fed the inmates better food, using the produce and animals the inmates grew instead of selling it. He gradually began removing privileges instead of allowing corporal punishment. He hired more teachers that would help the boys learn a trade, and was planning to add high school classes. He started rudimentary psychiatric treatment for the boys, estimating that at least 20 of them needed to be transferred to a mental facility. He fixed the plumbing system and forced employees to clean out the filthy, stinking dormitories.

He thought conditions were improving. Maybe they were.

And then, in January 1948 a fifteen-year-old prisoner named Rolland Barton was murdered by two other inmates.


Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 20, 1948

The training school was already a political powder keg. The state board of training schools, a six-person, unpaid committee, despised Governor Donnelly for appointing his own minister, Leroy Munyon, as superintendent at Boonville without their approval in 1946. Donnelly himself was furious they had fired Munyon a year later for refusing to eliminate corporal punishment. He used the murder of Barton to ask for the resignation of all board members and director Louis J. Sharp, citing their incompetence.

In retaliation, Tindall released his personal journal and began talking publically about his experiences. The St Louis Post Dispatch formally released excerpts of his diary on January 29, 1948.

Tindall’s journal was well-kept and descriptive, sometimes examining the conditions he found and sometimes detailing his experiences with staff and inmates.

“C complained of being beaten by M. C examined. He had been kicked in the groin, must get rid of Mr. M.”

 “A boy ran from G Company. He had been beaten by two other boys, they were putting pressure on him. Moved him to another company.”

 “How do they expect me to keep them in when there is no way to keep them in at all?”

His final entry in the journal was this: The wolves are still after me. The Boonville bureaucrats are demanding my scalp. They expected miracles to happen and me to straighten out in three months a stinking political mess that has existed 50 years. They consider the boys criminals and that kindness is the wrong kind of treatment. They think they should be starved and beaten without mercy.”

Public Outcry

After Tindall released his diaries to the press, citizens of Boonville had a meeting in the courthouse, demanding a resolution. More than 200 boys had escaped that year alone, leading to some members of the community to sit outside their houses with shotguns, waiting for escapees. Any sympathy they had for youthful offenders was long gone – Boonville was caught in the middle of a political scandal beyond their control, and many felt powerless against the state-run school.

The meeting was orderly, but emotions were running high, especially when George Overstreet, chief engineer at the Training School, asked that the citizens of Boonville, “kept their noses out.”

“He’s out of order!” shouted an unidentified man in the back of the courtroom. “These boys are a menace to the community, and it’s up to us to call attention to the trouble. It’s time for us to take action!”

“There was never any attempt by the citizens to dictate policy by the school,” added Winters Martin, local attorney. “We just want the boys kept in so they won’t be a menace to the community.”

Many were dissatisfied with Tindall’s progressive attitudes, including G. Warren Winn, who was the reformatory physician. He didn’t like that Tindall treated the inmates as “little gentleman,” and was especially concerned about the influx of runaways.

“It has been proposed that older boys be removed but that won’t solve it. I have seen a boy at school stabbed in the heart by a 12-year-old. I have seen two guards with skulls fractured. One of our citizens was kidnapped and taken 200 miles towards the state line of Arkansas, but was spared because the boy liked his daughter. If we can’t get enough officers, what do we do? A wall?”

“The school should have an electrically charged fence. That’s the way they did in those concentration camps,” C.S. Duncan, a former state senator, suggested. “Of course you don’t have to leave it on all the time.”


Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on January 30, 1948.

To be fair, not everybody felt this way. The Boonville League of Women Voters thought Tindall was doing a good job with the amount of funding he had received and urged the state for more money; Mike Angelo, director of the Chamber of Commerce, had called Tindall personally to assure him the businesses of Boonville supported his administration. In a rare interview, most reformatory inmates picked at random said Tindall had done his best and improved their own morale.

Editorials were published in both the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Star and Times, often critical of both Donnelly and the state board of training schools. Many of these writers believed Tindall was truly helping Boonville’s troubled institution.

However, there was one uniting factor nearly everybody wanted the reformatory moved. Most wanted it closer to Jefferson City, where there was Algoa and the state penitentiary. The Boonville “school” had outlived its usefulness, and no reform measures – no matter how well-intentioned – could erase fifty years of terrible administration.

The State Response

Governor Donnelly had heard enough. The newspapers had been constantly running Tindall’s incriminating diaries, and the ousted members of the state board of training schools were vocal about their anger with his administration.

On January 31, highway patrol cars carrying the governor and armed officers drove to the reformatory. Donnelly fired Tindall in person, who left peacefully. The highway patrol removed seventy-one of the “most violent” inmates, and transferred them immediately to the state penitentiary in Jefferson City. Then, they fired most of the remaining staff at Boonville and took over the premises.

Donnelly named a state trooper, W.S. Barton, as acting superintendent while they found a suitable replacement, and the highway patrol was instated as temporary guards until they could find better staff. From the state’s perspective, it was now under control from a too-lenient administration; Tindall himself worried that armed guards would excite the inmates and cause them to act tougher than they really were.

Tindall also reported hearing about two escapees caught by state police were forced to remain “on the line,” where they were told to stand on a specific area and not move. They were not allowed to sleep or have food or water, and remained there from Sunday until Tuesday.

Barton denied the occurrence.


Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 1, 1948.

Meanwhile, it was chaos in Jefferson City. Donnelly’s political opponents charged that he had grossly overstepped his bounds when adding the State Highway Patrol; Donnelly replied that as the governor he had the right to call in whatever means he saw fit.

Members of the now-fired board said that Donnelly was a classic example of political mishandling and backroom deals. Donnelly pointed fingers right back – if the state board knew how bad Boonville had become, why hadn’t they done anything about it?

In the long run, fault didn’t matter. The reformatory had finally made its way to the public eye, and there was such outcry the Missouri government was forced to take action, conducting a special senate investigation about the conditions at Boonville. Politicians on both sides of the aisle pledged immediate reform and radical change, but there were some who were not so optimistic.

“I predict under whatever new administration the governor puts in at Boonville, the iron curtain will descend,” said former board member Thomas Neil. “The people will get no information on actual conditions there, but they will be told by the Governor and his appointees…”

Reforms are Passed

The conditions at Boonville and the subsequent investigations led to a few reforms within the system.

Eventually, the state senate passed a bill to give the state board of training schools more power over each individual schools – this would have included the Negro Girl’s School in Tipton and the Industrial Home for (White) Girls in Chillicothe. The bill provided indeterminate sentences for offenders, and permitted that children under the age of twelve who committed crimes be under the guardianship of the State Division of Welfare. It also gave more money to the badly underfunded schools.

After his firing, John Tindall moved back to Springfield, where he eventually died at age 90 in 1997. He had only lasted four months as Boonville superintendent and was relieved to move back to his hometown, but expressed regret that he hadn’t managed to stay longer at the reformatory. He truly thought that Boonville had been “headed in the right direction” under his administration.

“I guess it was too big a job for one man,” he said. “I lost. But there’s one thing I accomplished. I’ve aroused the people of the whole state to the conditions there. The people will never again let it become the stinking, corrupt, political mess it has been for so many years.”

The reformatory was able to build new dorms, and in 1951 Governor Forest Smith said “much progress and improvement” had been made to Boonville. It seemed as though the institution was finally shedding its notorious past.


Photo via the St. Louis Post Dispatch on February 3, 1952.

Or maybe not.

In the late 1950s, a young social worker named Dave Barrett (who eventually became the Premier of British Columbia) toured the Boonville reformatory while earning his master’s degree in social work at St. Louis University. He never forgot what he saw there.

“The prisoners, who were all kids, were crammed together with no privacy and inadequate toilet facilities,” he said, forty years later. “There were no services to prepare the kids for the day when they left the institution. The staff seemed to be doing their jobs, but with little sensitivity. It was just a dumping ground.”

In spite of all of the political drama and promised once-and-for-all reforms in the 1940s, it seemed like the reformatory had begun to sink back to its old ways—at least after the press lost interest.

There were still sanitation issues.  There was still a version of the “Duke and Sank” system. There were still escapes, and Boonville citizens remained afraid of the inmates.

It seemed as though the reformatory was there to stay.

Well, there you have it – Part II. Crazy, right? Good thing it’s all true, and you can view sources for yourself here. I’ll be working on Part III soon, which will be from the 1950s to the closure of the reformatory in the 1980s. If you have experience with the institution during this period (especially if you lived there or worked there), shoot me an email at my NEW and OFFICIAL katytalesblog@gmail.com.

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