Boonville’s Reformatory for Boys: 1889-1940

This is the beginning of a three-part series about the Boonville Boys’ Reformatory – also known as the Missouri State Training School for Boys. It’s been my pet project, so thanks to anyone who has listened to me blabber on and on about juvenile delinquents for months.

Also – this has quite a bit of disturbing content and is not a happy story.

A hellhole. A viper’s nest. A study in sadism.

These were all used to describe the Missouri Reformatory for Boys, located in Boonville for nearly one hundred years. Although it started with good intentions, it quickly became one of the most feared institutions in the state, and was often used to threaten misbehaving children: “If you don’t behave, they’ll send you up the river to Boonville!”

The Missouri Reformatory for Boys opened its doors on January 15, 1889. It was considered an experiment by progressive minds of the day – child savers wanted “wayward youths” to grow up in a rural environment, thinking that hard work, clean air and green grass would transform troubled young people into model citizens.

The Reformatory was welcomed by Boonville at first.  The town donated 168 acres on the east of town to obtain the institution, and the first board of managers included several Boonville citizens. An 1891 editorial from the Boonville Star noted that the citizens of Boonville were proud of the reformatory and Superintendent Colonel Drake. They hoped “many blotted, stained lives may go out from under his care, bright, noble, and good men.”

The institution originally had few inmates and was operated by a family plan. The boys slept in small houses called “cottages,” and the first officer of each cottage – called a “brother” was the head of the household, with his wife acting as the “mother” of the department. Employees of the prison were ranked in military formation: the superintendent was a colonel, high executives were majors and heads of industries were captains.

The Reformatory was self-sufficient, or at least claimed to be: industries were added throughout the years, including a rock quarry, cobbler shop, printing plant, paint and carpenter shops, laundry, ice plant, waterworks, electric generating and distributing system, a cannery, plumbing, a blacksmith shop, a dairy, and even a greenhouse. The boys sold their products to the locals and learned the value of hard work – and, ideally, a trade that would help them once they were released. Baseball and football teams were organized, and there was even a magazine written and published by the inmates named Our Boys.

farm school

This picture was taken at the Philanthropic Society Farm School, which was in England. However, this is similar to the Boonville Reform School in terms of dress and labor.

But something terrible was happening at Boonville. Something evil. This great experiment in the 1800s resulted in an institution that was widely reported as one of the worst reform schools in America until its closure in 1983.

So what happened?

Reports about the Missouri Reform School are barely mentioned in the first few years of the twentieth century. Mostly, it was considered a success because the juveniles and young men were not locked up in the State Penitentiary in Jefferson City. But by 1911, an investigation was underway: the conditions at the Reformatory weren’t just bad, they were described by the St. Louis Municipal Commission as “almost intolerable.”

One visitor had this to say about the Reformatory:

“On the surface everything was lovely and apparently the management was all that could be desired. The youths were marched into the dining hall for dinner and grace was said before meal. Then all joined in a song of thanks. It sounded well but any observer could see from the smirks and winks passing from inmate to inmate that it was the ranked hypocrisy on the part of those who participated.”

There was already serious overcrowding at Boonville, but the 1915 state legislature made conditions even worse by opening the institution to first-time male offenders under the age of thirty. This error was not fixed until 1927. The youngest inmate reported during that time period was only seven years old. Boonville was still considered a reformatory by name, but really, it was just another penitentiary.

The boys came from all over Missouri, although primarily around St. Louis and Kansas City. At this time, the majority were white – a 1924 population report notes that about a third of the population were African-American. Crimes ranged from shooting an abusive parent to stealing two dollars to hijacking cars. Some were sentenced because they were “incorrigible” or “delinquent,” while others were simply there because there was nowhere else for them to live. Some of the boys were mentally challenged. The institution tried to keep the ages separated, but they were constantly short-staffed – the 1924 report says there were a staff of 58 men and women to handle 616 inmates – and it was nearly impossible to keep the inmates under control.

Ironically, Kemper Military School – the “West Point of the West” – was only a mile away. It is not unreasonable to suggest that a young person who was caught “jumping on cars,” like the unfortunate Walter Ray of Sedalia, Missouri, would be enrolled in a renowned military school if his parents had money. Instead, he was sent to the Boonville Reformatory, whose conditions resembled a hellhole.

The boys ate and slept barrack-style, with a hundred or more in a cottage designed to hold about thirty inmates. There was an elementary school, but no high school or middle school, and the boys often missed classes anyway to perform dangerous, laborious tasks that helped the institution stay under budget and avoid hiring outside labor.

Alcohol and drug abuse was common by both employees and inmates: according to the 1924 report, homemade wine was made using the Reformatory vineyards; “dope,” or opioids, were somehow smuggled in and used by boys and men of all ages. The prison atmosphere was reinforced by the dress code: the inmates’ heads were shaved, they wore prison uniforms, and Vs were cut in the heels of their shoes to help identify prison escapees, which were frequent. The guards used numbers instead of names to further dehumanize the inmates in their care.

One researcher reported that Boonville’s younger boys lived in decaying buildings that leaked in the rain and were “serious fire-traps.” Inmates often refused to eat because their food was crawling with flies and roaches – often dead ones if bug spray was used just before the meal. There were constant infestations of bedbugs.  A visiting Minnesota prison warden found “something radically wrong” at Boonville because the boys “carry themselves with the air of the oppressed and the hopeless”

“I cannot help but feel that these children are given little encouragement and that they hold little hope for the future. The morale is very poor. This is undoubtedly a result of overcrowding, poor food, unsanitary conditions, fear of physical punishment, and an inadequate system of recreation. It is not my policy to coddle criminals, but in this instance we have many children who are not responsible for their condition and who should be treated as children and not as dangerous criminals. The state of Missouri has sadly neglected its delinquent youngsters and under the present system there is no hope for their improvement.”

Locals who lived around the Reformatory had a strange relationship with the institution. The boys grew flowers, raised cattle, baked bread and gardened, selling these products to the community. They were also allowed out on “parole,” which meant they were apprenticed to a farmer in the area in order to learn a trade. But community members also feared the boys, who could turn violent: the 1930 superintendent of Boonville schools was kidnapped and killed by a Reformatory escapee; a taxi driver was forced to drive several boys to the Missouri state line, and was only released alive because one boy had a crush on his daughter. If an inmate escaped, three sharp whistles were broadcasted to alert Boonville residents. They often went out hunting for the boys: there was a $10 reward for each prisoner, dead or alive.

Corporal punishment was forbidden, but it was constantly used – and sometimes resulted in major injuries. Seventeen-year-old Cecil Lafferty was beaten to death by two guards for complaining of an illness while he worked in the garden; his body was discovered by a doctor who had seen his body on a table packed with ice and reported to the state. The guards were suspended but never charged – and they were only punished because the doctor had filed a complaint.


Cecil Lafferty’s grave

Everyone knew the Reformatory was a miserable place, so the administration at the institution was eager for good press.  E.J. Melton’s History of Cooper County, published in 1937, celebrates the “remarkably low” escape numbers under Superintendent Harve Gray’s administration and highlights the Reformatory – now renamed the Missouri Training School for Boys – as an “institution of regeneration and hope.” The article praises the “work in the open air and sunshine….associated with nature, the principles of reformation start for many youths from broken homes” (104).

“The remainder for a campus that is landscaped into an object of beauty, with green sweeping lawns shaded by giants of the forest,” says Melton.

This was, of course, a lie.

One year later, the Osborne Association, a national corrections organization, published a four-volume report on conditions in the nation’s industrial schools for delinquent and dependent juveniles. The group found Boonville “among the worst” institutions it inspected in the United States. Although articles about abuse and public outrage were reported in the newspapers for nearly thirty years, nothing had changed.

And nothing really would change, until the close of the training school in the 1980s. But how it got there, and the scandals that resulted, are another story…


Hey, the first section’s finished! It only took me three weeks. For a complete list of sources, click Sources Used. If you have a question or concern, feel free to comment below. If you don’t feel like waiting around for Facebook to notify you about the next post on KatyTales, you can subscribe to the website. If you want to see something happy after reading about child abuse, watch this video.











Growing Up Litwiller

Note: This started out as an interview with my dad, Steve, before it accidentally turned into a David Sedaris-esque article. Whoops. We will be back to regularly scheduled programming next week. In the meantime, here’s an essay about growing up in Boonville. 

“You’re a Litwiller? What instrument do you play?”

I often heard this question when I was growing up in Boonville. It was always said with a knowing wink from the asker, as though they already knew the answer. It never failed to piss me off, although the question was not entirely uncalled for. Dad was the band director in Boonville for over thirty years; where I went through the public school system, Mom was the librarian. It was like I was living in the modern version of the Music Man.

Boonville only has about eight thousand residents, and it felt like every single person knew who we were. It didn’t help that we all look so similar; I distinctly remember walking into a local bank my senior year of high school and the cashier pulling up my account without even checking my ID – “You just look like a Litwiller, honey, I know exactly who you are,” is something that is charming, creepy, and a phrase that I heard frequently.

I couldn’t escape my Litwiller-ness at school, but I didn’t try to avoid it either. In the third grade I gave a lecture to my entire elementary music class about the importance of a fermata, which surprisingly didn’t win me any friends. Later, in high school, I played clarinet in band, sang in choir, took piano lessons, and avoided sports like my life depended on it. By senior year I had picked up the ukulele and “released” an album that included non-politically correct gems like “Yeah, Well, I Hope You Get AIDS,” a song that will surely impede me from getting elected should I ever decide to run for office.

When I graduated and went to college to major in public communication, I would always mention my family in an attempt to sound interesting. Some people talk about their drunken escapades; I was bragging about the “family band” jam sessions we sometimes attempted, although inevitably I would play a wrong note and be so embarrassed I’d refuse to keep playing.

“Oh, you all play instruments?” someone at college would say, when I would share about my life back home. “That must be so fun!”

“It has its moments,” I’d admit, but privately I knew I was overselling the “cute family band” storyline. We are all talented – this is true. My mother is an accomplished violinist; my brother can play almost any instrument and play it well. Everyone can sing on pitch. But it wasn’t like we were the Partridge Family. Nobody was going on tour, or had been to Juilliard. Dad was a member of several bands,
including a German polka band called “The Sauerkraut Serenaders” and “Roadkill”, a clarinet quintet, but that was about it.

I started feeling more self-conscious and ashamed when I began playing open mics with friends.  I was beginning to realize that we were not the only musical family that ever walked the planet. We could all play, sure, but we weren’t the best. I could play piano with both hands, but since quitting lessons I was starting to forget time signatures and how to keep a good beat. Was I a fraud? I wasn’t sure.


In late April of 2015, a week after I celebrated my twenty-first birthday, my grandfather, Chris, passed away in the house he shared with my grandmother in Boonville. We all knew it was coming. He had been sick from complications derived from a bout with polio in the ‘40s, and every day that year had been a struggle for both him and the rest of our family. My brother called to tell me he was dying while I was at a friend’s apartment in college. Then, because I couldn’t get home that night and wasn’t sure what else to do, I smoked two blunts on the porch and got gloriously high for the first time in my life.

I remember hazily thinking about my grandfather and how much he had given our family. As a kid, he had worked hard to give his younger siblings instruments and music lessons; as an adult, he had gone into debt to buy my dad his first horn. He loved hearing us play, and especially enjoyed the holidays, where clarinets, pianos, guitars, ukuleles, violins, hammer dulcimers (and on…and on…and on…) would all play slightly off-key versions of Christmas jingles. Grandpa had made sure his loved ones could play music, and it affected my dad so much he wanted to make a career out of it, subsequently met my mom in college orchestra, and created his own family of little neurotic musicians.

Now, generations later, we are still defined by our musical ability in Boonville. After
retirement, Dad still works with bands across Missouri and is a prominent figure in the world of band directors. Mom still plays violin; my brother is now a music teacher in Venezuela. We still play at Christmas gatherings, and we are all looking forward to the day when my nephews and cousins are able to join in. We aren’t Grammy winning artists or featured guests on the Today show, but it doesn’t matter. Us Litwillers are passionate about our lives in music, and we don’t have to be the best to make each other happy. And even though I sometimes hit sour notes on the piano or sing in the wrong key, nobody notices but myself.*

*Just kidding. Everybody in the family notices, and lets me know immediately if I play an E instead of an E Flat.


Questions? Comments? Concerns? Leave a message below and I’ll be sure to read it. See you next week.


I’ve got an obsessive personality. I’ll be the first to admit it.

When I was twelve, I loved punk rock and spent a year wearing all black clothing “mourning my generation.”  Fourteen-year-old me was obsessed with the movie-musical Newsies and spent hours writing dramatic fanfiction. At twenty-one, I became infatuated with living a vegan lifestyle, bought more than 15 cookbooks, and ate soy cheese on the daily.

And now, today, I’m obsessed with my hometown of Boonville, Missouri…and I’ve decided to blog about it.

boonville depot

Photo courtesy of


The name Katy Tales is inspired by the famous Katy Trail, which runs across Missouri where the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad (or K-T) was originally used. Boonville lies in the middle of that 240-mile trail.

Goals of Katy Tales include: connect with interesting people around Cooper County, learn more about my hometown’s history, and highlight small businesses in the Boonslick area.

Feel free to email me at if you have questions, comments or a blog suggestion! I’m excited to get Katy Tales going – and I hope you are too!