Cruel & Unusual: The Cooper County Jail

“We tell a lot of stories about the jail…some of them are even true.” – Melissa Strawhun, Friends of Historic Boonville

The Cooper County jail, located at 614 E. Morgan Street, looks innocent enough. On one side, it is home to the offices of the Friends of Historic Boonville, where tourists can grab a map of Cooper County or buy a Big Muddy t-shirt. On the other side, though, emerges a darker side of the town’s history – and more than a few legends.

The jail was built in 1842 and held prisoners until 1978, making it the longest running jail in the state of Missouri. Although Cooper County originally held prisoners for all kinds of crimes,  by the 1970s most lawbreakers were sent to other local jails. Instead, those who spent the night in Boonville were typically booked for minor infractions, such as speeding, and the jail was eventually closed down for cruel and unusual punishment.

The two-story building once contained a large room called “the bullpen,” where slaves were held before auction, and a cell used specifically for women and children to keep them separate from other prisoners. Upstairs, the jail boasts a solitary confinement cell and four cramped rooms smaller than a modern closet.

It is hard to imagine anyone living in these cells and staying sane, and the preserved graffiti showcases the despair many prisoners must have faced. Names, dates and curses are etched into the walls, but a single phrase carved into a cell door  –  “This is HELL in here” – reminds visitors that the former prisoners of the Cooper County jail were human too.



The Last Man to Hang in Missouri

At only 17 years old, Lawrence Mabry was accused of robbing and killing a resident in Pettis County. Although he has been portrayed as a young tough who deserved it – most notably in the 1983 folk song “Last Man to Hang in Missouri” by the late Bob Dyer – Mabry’s story was more complicated, and contributed to the ending of hanging as a corporal punishment by the state of Missouri.

Mabry was mentally handicapped. He could not read or write, and could barely form the letters of his own name. In Death Sentences in Missouri, 1803-2005, author Harriet Frazier shares a short anecdote: “He hoped to read the Bible while in jail awaiting his hanging; doing so was far too difficult a task for him. He said immediately before his death, ‘God is at my right elbow,’ and he surely intended to say, “God is at my right hand” (130).

The family of Mabry relentlessly campaigned to get their son’s sentence commuted, but were unable to convince a judge or jury otherwise. After spending two years in the solitary confinement cell, Mabry was hung by the neck on January 31, 1930. He was hanged in the sheriff’s barn, behind the jail, and few attended his execution. His punishment was hotly debated by the town, and the unease surrounding his death has seeped into the legends surrounding the “last man to hang.”

According to the Friends of Historic Boonville, “Mabry’s body hurtled through a sawed-out hold in the loft floor at 9:17 a.m. Simultaneously, the sheriff’s dog, Chief, in his pen near the barn-garage place of execution, began howling and continued howling for the next five minutes.”

Today, tourists can visit the “Hanging Barn” and see for themselves where Mabry took his last breaths. “Last Man to Hang in Missouri” is also occasionally played in town. Below is a recording from “The Wandering Fool,” covered by John Schneller.

Frank James

The most famous “guest” of the Cooper County jail was outlaw Frank James, brother of Jesse, who once spent a night at the Boonville jail in the 1880s.


Frank James (picture courtesy of Wikipedia)

According to the Friends of Historic Boonville’s website, the official story is this: James was brought to the Cooper County Jail by Sheriff John Rogers on April 24, 1884, to answer a warrant for his arrest for a train robbery. Sympathetic citizens of Boonville raised his bond in a matter of hours, and the case was later dismissed for lack of evidence.

However, according to historical archivist Kathleen Conway, there’s more to the story:

The story about Frank James piqued my interest when we received the original bond signed by local residents that allowed James out of jail. In checking the date of the bond—it is after Frank James was pardoned by the Governor of the State of Missouri. But for some reason Cooper County decided to pursue him for robbery. Technically Frank James was no longer an outlaw when the county arrested him—so he wasn’t quite as notorious as we usually say in the tours. In the county records in the archives you see him called to trial and then a couple of continuances were granted. Eventually the case was dropped. Guess Cooper County was just too stubborn to let the case drop, even after the State had pardoned him!

Ghost Stories

Of course, no good jail is without its spooks. Interns and workers at the jail have seen shadows and heard noises. Items have disappeared and then have mysteriously returned; lights have gone out at odd times. However, these occurrences were always met with a disbelieving laugh – until October 24, 2015, when the Friends hosted paranormal investigators:

“The one really interesting thing that came out of the paranormal investigation we did occurred in the 3rd cell in the farthest hallway (where the 4 small cells are located). There was a lot of “paranormal activity,” such as flashlights been turned on and off when we asked if anyone was in there. Now, normally I would be questioning all of that… but last Monday, before the paranormal investigation, the Sheriff’s department brought in their new dog, Grimm, to take pictures of him inside the jail. That dog was totally freaked out by that same cell and wouldn’t go in…he sat by the door in the hallway and was waving his paw in front of his face like he was swatting something away……..” – Melissa Strawhun


The fourth (and haunted?) cell

The Cooper County jail is located at 614 E. Morgan Street and is open Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m – 3 p.m. For more information, click here.

Do you have an interesting story or memory about the jail? Feel free to contact me at or leave a message below!