Home Haunted America Ghostly Inmates Of The Old Idaho State Penitentiary

Ghostly Inmates Of The Old Idaho State Penitentiary

by Jennifer Jones
Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise has gained quite the reputation for being haunted over the years. While I’m not sure if there were reports of it being haunted while it functioned as a prison, many people have reported strange occurrences in the 43 years since the inmates left.
Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

Old Idaho State Penitentiary Administration Building

I believe that locations with a history of high stress, unhappiness, violence, and tragedy seem to be prone to hauntings. This could be a reason why many of the most well-known haunted places are prisons, hospitals, and asylums.


One of the reasons this 144-year-old penitentiary is unique is that it was built almost entirely by the inmates themselves. The first building was constructed in 1870 and accepted the first prisoners in 1872. For the next 18 years, all prisoners were held in a single cell house.
By 1890 the New Cell House was finished and had three tiers of forty-two steel cells. The third tier on the side facing the rose garden was death row. The condemned men could look out the window and see the gallows.
Old Idaho State Penitentiary New Cell House - The Dead History

Old Idaho State Penitentiary Rose Garden with New Cell House in the background.

The Rose Garden

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary’s rose garden is impressive for a couple of reasons. It started as a test garden in the late 1800’s for the rose company Jackson & Perkins (which is still in business today.) And the garden was entirely tended to by prisoners.

It also was used as the site for 6 of the ten people executed at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary between 1901 and 1926. Wooden gallows were constructed in the northeast corner of the prison yard, directly behind the New Cell House.

Old Idaho State Penitentiary Gallows - The Dead History

Wooden gallows in the location of the rose garden. Image courtesy of The Idaho Historical Society.

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary Rose Garden - The Dead History

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary rose garden 2013

The rose garden is also one of the locations where numerous people have described witnessing paranormal activity. People have reported experiencing sudden, severe headaches, and seeing a red light floating around the garden area. My favorite story from this area is that of an apparition of an older prisoner tending  the roses. Visitors that have seen this ghost at first think he is an employee dressed up only to turn around and find that he has vanished and that museum staff never dress in historic prisoner uniforms.

In 1934 the rose garden gallows were torn down for the last time as the warden felt its presence was a “bad influence” on younger prisoners.

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

The Post-Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho) 18 Feb 1934, Sun


Solitary Confinement aka Siberia
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary Solitary Confinement - The Dead History

Solitary Confinement “Siberia.”

The solitary confinement building referred to by inmates as “Siberia” was constructed in 1926. Housing twelve 3’x8′ cells, inmates would be put here for bad behavior and could spend anywhere from days to weeks in solitary confinement.  Inmates were fed once a day, could shower once a week, and the only light they had was what would shine through a small opening in the top of the cell. Guards later recalled how they would often hear the men confined in these little cells screaming and yelling incessantly.

Visitors to the old penitentiary have reported this area as well as Cell House #5 (maximum security) as having the “heaviest” feel to it. I tend to believe that places such as these that had high levels of negative emotions seem almost to absorb those emotions over time. Whatever your beliefs are regarding the paranormal, it’s hard not to feel a sense of unease when you enter a place that held very dangerous and disturbed people for more than one hundred years.

The Multipurpose Building

Laundry Building - The Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

The multipurpose building at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary was constructed in 1923. Over the years it was used as a shirt factory, laundry, license plate shop, bakery, shoe shop, hobby room, and also housed the communal shower. It is also rumored to be a hotspot for paranormal activity.

I confirmed at least one death occurred in this building, and it happened during the August 1971 riot. Four days after the riot ended, guards found William Butler dead. His stabbed and beaten body had been rolled up inside a gym mat in the multipurpose building.

Cell House #4

Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

Cell House #4

Cell House # 4 was completed in 1952 and was the largest and most modern building at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary. It was also the site of a suicide that made headlines across the country.

The Fatal Plunge

Douglas Van Vlack was convicted of the premeditated murder of his ex-wife Mildred Hook, and two policemen in 1935. Shortly after the trial ended he was sentenced to hang on December 10th, 1937. Things wouldn’t quite turn out as expected, however.

Douglas Van Vlack - The Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

The Post-Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho) Fri, Dec 10, 1937

At 6:30pm on December 9th, Van Vlack was visited by a reverend from the Episcopal church in Boise to administer last sacraments. His parents arrived to say goodbye to their son in his cell. The cell door was open and closely watched by a prison guard. Just before leaving his mother hugged him and whispered something in his ear.

As his parents exited the cell he broke away from the guard and scrambled up to the rafters of the cell block. He walked across a beam to the far corner of the ceiling and stayed there. The warden ordered guards to grab a net and along with the prison chaplain and Van Vlack’s attorney, spent 30 minutes trying to convince him to come down.

As the guards arrived with the net, Van Vlack shouted “I have the right to choose the way I die!” and dove head first, 30 feet to the concrete floor below.  He landed on his head and right shoulder. Still alive, prison officials rolled him onto a mattress and covered him with a blanket.

Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

The Post-Register (Idaho Falls, Idaho) Sun, Dec 12, 1937

Van Vlack was pronounced dead at 12:32 am on Friday, December 10th, 1937. Just 20 or so minutes after his scheduled execution time. It was later said that the words his mother whispered to him were that he could choose the way he died. They also suspect she slipped him a razor blade which was found on his body.

Cell House #5 (Maximum Security)

Cell House #5 - The Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

The last cell house constructed at the penitentiary, cell house #5 held the worst of the worst and was home to death row. Built in 1954 this cell block was made up entirely of solitary confinement cells. It also has a built-in gallows and “drop house”. The blue door in the picture above was connected to the drop house so that bodies could be quickly removed.

It’s also rumored to be one of the most haunted parts of the penitentiary, even though only one execution was carried out here.

Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

Cell House #5 Death Row

Idaho’s Jack the Ripper

In 1956 Raymond Snowden, often referred to as Idaho’s Jack the Ripper was convicted of the murder of Mrs. Cora Dean. On the evening of September 22nd, 1956 Cora had the unfortunate luck of running into Snowden while at the Hi-Ho Club.

After refusing to leave with him, they got into an argument in the alley behind the club. Cora reportedly kicked him in the groin, and he attacked her, slitting her throat. Detectives later found that her spinal cord had been severed, and she had been stabbed 29 times.

Raymond Snowden - The Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

Image courtesy of the Idaho Historical Society

Snowden would be the only inmate hung in the newly constructed Cell House #5, and it did not go smoothly.

On October 18th, 1957, Snowden was led 60 feet from his cell on death row to the gallows. The small room directly outside the gallows was for the family of the victim and officials to watch the execution through a large glass window.

Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead HistoryOld Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History


Old Idaho State Penitentiary - The Dead History

Drop Room – Cell House #5

After the noose was placed around his neck and the large lever pulled to open the trapdoors, the doors opened so violently it caused the glass window to shatter. The noose also failed to break Snowden’s neck, and he hung for about 15 minutes slowly strangling to death.

People have reported odd occurrences in this area including the sounds of someone struggling for air, cell doors closing, and full bodied apparitions. Many believe that the ghost of Raymond Snowden still lingers in this area.

Experience for yourself!

With a long history of pent up negative energy, executions, suicides, and murders that occurred here it doesn’t surprise me to hear reports of strange happenings. I have visited the penitentiary a few times, and while I’ve never personally experienced anything paranormal, the whole site definitely has a heavy feel to it.

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is open 7 days a week (hours vary by season) and is located at 2445 Old Penitentiary Road,Boise, ID 83712. For details and admission prices you can visit their site, here.

I’d love to hear from you if you’ve had any paranormal experiences here, comment below!

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Gail Jackson December 8, 2016 - 4:59 pm

We are planning a road trip going on I-90 from Seattle to Iowa,
during May and June of 2017. Taking a few side trips to Yellowstone, Devils Tower, Deadwood and the Black Hills.
Can you please help me with some great “must” do locations.

Thank you
Gail Jackson

[BLOCKED BY STBV] Remarkable Boise: Things to Do and See January 26, 2018 - 8:20 am

[…] You can take either a guided or self-guided tour to learn about how the inmates lived. Some say the penitentiary is haunted. […]

Jessica August 3, 2018 - 9:47 pm

I went to idaho old pen today and i felt EVERY uneasy in the maximum security area and it got worse as i got closer to death row! I felt scared, anxious, and sad!

Nova August 27, 2018 - 10:51 am

I went there with some friends yesterday and we all felt sick and anxious. I got a few orbs in my pictures and my necklace (which is a rose quartz with a pentigram) got EXTREMELY hot when we were in the gallows. It was a pretty comfortable day so I’d guess it was the energies interacting. Super fun and a must for paranormal enthusiasts!


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