Idaho State Penitentiary

Idaho State Penitentiary

The Idaho State Penitentiary (the Old Idaho State Penitentiary) operated as a prison on the eastern outskirts of Boise from the late 1870s to 1973.

The facility closed in December 1973 after multiple riots by inmates protesting poor living conditions. The Idaho State Historical Society now manages the old state penitentiary. It has been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1973.

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is open to tours. Paranormal experts consider it the most haunted place in Idaho.


Idaho state authorities constructed the first buildings of the Idaho State Penitentiary in the early 1870s. They called the facility the Territorial Prison because Idaho was a territory of the United States at the time and had not yet joined the Union as the State of Idaho.

[Fun facts: Congress recognized the U.S. Territory of Idaho in March 1863. It officially joined the Union as the State of Idaho in July 1890.]

The Idaho State Penitentiary operated as a prison from 1872 to 1973, a total of 101 years. It had a capacity for about 600 inmates and nearly 14,000 people passed through its gates, including more than 200 females.

Some of the most notorious inmates included:

Lyda Southard poisoned four husbands with arsenic

Lyda Southard (also known as Lyda Anna Mae Trueblood, 1892-1958) was probably the most notorious female inmate at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.

A court convicted Lyda (nee Keller) of murdering four husbands, her four-year-old daughter, and a brother-in-law to collect life insurance money. She reportedly killed four husbands by poisoning them with arsenic extracted from flypaper.

Her victims included her first husband Robert Dooley (married 1912- 1915) and brother-in-law Ed. After both men died, she collected life insurance of $4,600.

She then married William G. McHaffle (1917-1918). Her four-year-old daughter Lorrain died suddenly soon after. McHaffle also died in 1918. Lyda collected $500 in life insurance money after he died.

Lyda’s third husband was Harlen C. Lewis (March 1919-July 1919) from Billings, Montana. He died within months of their marriage. She collected $3,000 in life insurance.

She married a fourth man, Edward F. Meyer (August 1920-September 7, 1920), a ranch worker from Pocatello, Idaho. He died within weeks of their marriage. She collected $10,000.

Lyda Southard escaped from prison

Law enforcement eventually caught up with her in Honolulu soon after she married navy petty officer Paul Vance Southard. The arrest followed research and investigation by Earl Dooley, a chemist and relative of her first husband, who suspected she poisoned him with arsenic.

Investigators found traces of arsenic in some of the exhumed bodies. A court found her guilty of second-degree murder and sentenced her to 10 years to life in prison at the old Idaho State Penitentiary.

She escaped in 1931. In 1932, she married another man Harry Whitlock of Denver, Colorado. Law enforcement officers rearrested her in August 1932 and returned her to prison. But she eventually received a pardon in 1941.

Lyda, nicknamed Lady Bluebeard, died in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1958.

Harry Orchard at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary

A court convicted Harry Orchard (1866–1954), whose real name was Albert Edward Horsley, of murdering former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905.

The Idaho State Penitentiary: Raymond Allen Snowden

Raymond Allen Snowden earned himself the title of Idaho’s Jack the Ripper for the homicidal crimes he committed.

He murdered a 48-year-old mother of two, Cora Lucyle Dean (1908-1956). The killing occurred in Garden City, Idaho, on September 1956, after the two had a minor misunderstanding.

According to some sources, Dean rejected Snowden’s amorous advances, and he hit her. Dean dared to hit back. So, amid an alcohol-fueled rage, he stabbed her with a pocket knife multiple times (more than 30 times, according to some sources).

In 1956, a court convicted him of murder and sentenced him to death by hanging. He openly bragged that he committing other unknown murders before execution on October 18, 1957, at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.

Conditions at the Idaho State Penitentiary and riots

Living conditions worsened when the authorities failed to upgrade the  aging prison facility. The conditions became unbearable, and by the early 1900s, inmates were protesting the inhumane conditions.

Protests in the early 1950s degenerated into a violent riot in May 1952. The failure of the authorities to address the issues led to more disturbances, notably in August 1971 and March 1973. The riot in 1973 was violent. Inmates went on a rampage, setting fire to their dining hall and other parts of the prison.

The authorities eventually conceded that the Idaho State Penitentiary was obsolete. In December 1973, they moved more than 400 inmates to the Idaho State Correctional Institution in Boise and closed the old prison.

The state authorities also built other new prison facilities, including the Idaho State Correctional Center (ISCC), the Idaho Maximum Security Institution (IMSI), and facilities for women, such as South Boise Women’s Correctional Center (SBWCC).



Paranormal tours

The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is now open to tours. The Idaho Historical Society, which manages the site, collaborates with multiple tour operators, such as the Big River Paranormal.

The operators conduct guided tours of different sections of the old prison, including the inmate cells, death row, and the solitary confinement cells known as Siberia. Visitors may also see the gallows, where Raymond Snowden, also known as Idaho’s Jack the Ripper, died by hanging.

According to paranormal investigators, tourists curious about the alleged hauntings at the old prison may look forward to encountering any of the following spooky presences:

The ghost of Dennis the cat

In 1952, an inmate found a stray kitten in the prison yard. Although prison regulations prohibited inmates from keeping pets, the guards made an exception.

The cat, Dennis, lived in the prison for about 16 years. It had free access to the prison yard, and everyone, including the inmates and guards, shared it as a pet. Dennis died at a ripe old feline age in 1968. Members of the prison community joined hands to organize a funeral ceremony for the cat. They buried it within the walls.

Prison legend claims the cat’s spirit still lurks in its accustomed haunts.

Harry Orchard’s ghost

Harry Orchard (real name: Albert Edward Horsley), convicted of the 1905 murder of former Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg, died in 1954 while serving his sentence at the Idaho State Penitentiary.

Orchard entered the prison in March 1908 after confessing to multiple murders during the trial. He received a death sentence, but a judge commuted it to life in prison. He spent the last 45 years of his life at the Idaho State Penitentiary, making him one of the oldest inmates at the time he died.

Orchard’s ghost reportedly roams the old prison yard.

Raymond Allen Snowden’s ghost

Raymond Allen Snowden, nicknamed Idaho’s Jack the Ripper, after shocking details of his September 1956 stabbing murder of Cora Dean emerged, was one of the last inmates executed at the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.

Snowden died a slow and painful death due to a botched hanging execution. His neck failed to snap under the force of his weight when the executioner released the trap door. So he struggled at the end of the noose for several minutes as he slowly suffocated.

Folklore alleges that the spirit of Idaho’s Jack the Ripper haunts the old gallows where he died, reliving the agony of the last minutes of his life.

George Hamilton’s ghost

George Hamilton was the inmate who designed the prison’s dining hall. Tragically, he committed suicide the day after his release for exemplary conduct.

The inmate who hanged himself

The ghost of an inmate who hanged himself just before transfer to the death row allegedly haunts the prison.

The ghost of an executed Native American

According to legend, the Idaho State Penitentiary stands on land sacred to Native American tribes. The aboriginal tribes include the Shoshone, Bannock, and Paiute tribes, known collectively as the Boise Valley People.

The Native Americans suffered injustices at the hands of the U.S. government. The authorities evicted them from their ancestral lands and reportedly refused to fulfill promises in treaties they made with them.

The Boise Valley People fought to regain their land, but the U.S. authorities captured one of two brothers who led the struggle and executed him at the Idaho State Penitentiary.



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Top image courtesy of Peter Wollheim is used under Creative Commons license CC BY 2.5.

Other Name/s Old Idaho State Penitentiary, Territorial Prison
Address 2445 Old Penitentiary Rd, Boise, ID 83712
Location ,
Activity reported

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In the media



https://1043wowcountry.com/a-closer-look-at-idahos-most-haunted-place-boises-historic-old-idaho-penitentiary-gallery/, “A Closer Look at Idaho’s Most Haunted Place, Boise’s Historic Old Idaho Penitentiary (Gallery),” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://www.idoc.idaho.gov/content/about_us/history, “The Old Pen,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://history.idaho.gov/wp-content/uploads/0264_The-Creation-of-the-Territory-of-Idaho.pdf, “The creation of the territory of Idaho,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://history.idaho.gov/oldpen/, “Old Idaho Penitentiary,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://www.travelchannel.com/shows/ghost-adventures/articles/old-idahos-haunted-history, “Old Idaho’s Haunted History,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://www.boisestatepublicradio.org/science-research/2022-10-31/nighttime-paranormal-investigations-lead-dozens-to-the-old-idaho-penitentiary, “Nighttime paranormal investigations lead dozens to the Old Idaho Penitentiary,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://www.kivitv.com/news/ida-haunts-paranormal-researchers-investigate-the-old-idaho-state-penitentiary-heres-what-they-found, “Ida-Haunts: Paranormal Researchers investigate The Old Idaho State Penitentiary. Here’s what they found,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

https://www.kivitv.com/news/good-morning-idaho-explores-the-old-idaho-state-penitentiary, “Good Morning Idaho explores The Old Idaho State Penitentiary,” accessed on April 30, 2023.

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Last modified on May 31st, 2023 at 11:42 am


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