On March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed an act that created the Idaho Territory, sprawling across an area one-quarter larger than Texas.  This frontier land was lawless and in order to obtain its statehood in the Union, it needed a place to hold the dregs of society and reform others…a prison.  In 1870, the penitentiary began as a one-cell house, known as the Territorial Prison, built east of Boise.  It received its first 11 inmates from the Boise County Jail.  It quickly grew into a complex of buildings surrounded by a 17 foot high sandstone wall.  As part of their penance, the prisoners mined nearby rock quarries to build the very walls that would hold them captive.  Over its 101 years of operation, it received more than 13,000 inmates (215 of these were women), with a maximum population of a little over 600. At least 110 of them died inside from old age, illness, and murder.  The area now known as the Rose Garden was once used to execute prisoners by hanging.  Of the 10 executions in the Old State Penitentiary, six occurred here.  There is also an outdoor Recreational Area where inmates boxed and played baseball, basketball, handball, tennis, horseshoes and football.  The baseball (and later softball) team was named "The Outlaws" and frequently played teams from across Treasure Valley.

  •  In 1889, the New Cell House was built, consisting of three tiers of 42 steel cells. The third tier closest to the Rose Garden served as "Death Row."
  • In 1893, The Administration Building was built housing the warden's office, armory, visitation room, control room and the turn key area.
  • In 1894, the False Front Buildings were added holding the commissary, blacksmith shop and trusty dorm.
  • In 1898, the Dining Hall (designed by inmate George Hamilton) was built.
  • In 1899, Cell House 2, also known as the "North Wing," was built and contained two-man cells. A "honey bucket" was placed in each cell to serve as a toilet. Cell House 3 was also built, the same as Cell House 2.
  • In 1902, a barber shop was added to the False Front Buildings and was operated until the 1960s.
  • In 1905, Harry Orchard assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenberg and became the first famous inmate.  That same year, the Women’s Ward was built out of necessity to house Lyda Southard, known as Idaho's Lady Bluebeard for killing several of her husbands to collect upon their life insurance.   Prior to its completion, women did not have separate quarters.  Male inmates built a wall around the old warden’s home to serve as a separate facility for women with seven two-person cells, a central day room, kitchen, and bathroom facilities.
  • In June of 1907, with an eerily calm demeanor that stunned the courtroom, Harry Orchard was cross-examined for 26 hours regarding the many crimes of his life including his killings, bigamy, heavy drinking, compulsive gambling, womanizing, and career as a union terrorist that resulted in the loss of 17 lives, one of which was Governor Steunenberg.  Orchard had killed Steunenberg at the request of unionizer Big Bill Haywood who was seeking revenge for the governor’s harsh crackdown on miners in 1899.  In exchange for the killing, Orchard received several hundred dollars and a ranch.  Although sentenced to death, a judge recommended his sentence be commuted to life in prison, and the Board of Pardons agreed.  He lived over 45 years within prison walls -- the longest sentence served by any Idaho State Penitentiary inmate.  He died in 1954.
  • In 1912, the blacksmith shop was remodeled into a hospital and remained the prison hospital until the 1960s.
  • In the early 1920s, the first solitary confinement section was built and known as “the Cooler.”  Although it was built for solitary confinement, each cell contained 4-6 men.
  • In 1921, Cell House 3 was converted into a shoe factory.
  • In 1923, the Multipurpose Building was built by the inmates and served as a shirt factory, shoe shop, bakery, license plate shop, laundry, hobby room, and loafing room, also housing communal showers.
  • In 1926, a second solitary confinement area was built, known as “Siberia” and housed twelve 3’x8’ cells with one inmate per cell.
  • In 1928, Cell House 3 was remodeled for inmate occupancy and became the first cell house with indoor plumbing.
  • In the 1930s, the Territorial Prison building was converted into a chapel. 
  • In 1952, Cell House 4 was built.  It was the largest and most modern cell house at the penitentiary. Some of the inmates painted their cells and left drawings on the walls that can still be seen today.
  • In 1954, Cell House 5 was built.  This was Maximum Security where the most unruly and violent offenders stayed and served as a permanent place of solitary confinement. It included a built-in gallows and "Death Row."
  • In 1957, Raymond Allen Snowden was executed for the murder of Cora Dean, which occurred in Garden City on September 23, 1956. He was nicknamed "Idaho’s Jack the Ripper." 
  • In 1971 and 1973, severe riots broke out.  The inmates suffered through almost inhuman conditions. The sandstone walls intensified the temperatures inside the cells, retaining the stifling heat of Boise’s hot summers and chilling cold of its winters.   Unpleasant conditions were complicated by the prison's ill-working ventilation system. Conditions like these pushed inmates to the edge and guards answered violence with more violence until the prisoners reached their breaking point.  The prisoners burned the chapel and dining hall to the ground and damaged many other buildings.  Shortly thereafter, the 416 prisoners were moved to Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise.  The penitentiary was closed down and placed on the National Register of Historic Places.  From the smoke and fire-blackened stone to the calendars still hanging on the cell walls, the buildings were left exactly as they were at the end of these riots.
  • In 1974, the prison was opened up for tours. Some guides and visitors attest to strange sounds, voices, and a sinister feeling of dark entities still lurking in the cellblocks. It is rumored that the eerie activity intensifies near the frightening solitary confinement cells and the gallows.

 The Old Idaho Penitentiary is currently managed by the Idaho State Historical Society.  It features 30 historic buildings and special exhibitions, including a collection of tapes and transcripts from oral interviews with fifteen former prison guards covering prison operations and remembrances from the 1950s to the closing of the prison. The collection is open for research at the society.  Also, J.C. Earl donated his personal collection of historic arms and military memorabilia to the state of Idaho which placed them on exhibition at the Old Idaho Penitentiary.   They range from the Bronze Age to those used today for sport, law enforcement, and military purposes.  Still today, events and programs provide families, school groups, and visitors an opportunity to relive the Old Pen's exciting past of daring escapes, scandals, and executions.