Ever Wondered What It's Like to Sit in the Gas Chamber? Then Don't Miss the Wyoming Frontier Prison Museum

Updated on August 29, 2016
Pictured with the rope they used to hang him.
Pictured with the rope they used to hang him. | Source

I am guilty.

I live in Colorado, and in my travels across America, I have spent a lot of time trying to get across Wyoming as quickly as possible. Mostly because the only way to cross this gigantic chunk of land smack dab in the heart of the West is I-80, which could not cause a worse case of crushing boredom. To be fair, most interstates in most states are equally as boring, which is why we try to avoid them.

Rawlins was our northernmost stopping point for the day; there is a very decent campground on the west end of town. We drove up from Colorado Springs using the back roads, on our way to Yellowstone. Of course my son saw the billboard advertising the jail museum, and he begged us to stop before parking for the night.

The Wyoming Frontier Prison.
The Wyoming Frontier Prison. | Source

You never know what to expect with these small town museums; most are decent, but the Wyoming Frontier Museum far exceeded our expectations.

The building itself is a large, imposing structure that looms over a quiet street on the north side of town, a couple of blocks off the main drag. The grounds are well kept and the few cars parked outside give an idea of what it must have looked like when the jail was still operational.

The entrance is the same one that so many inmates passed through for a little over a century; walking into the ticket office, you are greeted by several of the jail's historical items.

There were five of us, including three kids and a senior, so we bought a family pass for $35, saving exactly one dollar.

Masks made by an inmate of the Penitentiary; they hang near the ticket counter at the museum.
Masks made by an inmate of the Penitentiary; they hang near the ticket counter at the museum. | Source

You can only see the inside of the prison with a guide, so we walked around the museum while we waited for the tour to begin. Wow! What a collection!

Some of the items on display:

  • handmade weapons
  • handmade drug paraphernalia
  • inmate art and handicrafts
  • legal inmate items
  • and, of course, their collection of rope and hanging weights that were used to execute prisoners (when the death penalty in Wyoming was still executed by hanging)

The rope collection was quite chilling. There is also a miniature model of the self-hanging gallows that demonstrates how that process works. The purpose of the self-hanging gallows was to remove the executioner from the process, thereby transferring the act of hanging onto the prisoner himself.

Detail of bench made entirely from matchsticks.
Detail of bench made entirely from matchsticks. | Source

We had just enough time to look through the small museum before our tour started.

I don't know if there are other guides, but Galen was our guide that day. He was fantastic! He was very knowledgable and could answer just about any question. He began with an in-depth demonstration of the self-hanging gallows, and finished our tour with an explanation of the horrors of solitary confinement and the terrible effects it can have on people.

Galen took us through a huge portion of the jail, but some sections are still closed to visitors. The building was abandoned for a long time; I am guessing that is why we didn't visit any of the upper floors. There may be some safety issues with going up the rickety old stairs. We visited the showers and cafeteria, but the...I dunno, should I call it the best part of the tour? The biggest part of the tour is death row and the gallows and gas chamber, in which several people were executed.

The original gallows have been removed, but the building and the hole through which they fell are still there. The gas chamber, on the other hand, is very much intact. They even let you sit in the chair!

This was on par with seeing the bullet holes in the door from the bullets that missed Joseph Smith in Carthage. Humbling, scary, sacred.

Our guide, Galen.  Smart AND cute!
Our guide, Galen. Smart AND cute! | Source
A real gas chamber where people were really executed.
A real gas chamber where people were really executed. | Source

I am so glad we stopped to check out this bit of American history! Not only was a good portion of the museum entirely intact, they also included many interesting artifacts from prison life and our guide was not only knowledgeable but excited to share the jail's history.

We even found out later that his mother had been a secretary around the time they closed the jail, so had an unexpected family tie to the institution.

So if you're in the area, be sure to stop at the Wyoming State Penitentiary Museum!

Questions & Answers

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      • Larry Rankin profile image

        Larry Rankin 

        2 years ago from Oklahoma

        Morbid but fascinating.

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