Idaho State Penitentiary
Raymond Allen Snowden, also known as “Idaho’s Jack the Ripper,” was lead into a small room with a trapdoor, one window looking into another room, and a rope hanging from the ceiling. It’s October 17, 1957, and Idaho State Penitentiary was trying out its new execution room. However, Snowden’s execution would be the only one to ever take place in this room.
People filled up the room on the other side of the glass window, looking wordlessly at Snowden, even menacingly. Although he often wore a suspicious expression, it wasn’t because he thought he was innocent.
Snowden was guilty of murdering Cora Dean September 23, 1956. He met her at a bar, and at some point in the night he slashed her throat. After that, he severed her spinal cord and stabbed her 28 more times. Snowden admitted to murdering two more people after being convicted for this crime, but this was the only one he was found guilty for. And really, this murder was all that mattered.
Whether he said anything before he was hanged or not has been lost to history, but his death is far from forgotten. As spectators watched with sweaty palms on their laps and grinding their teeth, the metal trapdoor was released under Snowden. The force of his falling body and the heavy metal slammed the door against the wall beneath, shattering the window that separated Snowden from the spectators.
A few shrieked in shock, others gasped and got up from their chairs. The window was the only thing that broke when the trapdoor opened. The rope stretched and suspended Snowden in air as his body flailed and jerked in pain.
He hung in the air for 15 minutes, slowly choking to death.
Idaho State Penitentiary came to be known as “Old Pen” throughout the years. The facility was built in 1872. In its time it was home to 13,000 prisoners. In the late 20th century, overpopulation and poor ventilation made living conditions nearly unlivable. When the laundry facilities stopped working, the prisoners were forced to wear dirty clothes. There were even issues with keeping the dangerous inmate population separate from inmates threatened by them. Guards historically weren’t trained properly in the facilitys, making those in charge vulnerable to riots. Old Pen eventually closed in 1973 after a riot burned part of the facility.
A riot in 1971 occurred on a hot summer’s day when temperatures in cells reached 118 degrees Fahrenheit. Ronald Lee Macik sat in his cell sweating in his filthy prison uniform, no longer bothering to wipe his wet brow. Each breath felt like sucking hot air through a straw, even though he gasped for it. He wasn’t alone in his cell. Overpopulated, each cell blocks housed too many prisons for comfort. Macik wasn’t the only prisoner who was enraged by this, but he wasn’t going to simply sit in his cell and die of a heat stroke.
With a homemade shank, Macik stabbed another inmate. Chaos ensued from there, resulting in burning the hospital wing and the social services building.
Since the facility had been abandoned and riddled with a history of disturbed and guilty spirits, supernatural seekers soon flocked to the penitentiary at night to see what they could find in the dark. Today anyone can tour Old Pen to learn about its history and perhaps even experience a few inmates’ spirits that never left. Tours take visitors to solitary confinement––which cellmates dubbed “Siberia”–– cell blocks, and even the room where Snowden was executed.
During Old Pen’s operation, one prisoner showered alone. It was probably a much needed cleansing in an otherwise putrid place. While he cleaned himself, a group of fellow-inmates beat him to death, stomping on him until he let out his last breath. The motive for this brutal incident was unclear. It might have been a debt the man never paid back, or something he said, or perhaps he harmed one of the men in the group. Maybe the group of men didn’t have a motive at all.
However, what remains after the harrowing incident is the man who was murdered. Visitors have claimed seeing the shadow of a man in the showers. Though the features aren’t well-defined, he has been described as evil more than once. Glaring at whoever spots him, no one forgets his red eyes glowing at them.
Visitors have reported an extreme feeling of sadness wash over them throughout their visit. One visitor said while he was looking into the room where Snowden was executed, he held back tears as a wave of sadness seized him. While he toured the cells blocks, tears spilled down his face as this unexplained sadness deepened.
In the same building where Snowden was executed, which was called House 5, others have reported hearing someone struggling for air, inmates walking around, and cell doors slamming shut.
December 10, 1935, Douglas Van Vlack was scheduled to be executed. He was found guilty for killing his wife Mildred Hook and two police officers earlier that year.
Just before his execution, Van Vlack’s parents were allowed to visit him one last time. Their brief time together was filled with sorrow, tears, and bowed heads. Van Vlack’s mother hugged him one last time and whispered something to him.
As his parents left, he thwarted the guards and climbed up into the rafters of his cell block. Cornered, the warden ordered guards to get a net to usher him back down, even if that meant by force. Van Vlack watched the scrambling guards with a racing heart and a line of sweat trailing down his brow.
He wasn’t going to be forced down unwillingly.
“I have the right to choose the way I die!” he screamed as he jumped from the rafters and 30 feet to the concrete floor, landing on his head. His mother might have screamed his name as he jumped, clutching her husband and burying her face in his chest before watching her son make contact. She probably heard his descent: a thick thud and a crack.
Guards picked him up and laid him on a bed with a blanket over him. He died 20 minutes after his scheduled execution. While his mother might have been escorted wailing out of the penitentiary with her husband, Van Vlack took his mother’s last words to him to heart.
“You can choose the way you die.”
Spirits who still dwell in the cell blocks and concrete halls may be confined to this prison, serving an eternal sentence. While paranormal reality shows attempt to reveal disturbed spirits, there will always be skeptics who tour the facility. But sometimes skeptics are proven wrong.
The Rose Garden is located in the southwestern corner of the penitentiary, boarded by the Dining Hall and what is called the New Cell House. Before it was called the Rose Garden, the area was used to hang six prisoners. In what might have been just a dirt patch or dead grass where the wooden gallows once stood. Six prisoners, all with the death sentence, were lead up those wooden steps and executed in front of whatever kind of audience could stomach watching someone die.
Sometime in Old Pen’s history a garden replaced the gallows. Prisoners and guards, even visitors, described the garden as beautiful and well-kept. It was the inmates’ job to tend to it. It probably was a tranquil job several enjoyed in their time there. With the warm spring’s breeze on the back of their necks, the smell of dirt and roses permeating the air, some might even have forgotten they were in prison for a second or two.
The garden remains after Old Pen’s closure, today tended by hired-hands rather than prisoners. Tourists who pass by look on it fondly, yet more than a few look upon it with puzzled expressions as well.
“Who is that out there, in the garden?” more than one person has asked his or her tour guide. “It looks like someone dressed as a prisoner is working out there.”
The tour guide looks to the garden, either just as puzzled or unenthused, because he or she has heard this question before. “There’s no one out there,” the tour guide replies. “No one.”