One of the running jokes that I have with one of my friends on Facebook is that I have gone to more historic jails this year during this project than anything else. Joking aside, it is somewhat true as I have gone now to upwards of four different jails during this project. At this point it almost seems like a cliché that every town I go to has relatively the same setup for their downtown area, almost identical courthouses, and some sort of a jail museum with a vague tie into either the Bushwackers or Jesse James and his family. Since it’s been a few jail-free weeks I figured, hey! What the hell let’s go to another one! So, I packed up my car and headed down South to Vernon County, Missouri – specifically the town of Nevada.
Nevada (pronounced Nuh-vay-duh because Missouri does that with town names lol) is the home of a couple of museums – first and foremost the Bushwacker Museum (which is basically The Vernon County Museum), and secondly the nearby Bushwhacker Jail which is today’s topic. I will be writing up an entry for the museum itself at a later time, I’m currently reading a book about “Bleeding Kansas”, detailing the war between the Missouri Bushwhackers (or Border Ruffians) and the Kansas jayhawkers, and I figure it would be more appropriate to do that then. Originally, the jail was the site of the museum itself, but a call was made some 20 years ago to separate the two leaving more room for artifacts that pertains to the jail within the jail itself.
Bushwhacker Jail; Nevada Missouri
According to their website:
“The Bushwhacker Jail is Nevada’s oldest surviving building. It was one of the few buildings not destroyed by federal militia, when they burned the town in 1863. This building functioned as a jail from 1860 until 1960. It was restored for use as a museum in 1965, and entered on the National Register of Historic Places in 1977. Constructed of native sandstone, the building is Federal in design. It consists of living quarters for the jailer’s family, as well as cells for both men and women, and an exterior summer kitchen and garden.
The jail cells are a sobering reminder of times when even basic comforts could not be taken for granted, and the keyword for prisoners was containment, not rehabilitation. The only heat for the cell block was from a pot bellied stove, and the shadows were hardly kept at bay by the single light bulb hanging in the center of the room. The old jail has been described by some as a place of “medieval malevolence.“ Is it haunted? Draw your own conclusions as you tour the iron cell block, and view the yard where Nevada’s last hanging took place. Fascinating, frightening, and not to be missed.
The reading for this adventure just happens to be a souvenir book that I bought at the museum itself called Bushwhacker Jail Tales. For a mere $5 USD, I was able to acquire a small booklet produced by the Vernon County Historical Society detailing the history of the jail itself and notable stories from it. The tone of the book is rather humorous, which was kind of a shock knowing what sort of book this was going in. Most of the stories included were of the nature of detailing ridiculous prison escape schemes that convicts might have attempted during the 100 years that the jail was in service. Stories run the gamut of the typical people trying to kick blocks out of the wall or men dressing up as women and trying to sneak out the door. Perhaps my favorite section detailed an escape attempt by a veritable Laurel and Hardy of the time, wherein the slighter of the two men was able to get out the freshly de-barred window easily, however the more rotund man found himself stuck screaming for help. if you head on over to my review, linked above, I have given a rundown of the book, and provided links on where you could purchase it. Or if you’re more inclined, visit the jail itself and buy your own copy in person.
Despite being over an hour and a half trip by car from my house, my drive to Nevada, MO was relatively easy. I planned out a day involving the trip to the two Vernon County museums, and a short drive over into Kansas to Fort Scott Historic Site. Since Nevada is basically directly across from Fort Scott on the border it made for a fun three hour or so adventure to visit all three places. Upon arrival at the Vernon County Library, one goes down a series of stairways into the basement to find the museum itself. Both the museum and the jail run off of the same admission system, so if you pay for one you get to do both. For both me and my son, admission totaled the whopping amount of $6.
We got there just in time for a guided tour of the jail, came back, perused the museum, bought some stuff at the gift shop and were on our way. Due to my work schedule, I am unable to attend things like this during the week usually, so if you are like me and plan on going on a Saturday, be prepared for it to close early. The self-guided tour of the museum is about an hour, whereas the tour of the jail is about 30 minutes. This is of course determined by how long you want to stay at the museum, and your reading speed.
All-in-all this was a very fun trip, and one of the better county museums I have seen during this summer. Generally, a lot of them end up being insanely cluttered with artifacts from hundreds of years of time crammed into a building way too small for the amount of stuff, while interesting – it’s almost always too much. I’m sure that the old version of this museum was probably like that, considering everything was housed in the jail for a time, but at least the people of Vernon County had this to sense to expand. The jail itself isn’t glamorous in any way, covered in graffiti with paint chips galore signifying the 100 years of use by hapless men that made all sorts of wrong decisions. But, it’s a good glimpse into a time long ago, when punishment meant punishment and people that were locked up behind bars were not always fortunate enough to have the basic necessities that one would need to live, not even heat during the winter or sunlight.
My only real quibble with the museum itself, is the fact that it’s called the Bushwhacker Jail, and not historic Vernon County jail or some such. The entire title comes from the fact that Nevada Missouri was considered the “Bushwhacker capital of Missouri”, thus the reason why it was targeted by an arson attack during the “Bleeding Kansas” tit-for-tat battles. The main museum makes sense, considering there are plenty of Bushwacker items on display, but now the jail is just a jail with a confusing name. If you were to have come here looking for a jail that historically housed outlaws and vigilantes during the American Civil War, you might be disappointed. Going into the jail, I knew this wasn’t the case so I wasn’t bothered. Stay tuned for a future article talking about the Bushwhacker Museum!
This article is part of my summer series History Boy Summer, which you can keep up with by following this LINK.