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The former Women’s Prison is the home of the Colorado Prison Museum, which is located at 201 N 1st Street, Canon City, Colorado. The sage green building was constructed in 1935, 61 years after the construction of the Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility, which is still an active prison to this day and was in operation until 1968. For the next twelve years, it housed male inmates in the honor system and for training. It opened as a museum in 1988. The museum displays information on the prison system from its opening in 1871 to today, highlighting penal information, inmates, interesting information such as visits by the movie industry, and displays depicting live in prison – both for men and women.
The Colorado State Penitentiary was built-in 1868 on 25 acres of land donated by Jonathan Draper of rough-hewn stone and consisted of 44 cells. The first prisoner was John Shepler incarcerated in 1871. The first female prisoner was Mrs. Dr. Mary Solanden (#60) of Boulder in 1873 for manslaughter in the abortion death of a patient.
Women at that time were housed in the men’s facility. The arrival of women to the penitentiary caused some consternation. There were 44 cells The prison had an iron sink, a toilette and a slop sink. No one knows where the women were originally housed. In the 1880’s the warden requested money for a female facility since female prisoners now numbered 10-12, which was granted and a facility was built for the women of 6 cells over the laundry and bath houses. In the 1890’s money was requested and granted for a workroom and a matron. This was still inside the prison walls.
The Women’s Prison outside the wall was constructed in 1935 and operated until 1968. During that time, there was a prisoner Mrs. Vandenstahl who was in cell one for two years with a sentence of 25-40 years. Her twenty-two year old lover shot and killed her husband and told police that it was her idea. After an appeal, she was released.
Women were allowed to decorate their cells, participate in cosmetology classes and did their own laundry. Two women escaped by climbing over the fence while no one was looking. They were apprehended in a few days, tired and apparently ready to come back.
There are 32 cells on the upper level and offices, including the Matron’s Office. The lower lever contains the kitchen, cafeteria, class room and storage. Most women were incarcerated in the early days for performing abortions, prostitution, larceny and conspiracy. Today, women are mostly incarcerated larceny and drunken driving. The female population varies from year to year and has been declining. The facility also housed male prisoners who were in the Trustee program and was used for training.
The museum shows a part of prison life and a part of prison history in each cell and displays along the central hallway. Life in prison in the early days was much different from today. Prisoners were subject to corporal punishment using the “gray mare” a large saw horse that they were bent over. executions were by hanging, than gas chamber, than lethal injection, the last of which was Gary Davis in 1997. Interestingly, capital punishment was outlawed in 1897 and reinstated after a riot in 1901. Originally, there were no walls around the prison had only 4 guards. Work crews were sent out with no guards to work on roads and other municipal projects. No women have ever been executed. The male population today stands at 700 with available work programs for the inmates.
During the tour, you can hear the guards next door projecting their orders through loud speakers. The ancient prison wall topped with two tiers of coiled razor wire glints in the afternoon sun a few feet from this building that is surrounded by green grass, tall trees, and a wall topped with a fence ten feet high.
One of the prison’s most famous inmates was Alfred Packer, Colorado’s famous cannibal. With a party of five men, he left Montrose for Breckenridge and encountered a fierce snowstorm. Lost and low on provisions, Packer was the only man to survive the ordeal. His story was that one of the other members of the party, Shannon Bell, was the killer and consumer of the men. Packer said he killed Bell in self-defense. Packer was tried for murder in 1874 under Colorado laws but the crime had been committed in 1873 Colorado Territory. He was incarcerated in Colorado Territorial Prison, Canon City.After an appeal got him a new trial in 1896, he was convicted of manslaughter and got 40 years. Paroled in 1901, he died in 1907.
Joseph Corbett Jr was convicted of murdering Adolph Coors III in October 1960 for Coors murder in February of that year. Coors remains wer found in September 1960 around Pikes Peak. Corbet had kidnapped Coors and sent a ransom note. He subsequently killed Coors and was apprehended in Vancouver, tried, convicted and incarcerated in Canon City in October 1960 until 1978. He committed suicide in 2009. The Coors family refused to respond to the ransom note.
Antonne Woode was incarcerated when he was 11 years old in 1893 for murdering his neighbor for his gold watch. He was paroled when he was 23 in 1905. During that time, after killing a guard and taking two more employees captive, Woode escaped with Thomas Reynolds, C.E. Wagner and Kid Wallace. Woode and Wallace were found three days later, Wagner was never found and Reynolds was found by a mob and hanged outside the prison where his body was left until the next morning. Despite that, Woode was not suspected other murder of the guard, Captain Rooney, and was paroled in 1905 at the age of 23.
Of the more interesting women prisoners was Angeline Garramone, received at the prison for Forgery & Uttering and was then received during her stay in January 1912 for murder. She was paroled in 1922 and discharged in 1972.
The main prison was also home to several riots, the worst in 1929 and 1947, and 77 executions, several escapes both successful and unsuccessful. No sentence of execution was ever given to a woman.
©2011, MPPIR, Blog Nancy B, Photos; Frank C and Nancy B