Updated: Oct 11, 2019
There is no other word to describe The Old Idaho Penitentiary, other than misery. It is a stark reminder of the brutal, cruel and insanely inhumane life of a prisoner in Idaho's early prison system. And some may argue that Idaho has just reasoning for such conditions with inmates such as the State's first female serial killer to the United State's Jack the Ripper – the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho saw the worst of humanity.
Over 13,000 souls passed through The Old Idaho Penitentiary since the doors opened in 1872 and some say, not all of them left. In fact, there is so much activity within these old walls that occurrences are a daily event.
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary is now a historical landmark allowing visitor's interested in its history or for the paranormal aspect to walk where prisoners once were housed, from cell blocks to a gallows room, the tours are incredibly engaging.
The site is open seven days a week except for major state holidays and summer hours (Memorial Day to Labor Day) are 10am-5pm with the last admission at 4:15pm.
The site is self guided unless you opt to go for a free indepth tour that tells the stories and legends of the prison as well as allows access to several parts of the prison that would otherwise be locked if on a self-guided tour. The tours are about one hour in length.
Regular admission is $6 for adults (ages 13+), $4 for seniors (ages 60+) and $3 for children (ages 6-12). Children under age 6 are eligible for free admission.
The Old Idaho Penitentiary is located at 2445 Old Penitentiary Rd. in Boise, Idaho. It is conveniently located in an easily accessible part of town, right next to another Boise tourist recommended hotspot: The Idaho Botanical Garden. We will be covering the garden and much more in our Boise, Idaho Travel Guide.
The History of the Old Idaho State Penitentiary
The complex was first constructed in 1870, a full 20 years before Idaho became a state. The Territorial Prison, as it was then known, was first built as a single cell house near the city of Boise with the very walls and building built by the prisoner's themselves. The single cell house was only to be used to house about 20 individuals, but soon, they had nearly 60 individuals imprisoned and needed to expand the grounds.
In 1890, the prison was expanded and included a new cell house that housed 42 individual steel-door caged cells. However, even with this new expansion, the prison was still taking in criminals. The individual-sized cells were holding two to three individuals making for very difficult living conditions.
The cells did not have washrooms and only a honey-pot was used. Each cell had one honey-pot, or basically a bowl to urinate and defecate in. The honey-pot lay on the ground in the cell and was only cleaned out once per day, in the morning just before breakfast.
Now in the sweltering desert heat of summer, the honey-pots made the air thickly sick. In the winter, the urine and feces would freeze making the cleaning even more difficult. Often times, because the cells were so crowded, the honey-pot would be kicked over, or stepped into. Cells were only cleaned once per month.
Prisoner's sent to the Idaho Penn, knew that they would suffer through extremely hot conditions in the summer and brutally cold conditions in the winter. The cells had very little ventilation and only one radiator producing heat on the main floor by the guards on duty.
The new cell house was divided into three classes. The first floor held the more favorable prisoners, while the second held those more violent or those with longer sentences. The third was reserved for those doing life, or condemned to death. These particular cells had a clear view of the beautiful rose garden.
The rose garden also was where the large wooden gallows stood.
Without knowing this history, and it not being on the tour, many visitors wondering through this area suddenly find that they have developed a headache, or a neck-ache. They feel sudden gusts of cold wind and the feeling as if being watched. One particular witness claimed they saw an apparition of a man in striped prison clothing tending to the blooming roses. Others have seen the same man walking about and thinking he is a museum staff member dressed up, they ask to have a photo taken or to ask a question, only to find the man vanishes before their very eyes. The Warden and guards were absolute power-hungry and kept prisoner's in line by exacting beatings that left prisoner's just shy of death.
Officials looked to more ways of influencing prisoner's to behave and keep in line and in 1926 they erected a small, low brick building that prisoner's knick-named Siberia – the end of the earth, the loneliest place on earth. It was solitary confinement, an often unbearable punishment for those who crossed the guards.
Prisoner's were placed in unlit rooms with no beds that measured 3 feet by 8 feet. Prisoner would be let out once, per week, for one hour, usually for a quick shower and then placed back in, the large steel doors closing behind them. There were three meals provided each day. Breakfast was a bowl of oatmeal, lunch was a bowl of oatmeal and supper, you guest it – a bowl of oatmeal.
Inside, prisoner's usually went mad. Some prisoner's just screamed and yelled all day and night.
For those prisoner's who kept in line a multipurpose building was constructed which operated many different operations including a shirt factory, a licence plate shop, a laundry, a bakery, and a shoe factory. In the rear of the building larger showers were made for the prisoner's but these were communal and often the location of unsavoury events. In one reported incident, a prisoner was gang raped to death in the shower area.
During these early years there were a few female inmates scattered about the yard, but many became pregnant and it is not certain if the women were willing participants, or if the guards themselves were assaulting the women.
Old Idaho State Penitentiary Female Serial Killer: Lyda Southard
In 1920 a separate cell block was constructed with a separate wall just outside the main prison walls to house the females separate from the male inmates. The cell block was a lot more comfortable than the men's but that did not mean that the females were any less dangerous. In fact, one of the United State's first female serial killers was housed in the women's cell block.
In 1912 Lyda Southard, aged 21, married Robert C. Dooley and moved to a farm in Twin Falls, Idaho. Together they lived with their infant daughter and Robert's brother, Ed Dooley. In 1915, Ed mysteriously died right after taking out a life insurance policy which would be payed to Robert and Lyda. Just a few short months later, Robert died as well. A few months after that her daughter, Lorraine (only two years old), also died. Lyda collected the life insurance money of each person in her family.
Two years later, Lyda married William McHaffie and together they moved to Hardin, Montana. William as soon as he settled into his new home under similar mysterious circumstances. A year after that, Lyda married another man, Harlan Lewis, who died two months later. Lyda collected the insurance money on both husbands before leaving Montana and returning to Twin Falls, Idaho.
In Twin Falls, Lyda got a job at a cafe where she met her next husband, Ed Meyer. Ed fell extremely ill and never recovered just months after meeting his new love. His death was the one that prompted suspicion among the community. Nobody could wrap their minds around how a strong and healthy man like Ed would suddenly get sick and die. The exhumation of his body was ordered for further inspection, which ultimately led to the discovery of arsenic in his body.
The sheriff assigned to the case, Virgil Ormsby, began tracing Lyda's past whereabouts and ordered the exhumation of the other three husbands' bodies. They all contained traces of arsenic poisoning. Law enforcement immediately began their search for Lyda, who fled Twin Falls when suspicions about her began to arise.
Lyda fled to Hawaii where she met another man. But authorities caught up to her and brought her back to Boise, Idaho. Lyda's trial got national recognition and she had now gained the moniker of Lady Bluebeard. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 10 years to life in the Idaho Pen.
During her time spent in the Women's Ward at the penitentiary, she befriended a fellow prisoner named David Minton while gardening. When Minton was released from prison, he helped Lyda escape on May 4, 1931. The two made their way to Denver, Colorado before splitting up.
In Denver, Lyda married another man, Harry Whitlock, and continued to live there until she was eventually recaptured by authorities one year later. Lyda was brought back to the Idaho Pen and remained in prison until she was paroled in 1941. Once out of prison, she married yet again. This man disappeared from records but his disappearance was never proven to be linked to Lyda.
Lyda finally settled down in Salt Lake City, Utah, but died of a heart attack in the 1950s. Ironically, her body was brought back to Idaho and buried near her dead husbands, her child and the officer who arrested her.
Old Idaho State Penitentiary Convicted Murderer: Douglas Van Vlack
In the 1930s, with the prison population still exploding, the solitary confinement rooms, the ones that were just 3X8, now housed up to six prisoners. Cell house #4 became operational during this time. It was the largest of the cell houses and had large steel doors housing hundreds of prisoners. In front of cell house #4 a reminder to prisoners to keep in line lay on the ground. Huge steel doors revealed a very tiny cage below ground. Those unruly prisoners were thrown into the hole, the doors shut.
Cell House #4 is closed to the public, but it appears as if the ghostly remains of one of the prisoner's still makes it out to startle and scare visitors and museum staff alike.
In 1932, Joseph F. Hook, a well-known author of pulp fiction stories, and his wife, Edna, moved to 4312 N 37th Street with their three children: Clyde, 21, Mildred, 19, and Vincent, 18.Carl C. Van Vlack, a bottler at the Columbia Brewery, his wife, Edna, and their son, Douglas, 28, lived around the corner on the same block at 3621 N Stevens Street in Tacoma.
Mildred Hook met Douglas F. Van Vlack in the spring of 1933 while searching for the Hook family dog, “Buster.” and soon they began seeing each other. The couple was privately married in Shelton on July 28, 1933, and kept it secret for five months before telling their parents, who weren’t especially pleased.
In December 1933, they moved to an apartment at 801 North I (Eye) Street in Tacoma. But living together proved difficult from the beginning. Mildred was gregarious and Douglas was misanthropic. Mildred had a good job with the Washington Gas and Electric Company as a cashier and Douglas, sullen and argumentative, was unemployed and had difficulty holding jobs. He was drinking heavily and started to physically abuse her.
Mildred filed her first divorce action on November 29, 1934, but the couple got back together when Douglas got a steady job driving a truck for the Delicious Ice Cream Company. But he proved unreliable and irresponsible and several months later was discharged. In early 1935, he was employed by Meadowsweet Dairies as a milk-truck driver, but was soon fired for insubordination.
In September 1935, during an argument over money at the Van Vlack home, Douglas shoved Mildred down a flight of stairs and locked her out of the house. After cutting her hand on broken glass while trying to regain entrance, Mildred retreated to her parents home, bruised and bloody. The following day, she filed for divorce, charging “burdensome home life and spousal abuse,” and was granted a restraining order prohibiting Douglas from having any contact. Douglas retaliated by stealing all her clothes and jewelry from their apartment and burying them in the ground. Mildred and her attorney responded by a filing theft complaint.
Douglas was arrested on September 15, 1935, but the complaint was later dismissed on plaintiff’s motion when items were returned, even though dirt and mold had ruined Mildred’s clothes. Meanwhile, both Mildred and Douglas moved home to live with their respective parents. On October 11, 1935, Mildred obtained an interlocutory degree of divorce, and was granted the right to assume her maiden name. Mildred resumed a normal life and went to work every day, while Douglas became morose and isolated himself. He became obsessed with getting Mildred back and began stalking her and watching the Hook home for male visitors. On Sunday, October 18, Mildred went to a physician for treatment after being tied up and raped by Van Vlack.
On Thursday, November 14, Douglas forced Mildred to accompany him on an afternoon automobile ride, then bound her wrists and again physically attacked her. The following day, Mildred and her attorney went to Pierce County Deputy District Attorney Stewart Elliott to file a complaint against Douglas for criminal assault. But when she learned the penalty was 20 years in prison, she decided to drop the charge. Instead, she wanted Elliott to talk to Van Vlack and enforce the restraining order.
However, on Monday morning, November 18, Joseph F. Hook and his attorney, Idaho State Senator Wesley Lloyd, demanded Elliott charge Douglas Van Vlack with violation of the new Washington state kidnapping law. Elliott said it didn’t meet the criteria for kidnapping, since there was no request for ransom, but agreed to charge Van Vlack with abduction and assault. Sometime during the week, Van Vlack stole a .38-caliber Remington Model 51 semi-automatic pistol and shoulder holster from Morley Barnard, a casual friend, who was living at the YMCA.
Earlier Van Vlack told Barnard he planed to take Mildred to Mexico and if anyone interfered, he would kill her. Barnard didn’t realize his gun was missing until days later. At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, November 23, 1935, Mildred Hook was on her way home from work with her close friend, Doris Clark, age 20, a student nurse.
The two women had just stepped off a downtown streetcar and were walking north on Mason Avenue toward the Hook residence when Douglas Van Vlack drove his car over the sidewalk, blocking their path. He got out of the car, brandishing a pistol and smelling of liquor. The couple quarrelled for 15 minutes, then he told Mildred she had 30 seconds to get into the car or he would shoot her and commit suicide. When Clark tried to intervene, Van Vlack pointed the gun at Mildred, and shoved her, crying, into the car. Before driving away, he told Clark to tell Mildred’s father he would kill her if anyone set the police on their trail or tried to interfere in any way.
When Joseph Hook learned of his daughter’s abduction, he immediately contacted Deputy District Attorney Elliott who obtained a bench warrant for Van Vlack’s arrest. The Tacoma Police Department alerted law enforcement up and down the West Coast to be on the lookout for the couple traveling in Van Vlack’s slate-gray 1931 Ford Model A coupe bearing Washington license plates. With Mildred as hostage, Van Vlack sped down the Pacific Highway (US Highway 99) toward California and the United States-Mexican border.
At 10:45 p.m., she telephoned her uncle, Frank Michel, in Portland, Oregon, telling him she was all right but was being forcibly detained and Van Vlack had threatened to kill her if anyone notified the police. At Salem, Van Vlack headed east across central Oregon to Boise, Idaho. They had been driving for 24 hours straight and arrived in Boise about 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 24.
The couple stayed overnight in a Boise hotel and departed late Monday morning for Salt Lake City. While in Boise, a telegram was sent to Mildred’s parents, under her name, purporting she was safe and would be returning to Tacoma soon. Van Vlack also sent a telegram to his parents: “Sorry I had to do this. Everything all right. Letter follows. Douglas” But a letter never came.
At 2:00 p.m. on Monday, November 25, 1935, Idaho State Patrolman Fontaine Cooper, age 34, and Twin Falls Deputy Sheriff Henry C. Givens, age 45, spotted Van Vlack’s 1931 Ford coupe on Highway 30, a half-mile east of Buhl. The officers pulled Van Vlack over to the side of the road, then got out on foot and approached the vehicle. Cooper ordered Van Vlack to step out of the car and when he didn’t respond, opened the driver’s door. Van Vlack pulled his pistol from the left pocket of his topcoat and shot Cooper through the left eye, killing him instantly.
When Givens went for his gun, Van Vlack shot him three times: in the throat, in the left arm, shattering the bone, and through the left hand. With both officers down, Van Vlack calmly drove down the highway toward Twin Falls.
Clifford Hammond, a farmer from Buhl, was an eyewitness to the shootings. He was passing in his truck and watched the event unfold in his rear view mirror. As soon as Van Vlack left, Hammond went to the scene, found Cooper dead and Givens critically wounded. Hammond put Givens in his truck and rushed to the Twin Falls County Hospital.
Then he telephoned the news to Twin Falls County Sheriff Edwin F. Prater, who immediately ordered a countywide dragnet for Van Vlack’s automobile. Sheriff’s posses set up roadblocks on all roads and highways leading out of the county and guarded all bridges and service stations. Radio stations broadcast descriptions of the couple and asked the public for assistance in locating Van Vlack’s car. It was the biggest manhunt in south central Idaho’s history with hundreds of posse-men, armed with weapons from the Idaho National Guard armory and scores of radio-equipped cars, searching for the killer.
For the rest of the day, Van Vlack played a game of cat and mouse with sheriff’s patrols and roadblocks. He hid the car in the sagebrush on the Salmon Tract until nightfall and removed his license plates, hoping for the opportunity to steal another set off an Idaho car. Van Vlack wanted to head south into Nevada, but roadblocks on the highway forced him to stay on unmarked backroads, which seemingly led nowhere. Eventually Van Vlack, low on gasoline, ditched his car in a dry irrigation canal near the small farming community of Berger and the couple set out on foot.
The night was clear and the temperature dropped into the 20s. The couple was lightly clad, having left Tacoma with no winter clothing. Van Vlack wore a topcoat and street clothes, and Hook wore a suede coat over a woolen dress and high-heeled pumps. Mildred had gloves, but neither wore a hat. They set out on foot, walking through sagebrush, across fields and along the banks of irrigation canals to avoid being seen. They periodically took shelter inside haystacks and culverts to get out of the biting wind.
At dawn on Tuesday morning, November 26, 1935, two spotter planes left Twin Falls to assist the sheriff’s posses searching for the couple. At 8:15 a.m. a posse found Van Vlack, cold and exhausted, huddled in a roadside ditch along Highway 93 approximately two miles north of Hollister. Carl Groth, a Linotype operator for the Twin Falls Idaho Evening Times, disarmed Van Vlack, who claimed his name was Jack Burke, and held him at gun point until Sheriff Prater arrived. The prisoner was taken to Twin Falls and lodged in the jail atop the county courthouse. That afternoon, a search party found Van Vlack’s Ford coupe in a dry irrigation ditch on the Salmon Tract, a mile and a half southeast of Berger and about three miles from where he was arrested.
Although Van Vlack admitted shooting the two police officers, he insisted Mildred was uninjured and was likely making her way back to Tacoma. He told Sheriff Prater they parted company in the middle of the night because he would have a much better chance of escaping alone. But when Prater found blood and long black hairs stuck to the butt of Van Vlack’s pistol, he worried Hook had been bludgeoned on the head and was lying unconscious somewhere in the freezing cold.
On Wednesday, November 27, Twin Falls District Attorney Edward C. Babcock filed a complaint against Van Vlack in probate court before Judge Guy L. Kinney. Van Vlack, who appeared without counsel, waived a preliminary hearing and was bound over for trial. Judge Kinney ordered him to be held without bond in the county jail until the next term of district court, scheduled for January 1937.
Scores of volunteers, led by Twin Falls Police Chief Samuel B. Elrod, renewed their efforts to find the missing victim. Search parties picked up the couple’s tracks at the site of Van Vlack’s abandoned car and slowly and methodically began following the footprints. One set led to the top of an irrigation canal, then seemed to disappear.
On Thursday, November 28, 1935, in the off-chance that Hook had drowned, water was shut off in the Twin Falls Canal Company irrigation system, allowing 12 hours to search the tract canals for Hook’s body.
Chief Elrod and his search team discovered two sets of footprints leading to the Union Pacific Railway tracks and followed. Finally, at 8:45 a.m. on Friday morning, November 29, they found the frozen body of Mildred Hook lodged in a 16-inch galvanized steel culvert underneath the track bed, approximately one-and-a-quarter miles northwest of Berger. The ends of the culvert had been plugged with sagebrush to hide the body. Mildred Hook appeared to have died from a massive head wound and when Chief Elrod removed the body, he found a bullet inside the culvert and an empty .380-caliber cartridge casing on the ground nearby. A single set of male footprints led away from the culvert, down the railroad tracks toward Hollister.
Twin Falls County Coroner Harwood L. Stowe was called to the scene of the murder and ordered that Mildred Hook’s body be taken immediately to the White Mortuary in Twin Falls for an autopsy. At the coroner’s inquest, held on Saturday morning, the jury determined that Hook’s death was caused by Douglas Van Vlack, who fractured her skull with a blow to the head and shot her through the left eye. After the inquest, Clyde and Vincent Hook, Mildred’s brothers, arranged to ship her body by train to Tacoma for burial.
The body of Idaho Patrolman Fontaine Cooper lay in state for two days at the White Mortuary in Twin Falls, then was taken to his home town of Lava Hot Springs, Idaho, for burial in the community cemetery. A poignant funeral service was held on Friday afternoon, November 29, attended by Idaho Governor Charles Ben Ross and scores of police officers from Idaho and the surrounding states. He had been an Idaho patrolman for 12 years, and left behind a wife and one child.
Meanwhile, Van Vlack seemed to be willing to admit his crimes to whomever would listen. On the day of his capture, he gave Prosecutor Babcock a 17-page statement, confessing to shooting the two police officers, but refused to sign it. He said “Kidnapping is a capitol offense in Washington and I thought I might as well burn them up” Van Vlack steadfastly denied harming his ex-wife until Sheriff Prater confronted him with photographs of her body.
Then he admitted shooting her.
Van Vlack also confessed to Buhl Police Chief Arthur C. Parker, and gave a two-hour interview to Associated Press reporter Walter A. Beasley, during which he admitted hitting Mildred on the head and shooting her as she emerged from the culvert. He claimed his motive was revenge against the Hook family for breaking up his marriage. “If Mildred’s father had kept his nose out of our affairs, all this would not have happened,” he declared. Joseph Hook, however, believed that Mildred knew too much and, in addition to witnessing Cooper’s murder, could link him to other crimes in the Tacoma area.
The funeral for Mildred Hook was held at the Buckley-King Funeral Church, 201 S Tacoma Avenue, on Tuesday afternoon, December 2, 1936. The elaborate service, conducted by the Order of the Eastern Star, a large fraternal organization, was attended by family and hundreds of friends, after which her body was entombed in a crypt at the Tacoma Mausoleum.
Although Henry Givens appeared to be slowly recovering, his throat wound became infected and he developed pneumonia. He died at the Twin Falls County Hospital at 9:25 p.m. on Sunday, December 8, leaving behind a wife and six children. Givens had been a Twin Falls deputy sheriff for three years.
On Tuesday, December 10, District Attorney Babcock filed an information in Idaho District Court, charging Van Vlack with first-degree murder, but only in the death of Fontaine Cooper. The prosecution needed only prove one premeditated death to qualify the defendant for the death penalty.
Babcock decided to hold the additional murder charges in abeyance, pending the outcome of the first trial, then file if necessary.
The funeral for Henry C. Givens was held on Wednesday afternoon, December 11, in the First Presbyterian Church and he was buried in the Twin Falls Cemetery. The service, conducted by six ministers of the Church of the Nazarene, was attended by hundreds of police officers and friends.
Van Vlack pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Idaho District Court on Monday, December 16. He was represented by Embert V. Larson, a former Twin Fall District Attorney, and Leo Teats, an attorney from Tacoma. Judge Adam B. Barclay set the trial date for Monday, January 20, 1936, and ordered Van Vlack held without bail in the Twin Falls County Jail.
On Wednesday, January 15, the charge against Van Vlack for the premeditated murder of Fontaine Cooper was dismissed on motion of the prosecution and replaced with the premeditated murder of Mildred Hook. Van Vlack maintained his plea of not guilty. Trial began on schedule in the Twin Falls County Courthouse before Judge Barclay but was slowed by jury selection. In addition to District Attorney Babcock, the prosecution team now included Idaho Attorney General Bert H. Miller and his senior assistant, J. W. Taylor. Questioning of the prospective jurors revolved around their impressions of the crime gained from the news media and their views about an insanity defense and the death penalty. After four days of questioning, a jury of 14 men, including two alternates, was selected.
Opening statements and testimony commenced on Friday morning, January 24, 1936. The prosecution stated simply that the defendant killed his ex-wife for reasons of jealousy and revenge. He had declared his murderous intentions to Joseph Hook and others, stolen a firearm for the purpose, killed Mildred and then confessed his crime to several witnesses.
The defense maintained that Van Vlack had been temporarily insane when he killed Mildred Hook. He had borrowed the gun to protect a large amount of money he was carrying on his person, had abducted Mildred to save his marriage, had only meant to wound the two Idaho police officers, claimed she was alive when they parted company, and had no memory of her death.
The trial testimony lasted two weeks. The prosecution rested its case after three days of direct testimony. The defense called Carl and Edna Van Vlack and Mrs. Ethel Bennett, Edna’s sister, who testified about the family’s alleged history of hereditary insanity and Douglas’s troubled childhood. Douglas Van Vlack took the stand and laid all the blame for the murders on Joseph Hook, who hated him because he was not good enough for his daughter, turned Mildred against him, and wrecked his marriage. He also claimed his confessions had been fabricated by the police. Three expert witnesses, one psychiatrist and two medical doctors with psychiatric training, testified that Douglas suffered from manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). He had been temporarily insane at the time of the killing and therefore was not responsible for his actions.
Closing arguments began on Thursday afternoon, February 6. Idaho Attorney General Miller addressed the jury for four hours, outlining the state’s evidence and concluding with a request for a first-degree murder verdict and the death penalty. The defense argued that a series of events, caused mostly by Joseph Hook, combined to unbalance Van Vlack, making him incapable of premeditated murder. Further, the state’s evidence against the defendant for the murdering of Mildred Hook was weak and circumstantial, and his alleged confessions contrived. The trial concluded on Friday night, February 7, and the case went to the jury. At 2:20 p.m. the following day, Judge Barclay reconvened the court and the jury delivered its verdict. Van Vlack was found guilty of first-degree murder and the jury voted to impose the death penalty. Although sequestered for 17 hours, the jury had deliberated for seven hours and 30 minutes.
On Tuesday afternoon, February 11, Judge Barclay sentenced Van Vlack “to be hanged by the neck until dead,” set the execution date for Saturday, April 3, 1936, at the Idaho State Penitentiary in Boise and signed the commitment order. On Friday, February 14, Sheriff Prater, accompanied by three deputies, shackled Van Vlack and loaded him into the back seat of a patrol car for the two-and-a-half hour trip from Twin Falls to Boise. Although it would prove be his last ride, Van Vlack appeared happy. It was the first time he had been out of the county courthouse in three months.
Van Vlack’s execution date was stayed on March 12, when his attorneys filed notice of intention to appeal the conviction to the Idaho State Supreme Court. His case was argued before the tribunal on November 9 and Van Vlack appeared before the justices asking that his death sentence be commuted to life imprisonment.
On December 10, the supreme court upheld his conviction in district court and, on February 9, 1937, affirmed the sentence of death. Van Vlack’s attorneys made two more appeals to the state supreme court for a commutation of his death sentence, but the petitions were denied. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case. On October 29, Twin Falls District Court Judge James Porter scheduled Van Vlack’s hanging for December 10, 1937. In a last-ditch effort, Van Vlack’s chief counsel, Robert Ailshie Jr., appealed his death sentence to the Idaho board of pardons. A commutation hearing was held on Monday, December 6 to consider documents submitted by Ailshie alleging jury prejudice and misconduct, and affidavits from a psychiatrist stating Van Vlack was hopelessly and incurably insane. The pardons board turned down Van Vlack’s commutation appeal by a vote of two to one and Idaho Governor Barzilla W. Clark chose not to interfere with the execution.
Meanwhile, a gallows was constructed in the elevator shaft of the former shirt factory, which operated between 1923 and 1933, at the Idaho State Penitentiary. The previous person to die on the gallows was John Jerko, on July 9, 1926, who was also convicted of murder in Twin Falls. This time, instead of a state executioner, the trapdoor would be sprung electronically by one of four red buttons pushed by Warden William H. Gess and three prison officials. The warden scheduled the execution for 12:10 a.m. on Friday morning so that “things could be cleared up before the inmates at the institution awoke the next morning” (Boise Capital News). At 6:30 p.m. on Thursday, December 9, Reverend Frank A. Rhea, from Saint Marks Episcopal Church in Boise, visited Van Vlack in his cell to administer the last sacraments. A short time later, his parents, Carl and Edna Van Vlack, arrived to visit Douglas at the open door of his cell, under the watchful eye of prison guard Al Baker.
At 7:12 p.m., as the Van Vlacks left the cell block, Douglas broke away from Baker, jumped onto a nearby table and scrambled up three tiers of cells into the rafters. He walked on a beam to the opposite side of the cell block, then stayed there, looking at the concrete floor some 30 feet below. Warden Gess ordered him to come down, then sent guards to fetch a fire net. Prison chaplain Reverend Arvid C. Ohrnell and attorney Ailshie begged Van Vlack to come down, but he did not respond.
At 7:42 p.m., just as the guards returned with a fire net, Van Vlack shouted “I have a right to choose the way I die” (Boise Capital News). Then he plunged forward and hit the floor on his head and left shoulder. Dr. George H. Wahle, the prison physician, determined Van Vlack was still alive, rolled him onto a mattress and covered him with a blanket.
There was some discussion whether Van Vlack should be hanged if he was still alive at execution time. When Dr. Wahle determined the prisoner’s death was only a matter of time, Warden Gess called off the execution.
Van Vlack was pronounced dead at 12:32 a.m., Friday, December 10, having never regained consciousness. “Death was caused by a broken neck, possibly a fractured skull, internal hemorrhages and other injuries,” Dr. Wahle said (Tacoma New Tribune). At 1:30 a.m., an ambulance took Van Vlack’s body to the McBratney Funeral Parlors where Ada County Corner James T. McCann discovered the broken half of a razor blade concealed under his upper lip; the other half was found in his cell.
Prison officials surmised he was determined to commit suicide one way or another, but had no idea where the pieces of razor blade came from. Later that morning Van Vlack’s parents made arrangements to ship Douglas’s body by train to Tacoma for burial.
On Saturday December 11, the state prison board convened to open an official investigation into the suicide. Idaho Attorney General J. W. Taylor said the suicide was either colossal stupidity or collusion on the part of the warden and state prison officials. Governor Clark said: “Van Vlack is dead. I presume we should let him remain dead. The affair is closed as far as I’m concerned” (Boise Capital News).
But after a week-long political battle with the prison board, Warden Gess was discharged for incompetence. Sheriff Prater was offered the position but declined for financial reasons. Gess was replaced in early February 1938 by Pearl C. Meredith, a real-estate developer from Buel, Idaho.
Several visitors and museum staff believe they have felt the presence of Van Vlack from sudden drops in temperatures, hearing his voice call out, being touched by a ghostly hand or seeing his spirit manifest on the roof of cell block #4 and grounds alike.
The Haunting of Cell Block #5 and The Ghost of Raymond Snowden
In the 1940s and 1950s the Idaho Penitentiary again was suffering from overcrowding and a new cell house was constructed. Cell Block #5 held the worst of the worst with maximum security cells, a death row, its very own indoor gallows and drop house. This housing unit is rumoured to be the most haunted of all the buildings on the property, even though, only one official hanging took place within. It was also that last State sanctioned execution in Idaho taking the life of Prisoner # 9509 Raymond Allen Snowden in the most unethical way.
On the evening of September 23rd, 1956 Cora Lucille Dean drove to the Hi-Ho Club in Garden City, where she intended to have a few drinks and play the slot machines. Here she met a young man named Raymond Snowden who she found no only attractive, but fun to be around. When the two had a few drinks, Snowden wanted to take things a bit further and pressured Cora. When his advances were denied he threatened Cora in a frightening manner asking her to choose between rape and death.
Cora obviously taken aback chose neither and that made Snowden angry who produced a pocket knife and stabbed Cora 29 times. The body, which was found the next morning by a paper boy, was viciously and sadistically cut and mutilated.
An autopsy surgeon testified the voice box had been cut, and that this would have prevented the victim from making any intelligible outcry. There were other wounds inflicted while she was still alive — one in her neck, one in her abdomen, two in the face, and two on the back of the neck. The second neck wound severed the spinal cord and caused death. There were other wounds all over her body, and her clothing had been cut away. The nipple of the right breast was missing. There was no evidence of a sexual attack on the victim; however, some of the lacerations were around the breasts and vagina of the deceased. Snowden took the dead woman's wallet hailed a passing motorist and rode back to Boise.
There he went to a bowling alley and changed clothes. He dropped his knife into a sewer at a Cigar Shop and threw the wallet away. Then he went to his hotel and cleaned up again. He put the clothes he had worn that evening into a trash barrel outside the hotel. Police narrowed in on Snowden almost immediately as eye-witnesses pointed out that Snowden had left with Cora that evening from the Hi-Ho Club. Police also, remember Snowden from a previous encounter as to which he boasted he was going to sever the spinal cord of his then girlfriend because she was irritating him.
They found the weapon, the same one they remember him previously threatening with, still covered in blood in a sewer grate near Hannifin's Cigar Shop. Another eye-witness placed Snowden there and that was enough for an arrest to be made. During the trial it was brought to the attention of the media that Snowden had boasted of two other murders, but they were never confirmed. A detective magazine at the time dubbed Snowden, "Idaho's Jack the Ripper" in view of the viciousness of the crime.
Snowden was found guilty and sentenced to death. He took up residence in Death Row with his door in view of the indoor gallows to which he would make his way to on October 18th, 1957.
At 12:05 he was brought into the gallows room and met with the Chaplain. The noose was placed around his neck and the witnesses in the viewing room got their first look at Snowden. The door sprung just 45 seconds later.
Down went Snowden and the crowd gasped. It seems the Warden and those responsible for carrying out the deed did not measure Snowden's height or weight, and s such the counter-weight was not calculated correctly. Snowden fell, but he did not break his neck instantly. Instead, in the catch room, he struggled and swung about for 15 minutes until he finally died. Some say it was an oversight, while others believed the authorities did this on purpose to make Snowden's death one of suffering.
Snowden's hanging was the last of a total of ten men to occur at the prison and his body was buried in an unmarked grave on prison property. Some believe that Snowden haunts his Cell, Cell Block #5 and the hanging room. But Snowden may not be the only soul still doing time at the Pen. There are a total of 129 recorded deaths within the walls.
The Old Idaho State Penitentiary Riots & Finals Days
Due to overcrowding and the treatment of prisoners serious riots occurred in 1952 and again in 1971. The 1973 riots proved to be the end of the Old Idaho Penitentiary as riots burned down several buildings and damaged others beyond repair. The 416 resident inmates were moved to the new Idaho State Correctional Institution south of Boise and the Old Idaho Penitentiary was closed on December 3, 1973, never to see another living soul imprisoned behind its stone walls.
If you are interested in the Old Idaho State Penitentiary you can visit them daily where tours are conducted by volunteer staff. Special events around Halloween turn the prison into one ghoulish haunted attraction. More recently, the Pen has been giving Paranormal Investigation Tours.
Special thanks to all those volunteering to keep such a historic gem alive. Thank you to the Idaho State Historical Society for their excellent resources and dedication. We will leave you now with the words and memories of prisoners and staff from the Old Idaho State Penitentiary.
Until Next Time.....Be good.
Here are some excellent Hotel choices when visiting The Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho:
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