Old Idaho Penitentiary

Location: 2445 Old Penitentiary Road, Boise
Phone: (208) 334-2844
Named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1974, Boise’s Old Idaho Penitentiary is just one of four territorial prisons still standing as a reminder of America’s heritage. The penitentiary opened as a single cellhouse in 1870, but prisoners were soon put to work hand cutting and constructing the sandstone buildings and towering walls now comprising the historical institution. Despite no internal plumbing, the complex was used until December 3, 1973 and housed more than 13,000 prisoners during its operation. After numerous inmate uprisings against the archaic conditions, government officials finally approved construction of a new facility with the old penitentiary remaining as a historical site.

Today, the ominous facility is a captivating museum. Visitors will learn about some of Idaho’s most notorious inmates, including Harry Orchard, convicted of killing the governor in 1905, as well as Lady Bluebeard, who was found guilty of poisoning her fourth husband for insurance money and suspected of involvement with her previous husbands’ mysterious deaths. Lady Bluebeard actually escaped the prison and had married her fifth husband by the time officials arrested her and brought her back to the prison. Along with such notable stories, the self-guided walking tour also explores daily prison life, the women’s ward that housed 215 women during its lifespan, solitary confinement, Death Row, and a rose garden that served as the site for the prison’s gallows and the state’s only hanging (in 1957). The tour takes approximately 90 minutes and features a museum displaying prisoners’ contraband weapons and photos of several inmates’ self-designed tattoos.

On-site and included with admission to the Old Penitentiary is an electricity museum featuring hands-on exhibits and a few old electrical appliances. The Idaho Transportation Museum displays the vast array of transportation modes people have used throughout the growth and development of the state. Numerous early model vehicles are displayed, as well as some horse-drawn carriages. The site is open 10 AM to 5 PM daily from Memorial Day to Labor Day and 12 PM to 5 PM daily during fall, winter, and spring. Admission is $5 for adults, $4 for seniors, $3 for children ages 6-12, and free to those under 6. Discounted admission is available to groups of ten or more.

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