Museum of Colorado Prisons

Posted by amber in Denver Ghost Tours
Museum of Colorado Prisons - Photo

The Museum of Colorado Prisons was initially known as the Colorado State Women’s Prison when it first opened its doors (and cells) in 1935. The specialty museum was unveiled in 1982 as part of the Colorado Women’s Prison, which replaced the original Colorado Territorial Penitentiary.


The Colorado Territorial Penitentiary’s History


On June 22nd, 1867, Congress approved the Territory of Colorado’s request of $40,000 to construct a penitentiary in the state. The three-story building was well known for not having any walls, as inmates were instructed to return to the facility at a certain hour or risk getting locked out. The location was left to the discretion of the Colorado Territory’s governing bodies. On January 13th, 1871, the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary was opened. Almost 100 years later the women’s prison was built right down the street. It was built on twenty-five acres off of Main and First Streets in Canon City, Colorado. The three-story building consisted of fifty cells, offices, a dining hall, and a kitchen. Media of the time praised the penitentiary, stating that ‘it is now one of the attractions of the place, I consider it one of the most perfect and convenient buildings of the kind ever constructed.’ U.S. Marshall of Colorado Territory Mark Shaffenburg was chosen to oversee the large project with Albert Walters, an army officer at Fort Garland, who was selected to be chief officer and serve as the head of the penitentiary.



The first prisoner to be held within its walls was a man named John Shelper, who was convicted of larceny. A Canon City Times article from July of 1872 includes a comprehensive list of inmates held at the penitentiary and what crime they committed to end up there. Crimes of the inmates held at the prison ranged from mail theft to rape and manslaughter. In March of 1873, the penitentiary saw its first female inmate who was there to serve a three-year term for manslaughter.


The prison population boomed, and overcrowding became an issue in 1873 when the administration was called into question by the public on how things were being managed. A full investigation was conducted and unsurprisingly revealed cruelty and severe punishments. Beatings with broomsticks were all too common, prisoners were being tied up to walls, and shackles mixed with solitary confinement were reported as well. Claims regarding unsafe food and starvation were also filed by inmates, as well as reports of indentured servitude and inmates not being paid for their inmate labor jobs.


After the investigation, it was found that there was no wrongdoing by the staff at the prison. Newspaper articles from the early 1870s reported extreme safety breaches at the prison, which included escaped inmates, as well as rogue wild boars that wandered onto the property. There were several reports that inmates would often leave the grounds at night, raid local chicken coops, and return to their cells by morning. The public yet again pushed for a more secure penitentiary, and to appease the masses, construction began to secure the facility. A large stone wall measuring twenty feet high and four feet thick was completed in 1875 using materials found right on the prison grounds.


As of 1876, the Territory of Colorado was admitted to the Union as a state. At the time, the penitentiary employed six guards, four dayshift, and two nightshift, each being paid $25 a month. As Colorado grew, so did the demand for more room to house more prisoners. In 1881 a second cell house was added, with another added in 1899, just eight years later. Life wasn’t terrible at the penitentiary at the time, with plenty of work and even a prison band that had weekly concerts. Manufacturing jobs involving shaping large sandstone blocks, a tailor shop, and a stone quarry were also built on the grounds. Soon the Canon City Ditch company and state officials allowed prisoners to leave the penitentiary to go to work for 30 cents per day. That did not last long, as concerned taxpayers didn’t like the idea of prisoners roaming free, and a bill passed in 1883 to keep prison labor inside the stone walls of the penitentiary. With an extremely long and detailed history, it’s no wonder the grounds have several resident spirits and paranormal activity that is reported almost daily.


Hauntings at The Museum of Colorado Prisons


Now, it’s not the Colorado Territorial Penitentiary in itself that is haunted, but the 1935 former women’s prison that is built adjacent. Now home to the Museum of Colorado Prisons at 201 N. First Street, It has always had some sort of paranormal activity that not only involves former female inmates but male inmates who come across from the Territorial Prison next door. It’s been a half-century since any inmates were held at the women’s prison, but their disembodied voices and apparitions linger on.


The pursuit of these paranormal prisoners has grown very popular, and for thirty years, the museum has been home to some historical artifacts, such as a noose and a former gas chamber for all visitors to see. One of the Territorial Prison staff members states that she believes spirits have some sort of attachment to the artifacts in the museum that affected (or ended) their lives, and that is why their energies hang on to them.



One inmate who was hanged with the noose that is displayed within the museum is alleged to be a frequent visitor. His nickname is Shortly, and he can be heard speaking by patrons of the museum. Another man named Walter has also spoken to guests, and he even told one staff member that he ‘killed three kids.’ With a bit of research, Walter was an inmate of the Territorial Prison who was sentenced to death in the gas chamber for the murder of a six-year-old.


The spirits in the museum are not only extremely vocal but physical as well. Visitors report their hair being pulled, them being pushed, and even grabbed. There have been instances of motion lights being activated inside of locked rooms, which did not light up at all when checked later on.


An apparition of a woman is often seen standing in the same spot as the women’s prison kitchen, and upstairs, chairs are moved around independently.


One instance of the hauntings is truly disturbing. A staff member was outside when she spotted a man in a red shirt and tan pants. Later on, she asked a fellow employee who was looking up at a tree what he was staring at. He said that he saw a man in a red shirt and tan pants, standing up in the limbs, high in the tree.


Muddy bare footprints and shoe impressions are also reported by janitorial staff. The hauntings here aren’t new. The late Warden Wayne K. Patterson, in his book ‘Keeper of the Keys,’ stated that he used to have to calm inmates down who were complaining about a woman crying all night in cell 18 when the women’s prison was still in use. The problem was that cell 18 was unoccupied at the time of the complaints.


It seems as if the two buildings together mesh to become a haven for the prisoner’s spirits who still reside here. Male and female inmates gathered as one group, haunting the places they were forced to call home.


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