Western History & Genealogy Blog
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Our collection includes some 340 photographs taken at the Colorado State Penitentiary in Cañon City, Colorado - and talk about "double takes," the human drama imparted by these images is at times quite arresting, pun intended. Staring intensely into the camera, prison inmates communicate their resentful submission to their fate as convicts, or barely contained fury at being caught after attempted escapes.
Built in 1868 before Colorado was a state, Colorado Territorial Correctional Facility - known as "Old Max" - received its first prisoner in 1871,and has housed such famous criminals as Alferd Packer, Colorado's cannibal, and later, Ted Kazynski - "The Unibomber."
Convicts in prison stripes and shackles walk in lock step, epitomizing the concept of "chain gang." Dramatic lighting illuminates unforgiving steel and concrete cell blocks, and handlebar moustaches hearken to days of long ago, when discipline included corporal punishment on the "Old Gray Mare."
Collapsed, burned roofs and blood on the floor give silent testimony to the 1929 riot, which took the lives of eight guards and six prisoners. Convicts mill in the yard during a lockdown, and the prison psychiatrist bristles with tension in his position as confessor to the unwilling tenants of his domain.
We see a man being strapped into the gas chamber, in a glowing public relations demonstration of the equipment, used for the last time in 1967. Emotion fills the face of a man with a visitor, and a woman kisses her pet bird by the bars of her cell.
Among the photos from the Prison in the database, many are more disturbing than those shown here, and as a group they tell all kinds of stories about the inmates and the keepers in Colorado's famous "Old Max."
Cañon City's prison is featured in numerous movies and books, and we even have photos of prisoners watching a sneak preview of a romanticised interpretation of their own lives.
Victoria R. Newman's excellent 2008 book "Prisons of Cañon City" is richly illustrated with photographs, many of which are also in our collection, as well as numerous previously unpublished images drawn from the Museum of Colorado Prisons collection.
Silver Dollar Tabor's 1911 "Star of Blood" also features Cañon City's prison, in its fictionalized [some would say "sensationalized"] biography of convict Allen Hence Downan. This gem in our collection merited its own blog entry, several months ago.
The Library's collection includes all kinds of materials, books, and photographs that can provide a deeper look into this fascinating corner of Colorado History.
"That leaves only me to blame, 'cause Mama tried..."