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Famous Missouri State Penitentiary Inmates

Check out the prison personas who Mark Schreiber says have left an impression within the Missouri State Penitentiary’s walls.

April 22, 2010 | 12:00 a.m. CST

Hot shot

John B. “Firebug” Johnson had quite a reputation. In the 1880s, guards constantly caught Johnson trying to cause an uproar. After being found hiding in a trash pile with an escape kit of ropes and knives, Johnson set the prison ablaze in 1890 and caused $550,000 in damages. He was incarcerated from 1882-1894. Although he never escaped (he was sent to the dungeon-like high security cells for four years), he penned a booklet — talk about a hot read.

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Modern-Day magician

A five-time convict, incarcerated in 1899 and remembered only as “Shoo-Fly,” always bragged, saying he’d steal anything “not securely nailed down.” Guards would often bet against his prowess. He stole a spool of silk thread from them. The guards were impressed.

Diggin’ up those holes

Schreiber says heaps of inmates tried to break out over the prison walls, but only a handful tried to get under. Known only by his last name, Patrick, one ingenious inmate tried digging a tunnel and covering the entrance with a piece of plywood. It took a month, but he actually dug through — and he got to see the warden waiting for him on the other side.

A success story

There’s no doubt you’ve heard of boxing champion Charles “Sonny” Liston. Before he acquired that right hook, which he actually learned in prison, he was wreaking havoc on the streets of St. Louis — robbing local stores with a group of accomplices. He was incarcerated in 1950. After parole, the only guns he had were those massive arms and fists. His fists were the largest in heavyweight history, at 15 inches across. He went on to win the National Heavyweight Championship in 1953.

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