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(Photo courtesy of Yuma Territorial Prison Museum)
(Photo courtesy of Yuma Territorial Prison Museum)

Jailhouse rock in the Old West

I’m a three-time loser in Boise, Idaho. Hey, maybe I should make a song out of that!

Ah’m a three-time loser in Boise,
Ah cain’t stay outa that jail,
Ah’m a three-time loser in Boise,
And ah cain’t come up with bail.”

Top 10, right? What’s that you say? Don’t quit your day job. OK, but I have done time there, three times in fact. In the historic Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise that is – once with the family and twice more on my own.

I don’t know what it is that keeps dragging me back. Some kind of morbid attraction I suppose, but I like to think it’s an appreciation for history.

Same thing happens in Yuma. We’re looking forward to another run to Yuma this spring to visit friends. I keep going back to the Yuma Territorial Prison — twice now, once with the family, once by myself and no doubt this time on my own.

Why on my own? As my wife so delicately puts it, “We’re tired of looking at old jails!” The best time to do Yuma, by the way, is the end of May. More about that in a minute.

Those crumbling old walls, dank cells and rusting bars have a strange hold on me but, as long as they let me leave whenever I want – hey, no problem! But, seriously, I see these as special places which represent a never-to-be-seen-again slice of American history.

The 19th century was a cruel time in the West and these were cruel places, which by today’s standards, would be regarded as primitive and the treatment of the inmates as inhumane. But, it was the best we could do at the time and under the circumstances.

These relics tell a century old story yet, when standing in the midst of these old buildings, it sometimes feels as if it all happened yesterday. One visit for me is just not enough to absorb all the ghastly and ghostly history these places have to reveal.

Considered by many the most haunted place in the state of Idaho, The Old Idaho Penitentiary, in use from 1872 until 1973, may have been best known for two of its star inmates — Lyda Southard and Harry Orchard.

Lyda, also known as Idaho’s Lady Bluebeard, killed several husbands for the insurance money and Harry assassinated former Governor Frank Steunenburg in 1905. Obviously they were our headliners of the day.

Part of the National Historic Landmark today, legendary Yuma Territorial Prison was in use as a prison for just 33 years starting in 1876. Yet, in its time held, it the Southwest’s most hardened criminals.

Over time, a total of 3,069 prisoners, including 29 women, lived at the prison for crimes ranging from murder to polygamy. If you go there, be sure to book a night in “The Dark Cell.” Some say they’ve heard screams coming from there at odd hours of the night.

I could go on and tell you about other interesting jails where I’ve served time more than once, such as the famous “two-tiered” jail at Virginia City, Nev., which is home of the Comstock Lode, but I’ll save that for another time.

If any of this piques your interest and you want to know more, there are tons of facts and loads of fun stuff online about these and other prisons around the country, including visiting hours.

Oh, about Yuma. Yuma is a delightful city. I especially like “old” Yuma where I found a super restaurant called Copper Miner Kitchen at East 1st and South Gila Streets. I made everybody go back there three times. It probably has something to do with the old railroad car that makes up part of the building. I’m really into old trains.

Anyway, we’ve been to Yuma twice and we’re planning another visit this spring. Our first trip there was okay, but our timing was off and spaces were hard to find. Luckily our friends had space for our rig.

Last time, at the end of May, perfect! Weather could not have been better. Plus plenty of space in all the parks and everywhere else, and just a few miles from the border.

For more information about the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum, visit www.yumaprison.org.

About Robert Sears

Robert Sears is a professional driving instructor who once owned a company that trained more than 70,000 people to drive. Today he is an author working on several non-fiction books and writing traffic safety articles for consumer and special interest publications. He is a 30-year motorhome owner who has logged several hundred thousand miles of RV driving experience.

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