In the Wake of a Riot

Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City

Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City

The story of the disastrous 1954 riot that leveled much of the Missouri State Penitentiary and left four convicts dead and 30 wounded.  One of the dead inmates was a police informant, and seven men were convicted of that murder - after claiming to have been tortured.  One legendary St. Louis defense attorney fought for 29 years at his own expense because he believed his client to be innocent.

by J. J. Maloney

On Sept. 22, l954, Donald DeLapp was a 19-year-old convict at the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City serving a four-year sentence for armed robbery. He was in solitary confinement on the third floor of E Hall, a dreary old cellblock originally constructed in l889.

The convicts had been through a brutally hot summer - farmers in Missouri still talk of the "drought of '54". Rats and other vermin crawled around the solitary unit. An occasional snake crawled up through the piping and dropped into the shower.

The convicts slept on straw tick mattresses which, as they aged, exuded a fine, powdery dust that hung in the aching heat, causing convicts to lay motionless on their bunks to avoid stirring up more dust. The sweat dripping from their bodies caused rivulets of mud.

The food, never good, reached a new low that day when rotten watermelon was served. DeLapp, the kind of guy who would later break his hands punching cement walls when frustrated, went off: "I broke the water pipe off my sink," DeLapp later said.

"When they came up to fix it I broke out and turned Hoover (William Hoover, 23) loose. One guard hit me over the head with a club, but I was just interested in getting the keys, and I ran down to the end to keep another guard from throwing the lever box" (which would lock all the doors remotely and keep the keys from working).

The convicts on E 3 were turned loose, then they captured the other two floors in the building, which allowed them into the prison proper.

The riot exploded like a bundle of gas soaked rags.

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