Unsolved Mysteries of the World
The Haunted Old Idaho State Penitentiary Part One
Welcome to Unsolved Mysteries of the World Season Six, Episode 13, The Haunted Old Idaho Penitentiary
This is a Three Part Episode with bonus material added for those interested in taking a deep dive into one of the most active haunted prisons in the world.
There is no other word to describe The Old Idaho Penitentiary, other than misery. It is a stark reminder of the brutal, cruel and insanely inhumane life of a prisoner in Idaho's early prison system. And some may argue that Idaho has just reasoning for such conditions with inmates such as the State's first female serial killer to the United State's Jack the Ripper – the Old Idaho Penitentiary in Boise, Idaho saw the worst of humanity.
Over 13,000 souls passed through The Old Idaho Penitentiary since the doors opened in 1872 and some say, not all of them left. In fact, there is so much activity within these old walls that occurrences are a daily event.
The complex was first constructed in 1870, a full 20 years before Idaho became a state. The Territorial Prison, as it was then known, was first built as a single cell house near the city of Boise with the very walls and building built by the prisoner's themselves. The single cell house was only to be used to house about 20 individuals, but soon, they had nearly 60 individuals imprisoned and needed to expand the grounds.
In 1890, the prison was expanded and included a new cell house that housed 42 individual steel-door caged cells. However, even with this new expansion, the prison was still taking in criminals. The individual-sized cells were holding two to three individuals making for very difficult living conditions.
The cells did not have washrooms and only a honey-pot was used. Each cell had one honey-pot, or basically a bowl to urinate and defecate in. The honey-pot lay on the ground in the cell and was only cleaned out once per day, in the morning just before breakfast.
Now in the sweltering desert heat of summer, the honey-pots made the air thickly sick. In the winter, the urine and feces would freeze making the cleaning even more difficult. Often times, because the cells were so crowded, the honey-pot would be kicked over, or stepped into. Cells were only cleaned once per month.
Prisoner's sent to the Idaho Penn, knew that they would suffer through extremely hot conditions in the summer and brutally cold conditions in the winter. The cells had very little ventilation and only one radiator producing heat on the main floor by the guards on duty.
The new cell house was divided into three classes. The first floor held the more favorable prisoners, while the second held those more violent or those with longer sentences. The third was reserved for those doing life, or condemned to death. These particular cells had a clear view of the beautiful rose garden.
The rose garden also was where the large wooden gallows stood.
Without knowing this history, and it not being on the tour, many visitors wondering through this area suddenly find that they have developed a headache, or a neckache. They feel sudden gusts of cold wind and the feeling as if being watched. One particular witness claimed they saw an apparition of a man in striped prison clothing tending to the blooming roses. Others have seen the same man walking about and thinking he is a museum staff member dressed up, they ask to have a photo taken or to ask a question, only to find the man vanishes before their very eyes.
The Warden and guards were absolute power-hungry and kept prisoner's in line by exacting beatings that left prisoner's just shy of death.
Officials looked to more ways of influencing prisoner's to behave and keep in line and in 1926 they erected a small, low brick building that prisoner's knick-named Siberia – the end of the earth, the loneliest place on earth. It was solitary confinement, an often unbearable punishment for those who crossed the guards.
Prisoner's were placed in unlit rooms with no beds that measured 3 feet by 8 feet. Prisoner would be let out once, per week, for one hour, usually for a quick shower and then placed back in, the large steel doors closing behind them. There were three meals provided each day. Breakfast was a bowl of oatmeal, lunch was a bowl of oatmeal and supper, you guest it – a bowl of oatmeal.
Inside, prisoner's usually went mad. Some prisoner's just screamed and yelled all day and night.
For those prisoner's who kept in line a multipurpose building was constructed which operated many different operations including a shirt factory, a licence plate shop, a laundry, a bakery, and a shoe factory. In the rear of the building larger showers were made for the prisoner's but these were communal and often the location of unsavoury events. In one reported incident, a prisoner was gang raped to death in the shower area.
During these early years there were a few female inmates scattered about the yard, but many became pregnant and it is not certain if the women were willing participants, raped by the male inamtes or if the guards themselves were assaulting the women.
In 1920 a separate cell block was constructed with a separate wall just outside the main prison walls to house the females separate from the male inmates. The cell block was a lot more comfortable than the men's but that did not mean that the females were any less dangerous. In fact, one of the United State's first female serial killers was housed in the women's cell block.
In 1912 Lyda Southard, aged 21, married Robert C. Dooley and moved to a farm in Twin Falls, Idaho. Together they lived with their infant daughter and Robert's brother, Ed Dooley. In 1915, Ed mysteriously died right after taking out a life insurance policy which would be payed to Robert and Lyda. Just a few short months later, Robert died as well. A few months after that her daughter, Lorraine (only two years old), also died. Lyda collected the life insurance money of each person in her family.
Two years later, Lyda married William McHaffie and together they moved to Hardin, Montana. William as soon as he settled into his new home died under similar mysterious circumstances. A year after that, Lyda married another man, Harlan Lewis, who died two months later. Lyda collected the insurance money on both husbands before leaving Montana and returning to Twin Falls, Idaho.
In Twin Falls, Lyda got a job at a cafe where she met her next husband, Ed Meyer. Ed fell extremely ill and never recovered just months after meeting his new love. His death was the one that prompted suspicion among the community. Nobody could wrap their minds around how a strong and healthy man like Ed would suddenly get sick and die. The exhumation of his body was ordered for further inspection, which ultimately led to the discovery of arsenic in his body.
The sheriff assigned to the case, Virgil Ormsby, began tracing Lyda's past whereabouts and ordered the exhumation of the other three husbands' bodies. They all contained traces of arsenic poisoning. Law enforcement immediately began their search for Lyda, who fled Twin Falls when suspicions about her began to arise.
Lyda fled to Hawaii where she met another man. But authorities caught up to her and brought her back to Boise, Idaho. Lyda's trial got national recognition and she had now gained the moniker of Lady Bluebeard. She was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 10 years to life in the Idaho Pen.
During her time spent in the Women's Ward at the penitentiary, she befriended a fellow prisoner named David Minton while gardening. When Minton was released from prison, he helped Lyda escape on May 4, 1931. The two made their way to Denver, Colorado before splitting up.
In Denver, Lyda married another man, Harry Whitlock, and continued to live there until she was eventually recaptured by authorities one year later. Lyda was brought back to the Idaho Pen and remained in prison until she was paroled in 1941. Once out of prison, she married yet again. This man disappeared from records but his disappearance was never proven to be linked to Lyda.
Lyda finally settled down in Salt Lake City, Utah, but died of a heart attack in the 1950s. Ironically, her body was brought back to Idaho and buried near her dead husbands, her child and the officer who arrested her.
In the 1930s, with the prison population still exploding, the solitary confinement rooms, the ones that were just 3X8, now housed up to six prisoners. Cell house #4 became operational during this time. It was the largest of the cell houses and had large steel doors housing hundreds of prisoners. In front of cell house #4 a reminder to prisoners to keep in line lay on the ground. Huge steel doors revealed a very tiny cage below ground. Those unruly prisoners were thrown into the hole, the doors shut.
Cell House #4 is closed to the public, but it appears as if the ghostly remains of one of the prisoner's still makes it out to startle and scare visitors and museum staff alike.
Please Join Us in Part II of this episode topic where we showcase the crime, capture, conviction and ultimate slow-death of one Carl C. Van Vlack, notorious murderer.