Public History and Dark Tourism

Dark tourism and public history are a complicated topic. I work at an historic prison where haunted history draws a large crowd. The prison, The Old Idaho Penitentiary, had approximately 75,000 visitors in 2019. Dark tourist destinations around the world receive millions of visitors each year and is a growing genre among tourists. Society is fascinated by the macabre; paranormal TV shows, like those on the Travel Channel, profit from the allure of sites they feature, such as the Old Idaho Penitentiary. Dark tourism comes in many forms, but in the broadest sense involves people purposefully traveling to seek out places of death and tragedy. Some examples of dark tourism locations are battlefields, graveyards, Holocaust sites, former prisons, and places of disasters like Chernobyl and Hiroshima.

Before the Old Idaho Penitentiary was a historic site, it operated as the Idaho Territorial Prison. In 1872, the first prisoners were incarcerated at the facility. It became the Idaho State Penitentiary in 1890, and remained operational until December 1973. In those 101 years, the prison housed over 13,000 men and 216 women, witnessed ten executions by hanging, and approximately ninety other convict deaths due to natural causes, suicide, murder, and illness. The prison ultimately closed because of outdated conditions, which sparked two riots that destroyed three buildings and caused thousands of dollars in damages. In 1974, the site was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and became an operation of the Idaho State Historical Society. The site remains largely unchanged to this day.

Doin’ History, Instead of Time, at a Prison

With a past like this, it’s no surprise that the Old Idaho Penitentiary is considered the most haunted place in the state and deemed a dark tourism location. This reputation attracts casual visitors, as well as paranormal enthusiasts. As public historians at the site, the Idaho State Historical Society is tasked with creating programming that meets the educational mission of the site but also appeals to a wide range of visitors to remain profitable. A large part of my position is researching individual people who were incarcerated at the site and incorporating their stories into programs. But ultimately, many visitors only want to discuss the morbid historical occurrences (like the executions) and the creepy modern experiences (like working at the Old Pen after hours).

Left: 1890 Cellhouse. Center: Dining Hall built in 1898. Right: first cellhouse on site, then renovated into the Chapel. Both the Dining Hall and Chapel were destroyed in a fire started during a riot in 1973.

Cue the Paranormal Investigations

As historians at the site, we grapple with the need to be lucrative by allowing paranormal investigations, but we do not want those investigations to feel insensitive to the real suffering that incarcerated people experienced. The fear is that by exploiting these experiences and deaths, the history of the site becomes trivialized and plays into the of “Disneyfication” of historical sites. These paranormal investigation events are purposefully not referred to as ghost tours. Instead they are branded as opportunities for afterhours site investigation by trained third party paranormal specialists who explain the history of the prison and tell the spookier stories in a sensitive, responsible way.

The reputation of being a “haunted prison” means that we have to take advantage of the Halloween season. For the last eleven years, the Old Pen has hosted an event, Frightened Felons, on the weekend closest to Halloween. It has become a huge success and is the biggest event of the year. Both Frightened Felons and monthly paranormal investigations typically sell out and are the most in-demand programs the Old Pen offers. The success of such events allows for less popular yet more educational programs throughout the rest of the year.

One example is our lecture series, Captivating Conversations, which is held quarterly and is free to attend. The Captivating Conversations series connect the Old Pen to current issues in corrections, demonstrating the relevance of history to the public. These more serious, educational events would not be possible without also catering to the more popular, profitable, paranormal, and Halloween demands. Other programming events that walk this fine line are the guided cemetery tours offered once a year during the week students are out of school for spring break. Guides tell stories about individual men, their crimes, and their deaths. The guides steer the narrative away from paranormal experiences but still indulge visitor fascination with the macabre and darker side of prison life by detailing suicides, murders, and illnesses in a thoughtful way.

The view of the gallows from the Visitation Room. Visible are the trap door and loop on the ceiling that the noose hung from. This room was used only once, which happened to be the last execution at the site in 1957. All others were done outdoors on temporary, wooden gallows.

How Historians Feel About Dark Tourism

The financial success of these paranormal investigations does not translate into Old Pen staff’s comfort with offering these events. As public historians we are tasked with interpreting the complicated history of the Idaho State Penitentiary. For some of us, including paranormal events does not equate to fulfilling that responsibility. However, we must think about how to keep the site open to as many visitors as possible, and that takes money. It only makes sense to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by dark tourism when so many history organizations struggle to make ends meet. In addition, the most frequently asked questions from visitors are related to paranormal experiences and haunted history; we must engage with our audience to stay relevant. While we may not be enthusiastic about providing paranormal investigations, we control the narrative and marketing surrounding the events, keeping the message clear that this is not a ghost tour, avoiding the “edutainment” factor and advertising it as thoughtful afterhours history exploration.

Cells from Cellhouse 2, finished in 1908 and in use until 1968.

Other Historical Prison Sites

Researching other historic prisons like Eastern State Penitentiary (in Philadelphia) show that the Old Pen is not alone in these considerations. The privately funded Eastern State Penitentiary is committed to its mission of exploring criminal justice reform and does not allow visitors to conduct their own paranormal tours. It is also worth noting that they receive far more visitors annually due to their geographic location; Eastern State Penitentiary received 310,000 visitors in 2019 and is strategically located on the Eastern side of the country where the Philadelphia metropolitan area is home to over six million people. The Old Idaho Penitentiary is located in Boise, considered the most geographically isolated city in the lower 48 states. The Boise metropolitan area contains over 709,000 people, while Philadelphia is more than eight times that size and ranked the 3rd best historical city to visit in the United States. The Idaho State Historical Society is a state agency and relies on some government funding to operate. As such, the agency is beholden to the governor and the taxpayers, as well as the Board of Trustees. Eastern State Pen can afford to avoid paranormal programming while the Old Idaho Pen cannot.

One of the guard towers along the wall built in 1894.

Another view of the wall and a different guard tower.

The complex issue of dark tourism continues to plague public historians at sites of suffering and death. In addition to interpreting that complex history, public historians must constantly deal with straddling the line between creating profitable and in-demand programs, while satisfying the site or museum’s mission of preservation and education. This is something the Old Idaho Penitentiary deals with on a daily basis as a historic prison. Currently the COVID-19 crisis has forced closure of the site. When the pandemic is over we will need visitors more than ever to sustain operations, providing programs that will appeal to the most visitors, including paranormal investigations.

All photos were taken by the author.

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