Early in the penitentiary system, reform advocates operated on the theory that with the right training and programs, individuals could become productive members of society despite their crimes. Reflection was the original method of choice, as officials believed it would lead to creating remorse within the inmate. Under this thought, the prison library was the primary provision. However, it was constantly underfunded, and it soon became evident that new options were necessary.

In 1899, the Missouri State Penitentiary (MSP) chaplain created an inmate orchestra, not only to keep prisoners busy but also to provide a new and creative outlet. The group soon became a staple, performing for fellow inmates, on the radio, and at official state functions.

“A good song is better than a sermon,” one reporter stated after listening to the orchestra.

He went on to praise music as a means of reform, serving a vast number of needs among the prisoners. As music at MSP continued over the years, smaller bands formed. Then, on June 21, 1923, a man named Harry Snodgrass was received at the MSP to serve a three-year sentence for assault with intent to rob a St. Louis confectionary shop. He was 27 years old at the time with a seventh-grade education. Soon after his arrival, his musical talent was discovered, and he was assigned to play in the penitentiary orchestra and band. Harry was a skilled piano player, and his time with the MSP band would prove beneficial for the rest of his life.

Broadcasting the band, the dome of the Missouri State Capitol housed a radio transmitter, the seventh of its kind in the United States. Located at the highest point of Jefferson City, the transmitter was installed in March of 1922 to establish a way for the Missouri Board of Agriculture Marketing Bureau to communicate agricultural information to farmers throughout the state. Overseen by state marketing commissioner Arthur T. Nelson, it did not take long for those involved with the radio station to realize the radio could do much more than simply broadcast market information. Professors from the University of Missouri College of Agriculture began giving lectures on various topics, and musical concerts aired three times a week.

Want to know more about Harry's story? Head to Jefferson City Magazine to read more!

Missouri State Penitentiary

Decommissioned in 2004, the Missouri State Penitentiary was the oldest continually operating prison west of the Mississippi. The prison was 100 years old when Alcatraz began taking inmates…