American West •  History and Photography

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Dark Spaces: Montana's Historic Penitentiary at Deer Lodge

Ellen Baumler
Photographs by J. M. Cooper

The penitentiary at Deer Lodge, established in 1870, was Montana Territory's first federal facility. In 1889 it became a state penal institution and served in that capacity until 1979. Under the direction of the long serving (1893-1921) and controversial warden Frank Conley, prison laborers built most of the buildings that visitors see today. These buildings bear the marks of a violent history: bazooka scars mar the tower where prisoners holed up during the infamous riot of 1959 and an inmate's delicate stenciling oddly adorns the room where the two riot masterminds died.

In a collaborative documentary of the legendary prison, historian Ellen Baumler tells the physical and human tale of the troubled institution whose idyllic setting contrasts so violently with the history it holds. J. M. Cooper's detailed photographs of the prison's interiors and exteriors combine with historic images to illustrate the stories of the people who lived--and sometimes died--within its walls.


Ellen Baumler is interpretive historian at the Montana Historical Society and author of Spirit Tailings: Ghost Tales from Virginia City, Butte, and Helena; Beyond Spirit Tailings: Montana's Mysteries, Ghosts, and Haunted Places; and dozens of articles on various topics including violence and prostitution in the American West.

J. M. Cooper is a photographer for the Montana Historical Society and an accomplished documentary photographer whose work is in many private collections.


"This is a beautiful book about one of Montana's most hideous secrets. It makes intriguing, sad, poignant reading."


Montana Magazine

"Baumler and Cooper's efforts lay the groundwork to entice the reader into more copious studies of prisons, the psychology of crime and mental illness, and this corner of society that fascinates and repels us."


Wild West History Association Journal

"The history of Montana's first prison system, from the inception to its closing in 1979, is recounted in vivid chronological detail in this comprehensive account."


Roundup Magazine

"...this vivid narrative text and its outstanding historic and contemporary photos provide an important new perspective on Montana history..."


Montana the Magazine of Western History

8 x 9 in. 128 pages 43 halftones