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Visit The Big House At Brushy Mountain, Voluntarily

Located in a mountainous cleft of the Cumberland Plateau in eastern Tennessee, Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was as notorious as it looks.

Maycreate: Sarah Unger

The first sight of the Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is daunting: a vast crenellated stone building looms at the end of the road, looking impenetrable, forbidding and secretive. Tucked into a cleft of the Cumberland Plateau, the prison is guarded by steep, inhospitable mountain terrain.

It doesn’t get any friendlier when you go inside. Peeling paint and rusting metal enclose ancient cells and dark, narrow hallways. Desperate prisoners’ graffiti marks walls. A small museum room displays homemade tattoo guns, illegal weapons made from all manner of unlikely objects, photos of especially notorious prisoners, fading and peeling newspapers telling of prison breaks. (None were successful.) An especially gruesome item is a leather strap affixed to a long wood handle. It was used to administer punishment in the prison yard; townspeople in nearby Petros, Tennessee said they could hear the screams.

“This cell housed an especially evil guy,” says the tour guide, a former prison guard at Brushy, as the place is colloquially known. “He killed another inmate and, during the night, dismembered him, cut him into pieces and flushed them down the toilet. In the morning, all they found of his fellow inmate was a bag of bones.”

For many a bad hombre, the Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was the literal and figurative end of the line, a maximum-security prison with a reputation as scary as the place looks. Built in 1896 with prison labor, the original wooden building was replaced in the 1920s with the current stone structure, also erected by inmates.

James Earl Ray, the assassin of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was Brushy’s most notorious resident. In 1977 he and six other inmates escaped over the back wall. Ray was captured less than 58 hours later, a mere 8 1/2 miles away.

Brushy finally closed for good in 2009. Today, the Historic Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary is a museum open to the public and a distillery producing End of the Line Moonshine, the only moonshine legally distilled at a prison. A restaurant serves barbeque at The Warden’s Table; there are function facilities for those who like their weddings or family reunions with a serving of historic horror. Tours given by former guards and inmates delineate the prison’s long history; paranormal tours are especially popular. Several times a year, visitors can spend the night inside to fill up on ghost sightings and nightmare material.

The mountain cliffs that back the prison create superb acoustics at outdoor concerts; a stage has been erected behind the building. June 29thwill bring Dwight Yoakam to Brushy and August 17thAce Frehley will perform.

When events, concerts, tours and visits are over, musicians, tour guides, function attendees and tourists all walk out the front door of Brushy and leave. That’s the definition of freedom.

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