Fact or Fiction? Exploring the haunts and history of Sugar House Park
Oct 30, 2023, 5:51 PM | Updated: Oct 31, 2023, 5:55 pm
(Used with permission, Utah State Historical Society)
SALT LAKE CITY — The Sugar House Park was once something a little more ominous: the Utah Territorial Penitentiary, later known as the Sugar House Prison.
Now a nature refuge from nearby bustling Salt Lake City, the park is full of families at the playground, rolling hills, picnic areas, and joggers. Nothing about the site today would ever suggest it once housed a prison where inmates were executed and buried on the property.
Fact or Fiction?
It is a fact: Sugar House Park was a prison and at least 14 inmates were executed.
Cory Jensen, a National Register Coordinator and Architectural Historian explained the facts about the early Sugar House Prison and some of its spookiest details: the people killed and buried there.
“During the period of this prison,” Jensen said. “I think there were (I kind of guesstimated from the time the actual prison was put in place) probably 14 or 15 or so executions that occurred there. At various times, they used different forms of execution. Early on, they would do hangings or firing squad and then, from what I understand, they took the firing squad off the books once they came up with lethal injections and electrocution. They pulled those off the table but then they brought back the firing squad, I think in the 60s.”
Jensen shared the stories of two famous executions that occurred in Sugar House Park.
Joe Hill: Murderer or martyr?
“Probably the most famous is Joe Hill, and he was a famous labor activist with the Industrial Workers of the World which was ‘the Wobblies.’ That was their nickname. He came to Utah as an immigrant worker and got blamed for a murder which they think he probably didn’t do,” Jensen said.
Hill, originally from Sweden, worked in the Silver King Mine in Park City at the time he was accused of murdering a man and his son in Salt Lake City.
In 1914, a grocery store owner (who was also a former police officer) and his son were killed in their Salt Lake City store.
“I don’t know if it was bad luck or just relevant but Joe Hill was shot by a friend of his over a girlfriend, and he went to the hospital roughly at the same time as the murder happened. He had a red bandana with him and one of the witnesses said that the shooter had a red bandana,” Jensen said.
Hill told police at the hospital he was shot by a friend over an argument about a woman, whom he refused to name.
“When he talked to one of the witnesses, they said ‘no that’s not him at all’ and then later they talked to the same guy and he said, ‘yeah, that’s definitely him,'” Jensen said. “So there’s there’s pretty suspect evidence that he actually did the murder but he became a martyr.”
The execution garnered national attention, and even President Woodrow Wilson and the Swedish ambassador became involved in a bid for clemency. However, those efforts were unsuccessful.
Hill’s death made him a martyr and major figure of the Industrial Workers of the World along with the subject of many folk songs.
“He chose not to defend himself at the trial and he was executed by firing squad. Something he did just to be a martyr for their cause, for the Wobblies’ cause. His last phrase was, he shouted ‘Fire go on fire!’ when they shot him,” Jensen said.
The John Deering experiment
The other famous execution from Sugar House Park was John Deering, shot by the firing squad in 1938.
“And actually, his execution was part of an experiment to observe what would happen to the human heart during a gunshot,” Jensen said. “He volunteered, he said ‘I’ll do it.’ So this doctor connected him with a heart monitor and everything to see how long the body lived after he was shot,” Jensen said.
Deering was tied to crimes all over the country including shooting two police officers and killing a man in Utah, killing an unidentified man on a freight train, and shooting a police officer in Oregon.
“He was pretty notorious criminally, killed a few people, carjacked somebody in Salt Lake, he had been convicted of other crimes, “Jensen said. “He was from Michigan I think and then came here. He sounded like a real bad guy.”
Despite his criminal actions, Deering’s choice to allow his body to be used for research and science proved incredibly useful. Tissue from Deering’s eyes was used to successfully restore sight to a 27-year-old blind man, and a 4-year-old child who had been blind since birth. Deering’s body was given to the University of Utah medical department.
Interestingly, inmates who died were buried in a cemetery located “east of the old east wall and down over a small hill near 15th East and 21st South.”
Parkgoers need not be alarmed, as the bodies of the 29 men buried in the cemetery were moved to the site of the new prison at Point of the Mountain in 1951, though due to a loss of records, only 14 of the men’s names were known at that point.
According to a Deseret News article in 1987, the remains of those known 14 inmates were exhumed, cremated, and interred in two plots in the Salt Lake City Cemetery. The article states they “exhumed the remains of perhaps 14 inmates which were contained in 13 wooden boxes, said Warden Jeffrey Galli of the correction facility. One of the boxes appeared to hold the remains of two people, he said.”
The article does not elaborate on why the bodies needed to be moved other than saying, “Officials and inmates decided to move the remains from the Draper prison cemetery because the old burial site was vulnerable to vandalism.”
It’s not clear what occurred with the other 15 bodies which means it’s possible they’re still buried at the Point of the Mountain site.
The history, then and now
“There was a Sugar Mill there, and it was 1853 when the territorial government decided to build a prison there. The one that was there early on, basically it said there were ‘cozy cells’ dug into the ground,'” Jensen said.
The land was selected by Brigham Young, a government-owned site called “The Big Field Survey.”
“This was kind of far from most the homes at that time so I think they felt it was far enough from residential but close enough to access,” Jensen said. “Nobody wants a prison in their backyard.”
The prison had a history of inmates escaping and at one point in 1861, all the convicts but one escaped. A Deseret News article states, “The prison was empty except for that one man and they pardoned him because he didn’t escape.”
“It was really not a very strong prison from what I understand,” Jensen said.
The same article states that from 1855 – 1878, 25% of the prisoners either escaped or were killed trying to flee the prison.
By the 1860s, the structure was considered inadequate.
“One of the proposals was to actually put the prison out on an island in the Great Salt Lake,” Jensen said.
So around 1885, they expanded the prison, but the prison still lacked some basic upgrades.
“They didn’t have running water, so buckets were given to each prisoner,” Jensen said. “You actually wouldn’t want to be a prisoner in this place.”
After the turn of the century, significant improvements to the building and structure were added and the building was much more secure.
“From 1923-1934 a factory was made on the site. Convicts made goods to sell to the public until the state passed a law to prohibit that,” Jensen said.
Eventually, as housing development grew in the Sugar House area, residents wanted the prison relocated.
“By the late 1930s people were complaining about the prison being there,” Jensen said.
Plans were approved for a new prison in the city of Draper in 1937. The construction took longer than expected due to building shortages during World War II but was completed by 1951.
On March 12, 1951, 575 inmates were transferred by bus to the newly completed Utah State Prison at the Point of the Mountain.
Then, work on demolishing the old prison began. After nine sticks of dynamite barely dented the prison walls, many sections had to be disassembled stone by stone.
It was completely demolished, and there’s only a small portion remaining as a tribute to the notorious Utah prison. Two small stone walls, built from stones used in the original prison, sit on the North end of the park with plaques marking the historic spot.
The prison in Draper has since been torn down and relocated for the same reasons the Sugar House Prison was demolished.
“When they built the one in Draper it was just farmland there, and now it’s very pricey land!” Jensen said.
Once the prison left, work began to make the land into a public park.
Thirty acres were given to Salt Lake School District, for Highland High School, and the other portion was sold to the city and county, who made joint payments.
According to the park’s website, “In an agreement approved by Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County on July 16, 1957, the city and county conveyed the property, in trust, to the Sugar House Park Authority to operate it as a park for a period of 99 years, ending Dec. 31, 2055.”
Throughout October, KSL TV will be exploring haunts and legends around Salt Lake County. We’ll share with you what we learn – what’s fact and what’s fiction. Other stories include: The Rio Grande Depot, The Old Mill, Ted Bundy’s cabin/cellar, and Allen Park.