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Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary was a large maximum-security prison located in Petros, TN.  It was opened in 1896 and operated until 2009.  Brushy Mountain has a very unique history, but it is perhaps best known as being the prison which housed James Earl Ray, the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.

With its days of housing prisoners behind it, there is a new plan being formulated for the old prison… and it includes whiskey.  Plans are currently underway to turn the 120 year old prison into a tourist attraction which will include some exciting offerings such as:

  • RV Park
  • Restaurant
  • Whiskey Distillery
  • Orchard
  • Stables
  • Walking Trails
  • Tours
  • Campgrounds
  • Museum
  • Bed and Breakfast
  • Festivals
  • Gift Shop

History of Brushy Mountain

Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary in Petros, TNBrushy Mountain opened in 1896 following the Coal Creek War – a 1891 lockout of coal miners that occurred in Coal Creek and Brockville, TN.  The miners were protesting the use of unpaid convicts leased to the mine.  The conflict was resolved when the Tennessee State Legislature passed a bill which abolished the convict labor system and created the Brushy Mountain Mine and Prison.

The location of the prison was determined with the help of geologists, whom determined that the mountains surrounding the area helped keep the area secure.  The prison included its own railroad spur, and the inmates worked coal mines on site as well as operated coke ovens and farmed.  The original prison was built from wood, but it was replaced in the 1920s with a building constructed of stone which was mined on-site from a quarry.  This stone give the prison a cold and castle looking appearance.

The prison is located next to Frozen Head State Park and includes rugged mountainous terrain on nearly every side, which discouraged attempts to escape, and for those that did attempt it… proved to nearly always be unsuccessful.  The most famous escape from the prison occurred in 1977 when James Earl Ray and six other inmates climbed over a fence around the prison.  Ray lasted only two days in the mountains and was captured three miles from the prison.

Brushy in Fictional Works

Brushy Mountain has been mentioned in several movies, novels and television shows.  The most well known mentions occurred in two novels:

James Earl Ray mugshotIn the novel The Silence of the Lambs, Dr. Hannibal Lecter makes a deal to exchange information about the serial killer Buffalo Bill if they would transfer him to Brushy.  The information he exchanged was later proven false by the main character of the novel, FBI agent in training, Clarice Starling, and he escapes before arriving at the prison.

In the 1991 novel “The Firm” by John Grisham, Ray McDeere, whom was the brother of the main character Mitch McDeere, was an inmate at Brushy Mountain.


Notable Inmates

  • James Earl Ray, assassin of Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Bryon Looper, convicted of the murder of State Senator Tommy Burks
  • George Hyatt, involved in the 2005 Kingston, TN courthouse shooting and escape which resulted in the death of Correctional Officer Wayne Cotton Morgan.

Brushy Mountain Penitentiary

More Information

For more information on Brushy Mountain, and the future development plans for the site, please visit the Brushy Mountain Group.