Cape Girardeau Common Pleas Courthouse – Cape Girardeau, Missouri - Atlas Obscura

Cape Girardeau Common Pleas Courthouse

This 1854 courthouse along the Mississippi River has a storied history. 


High on a terraced hill overlooking the banks of the Mississippi River stands the stately Cape Girardeau Common Pleas Courthouse. Built in 1854, this courthouse has many stories and rumors about it that have circulated for years.

The most prominent story is that this stoic structure boasts its own dungeon—which is actually true. Prisoners were once held within its confines.

Another rumor surrounding the courthouse is that it contains a secret tunnel that led to the river, where enslaved people seeking freedom were hidden and transported as part of the Underground Railroad. This, however, is likely not true. Missouri was a slave state, so slaves wouldn’t find freedom there. The hill is also too steep for such a tunnel, and terraces have since been dug into the slope which would have revealed such a structure.

There is, however, an odd metal door that locks from the wrong side and doesn’t appear to lead to anywhere. It has also been proven that this building was used by the Union Army during the Civil War (General Grant stayed in the building that now houses the Port Cape BBQ restaurant at the foot of the street below the courthouse).

The brick building has survived several attempts to demolish it, and, along with Academic Hall on the campus of Southeast Missouri State University, is among the most recognizable landmarks in the city. It is still in use by the Cape Girardeau County Courts. There is a building that used to house a Carnegie Library on the grounds.

Know Before You Go

There are many great eating and entertainment options in Downtown Cape Girardeau. The bar used in the film Gone Girl is located at the foot of the steps leading from the front entrance of the courthouse.

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July 18, 2019

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