West Virginia Penitentiary from Wikipedia Commons
Now we follow the setting sun to the West Virginia panhandle, where our next stop is the infamous West Virginia State Penitentiary at Moundsville.
Construction of the old West Virginia State Penitentiary was started in 1866, just three years after West Virginia seceded from Virginia. The state legislature chose Moundsville for the prison because it was only 12 miles south of Wheeling, the capital at that time.
The builders used Joliet prison as their model. WVSP was an imposing Gothic stone structure, with turrets and battlements, like a castle. But unlike a castle, which was built to keep intruders out, this one was meant to keep people in.
It was enclosed by a stone wall 5 feet thick at the bottom, 2-1/2 feet thick at the top, and with a foundation that was buried 5 feet below the surface. The wall was six feet thick.
The first building constructed at the penitentiary was called the Wagon Gate. One hundred and fifty inmates lived there while they built their own prison. In 1876, the West Virginia Penitentiary officially opened for full operation, with 251 inmates. It would grow to a population of 2,000 in the fifties.
Prisoners at the Pen were used as next-to-free labor. They toiled in a blacksmith shop, stone cutting shop, a bakery, a farm, wagon works, broom & whip factory, and a coal mine. The prison paid for itself.
The majority of inmates were minor crooks, serving sentences of one to ten years. The prisoners were allowed to spend a lot of time outside their cells during the day and locked up in their 5'x7' cells at night.
Just to make sure they didn't get any ideas during their free time, they were reminded of the price of disobedience every time they sat down in the dining room. There the "Prison Pet" sat - a fully-loaded Gatling gun aimed at the prisoners.
Don't get the idea that being sent to the West Virginia Pen was soft time. For most of the years of its existence, Moundsville held a spot on the Department of Justice's top ten most violent correctional facilities list. Killed or be killed was the mentality of many of its lifers - and guards.
The big-time hoods were housed in North Hall, the maximum security area, and had to spend twenty-two hours a day locked in their cells. They were allowed two hours a day in the exercise yard.
In 1929 the prison was expanded to almost double it's size. Inmates were forced to again help construct their own jailhouse. The expansion was needed because the prison was so crowded that three people were crammed to a cell. It was finished in 1959.
Ninety-four men were executed in the Pen. Eighty-five were hanged from 1899-1949, and the other nine were electrocuted in later years. The original electric chair, "Old Sparky," is still on display.
It was built by Paul Glenn, an inmate of the facility. The hangings were viewed by a public bleacher section on Eighth Street until 1931, when the rope decapitated its victim.
In 1982, a judge ruled that the prison violated the Eighth Amendment, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment. The West Virginia Supreme Court reinforced the ruling when it said that Penitentiary's 5 x 7 cells were cruel and unusual in 1986.
That's the same year the prison had its famous riot, one of many, when several guards were held hostage and three inmates murdered by other prisoners. The Pen's captives got a new cafeteria for their feral efforts.
The Pen officially closed in 1995, when the state was unwilling to update the old hoosegaw to the jurist's satisfaction and the last prisoner was transferred.
The lease for the Pen is now held by the Moundsville Economic Development Council. They conduct daily tours of the prison, and host a "Dungeon of Horrors" haunted house attraction throughout October. It also shares space with a law training facility.
The West Virginia Penitentiary still has it's share of long-timers roaming the grounds. They're the spooks who never left its dank confines.
Four Cherokees, sentenced to life at the Pen, are buried on its grounds. And according to popular legend, they're not alone. The prison buildings are said to be built on an old Native American burial ground.
Some believe that disturbing the ancient dead, coupled with its violent past, is why the Pen is haunted. No one has ever been able to confirm the lore, but Moundsville itself is named for the Indian burial mounds in the area.
An area well known for spooky occurrences is the revolving-door entrance gate known as the Wheel House that was used to intake arriving inmates. According to reports, the circular cage still turns periodically by itself, giving the impression that the spirits of criminals are still arriving at the prison.
One of the better-known phantom inmates believed to still stalk the halls of West Virginia Penitentiary is J.D. Wall. During his stay, it is said that he was liked by all and used by both the guards and inmates alike to trade information.
The story goes that some new prisoners saw Wall speaking with the warden one day and assumed that he was a snitch. Three inmates cornered him in the basement of the administration building and savagely attacked him with shivs, leaving his body headless and chopped beyond recognition.
To this day, people report seeing his spirit wandering around the basement, sometimes with and sometimes without his head.
The ghost of a true snitch has also been reported. He lived in the basement where he took care of the boiler system and the pipes. He was stabbed repeatedly while going to the bathroom during the 1986 riots. Geez, it's bad enough to be stuck in the cellar for eternity, but to be trapped in the loo?
One of the Pen's paranormal hot spots is the Sugar Shack. The Sugar Shack is a basement room that was used as a rec area. When the weather was bad, the prisoners were sent into the Sugar Shack rather than the usual outdoor exercise yards.
The prisoners were on their own there, with a guard that periodically checked in on them. No one was ever reported killed in the room, but fights often broke out, and prisoner sex and rapes were common (hence the name Sugar Shack). Today, visitors claim to hear footsteps, screams and cries, and some even report being physically assaulted by an invisible entity.
The North Wagon Gate also has its share of eerie experiences. The building was used in the early days for hangings. One of the ghosts believed to haunt this area is Arvil Paul Adkins, who was dropped from the second floor trap door not once, but twice (when he survived the first hanging, the guards carried him back up the steps and hung him again). Visitors also report feeling a sinister presence or the feeling of being watched.
On Death Row, tourists have complained of feeling moisture splashing on their bodies. They may not be happy to learn that the prisoners used to while away the time spitting and urinating on the guards. After all, what did they have to lose?
The Hole, used for solitary confinement, is also notorious, with visitors feeling overwhelmed with anxiety or fear caused by an unseen presence. People have spotted a featureless Shadow Man that roams the cafeteria, the psychiatric ward, and the basement.
An inmate named Roberts supposedly haunts his cell block and the room where he met his death. It was reported that his body was buried behind a wall. The North Hall is supposed to be crackling with negative psychic energy from its hard core prisoners. It was so bad there that it was called the Alamo, and the guards had to wear helmets and flak jackets.
In fact, the whole place is spooked out. Reports vary from residual hauntings to the sounds of phantom footsteps, voices, screams, and slamming doors when no one else is around.
It's a favorite spot for paranormal TV producers. MTV's Fear shot its first episode there in 2000. The Sci Fi Channel's Ghost Hunters also visited the location in 2006. The network liked the place so much it came back to film an episode of Proof Positive. ABC Family’s Scariest Places On Earth featured the Pen that same year. Its tale was also aired on Anderson Cooper's 360 on CNN.
And you'll almost certainly trip over paranormal investigators if you ever visit the joint. It's on the A-List of every spook hunter's itinerary.
The eternal inmates are more famous in death than they ever were in life.