Saturday, September 27, 2008

West Virginia Penitentiary

moundsville prison
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.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Black Aggie

Black Aggie from

We have happy feet again - it's time to rev up the ol' gas guzzler for our Halloween road trip. H&H thinks that a stop in Pikesville, Maryland, is in order to brush up on the lore of an old friend, Black Aggie.

Black Aggie is the name of a statue that once marked the grave of General Felix Agnus, who was buried at Druid Ridge Cemetery in 1925.

The statue itself is an unauthorized replica of Augustus St. Gaudens' monument, popularly called "Grief". It's located at the Adams Memorial in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and was recast on the sly by Edward L. A. Pausch. The figure is of a seated woman wrapped in a shroud.

St. Gaudens was a noted American sculptor of the late 1800’s. "Grief" would become one of his most famed works, said to be named by none other than Mark Twain. It took him four years to create, and was the memorial for Marian Adams, who committed suicide. It marked her final resting place, along with hubby Henry.

Oddly, the Washington original has no spooky tales associated with it, despite the suicidal and probably mad Marian. But the pirated copy made by Pausch became one of Baltimore's most enduring urban legends.

General Felix Agnus purchased the Pausch version of the sculpture in 1905. He was a much decorated, and wounded (it was said that he had so many lead balls in him that he rattled when he walked), Civil War vet, starting out as a private and ending up a brigadier general.

He built a family memorial in Pikesville's Druid Ridge Cemetery, with the "Grief" clone as its centerpiece. As soon as the granite pedestal was laid, he had his mom's remains transferred from his French birthplace to the new family plot.

The general's wife, Annie, died in 1922 and Angus joined her in eternal repose three years later at the age of 86. They were laid to rest at the feet of "Black Aggie." Then the fun began.

It was said that the statue's eyes glowed red at the stroke of midnight. People claimed that the spirits of the dead rose from their graves to gather around her on moonless nights, and that living persons who returned her gaze were struck blind. Sitting in her cold lap was a death sentence.

If you spoke Black Aggie's name three times at midnight in front of a dark mirror, an evil angel appeared to escort you to hell. Other variations of the theme claim that Aggie herself showed up behind you, and some say with a knife to plunge into your back repeatedly.

Pregnant women who passed through her shadow would suffer miscarriages. The grass wouldn't grow wherever Aggie's shadow touched the ground. She came to life and strolled the grounds in the darkness.

Another story tells of a guy that used Aggie's hand as an ashtray. He was found dead soon thereafter. Aggie doesn't take to disrespect very well.

It's even said that any virgin placed in the outstretched arms of Black Aggie will lose her virginity in 24 hours. Now that's a paranormal phenomena we never heard of before.

But it took a frat rat to launch her into headline haunting news. Supposedly, local fraternity pledges had to sit on Aggie's lap all night as part of their "hell week" initiation. (Geez. At Pitt, the worst we had to do was run back to the house from Schenley Pond in our skivvies).

One bit of lore claims that she once came to life and crushed a hapless freshman in her bronze hands, in front of the eyes of two of his fellow fraternity brothers.

Another tale of Greek hazing gone astray claimed that one night, at the stroke of midnight, the cemetery watchman heard a scream. When he reached Black Aggie, he found a young man lying dead at the foot of the statue. He had died of fright.

It gets stranger. One morning in 1962, it was discovered that one of Aggie's arms had been cut off. The missing limb was later found in the trunk of a sheet metal worker's car, along with a saw. Open and shut case, right? Wrong. He had a defense.

He told the judge that Black Aggie had cut off her own arm while in the throes of depression and had given it to him. Many people believed the tradesman's tale, but not the person that counted - the judge. The tin-knocker was hauled off to jail.

Allow us to digress a minute. Aggie's name is assumed to be taken from her wards, the Agnus family. But another legend tells of a turn of the century nurse named Aggie. She was popular, but her patients had a way of unexpectedly dying off under her care.

The locals thought she was hastening their trip to the River Jordan, and lynched the assumed angel of death. But ooops, they were soon proven wrong, sadly after the fact. The story ends that the monument was built for her as atonement, which is obviously wrong.

But did her vengeful spirit adopt the statue? It would sure explain the eerie goings-on surrounding the bronze sculpture. OK, back to our regularly scheduled post.

In addition to Aggie’s arm being hacked off, graffiti was scrawled on the statue, the granite base and its outer wall, while trash heaped up everywhere from the midnight thrill seekers. Groundskeepers did everything they could to control the vandalism, including planting thorny shrubs around Aggie, but they were overwhelmed.

The Agnus family, upset by the desecration, donated Aggie to the Smithsonian in 1967. It sat for years in storage at the National Museum of American Art (later the Smithsonian American Art Museum), where an authorized recasting of the original Adams Memorial statue is now exhibited. Heaven forbid the Smithsonian deal in fake artwork!

The Smithsonian refused to even admit it had the ersatz sculpture, but it's location was finally run down by an enterprising young reporter, Shara Terjung, rescuing it from oblivion in an outdoor storage lot.

After being rediscovered, Black Aggie was moved to an I Street courtyard behind the Dolly Madison House on Lafayette Square in Washington, DC, where she's quietly enjoying her tranquil new home.

If you want to see her, enter the courtyard during the day, through the entryway off the street. Walk straight back, look to the right, and Black Aggie will be there, waiting for you in the middle of the flowers, looking as serene as can be. You might even tuck a coin in her hand, a good luck tradition from the Druid Ridge days.

Just don't sit in her lap.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Katy's Church

katy's church
Photo of Katy's Church by Eric on Blackstar Blog - Scooter Trips

The popular mid-state legend goes that an unmarried pregnant girl, Katy Vandine, ostracized by the community, hung herself on a tree outside the Emmanuel Lutheran Church graveyard in Muncy Hills, Columbia County, near Bloomsburg.

Other darker varitions on the theme claim that father of her child was a married man worried about his own hide, and so accused her of witchcraft. The church members accepted his self-serving word and hung her from a tree in the cemetery. What, there wasn't any stake to burn her on in Muncy Hills?

It's said that if you stand on her grave, which is right beside the tree she hung herself on, and knock on the tree that her ghost, dressed in shimmering white, will walk down the hill towards you. According to local lore, this sighting only occurs the night of a harvest moon. It's also said that you can hear her crying from inside the church, or hear her call your name.

There's an alternate tale. It says she was waiting to marry a soldier, but he was killed before they could wed. Distraught, she hung herself in her wedding dress. She's supposedly been seen in church and walking the road between her house and the cemetery.

Some reports say that her noose can be see hanging from the tree overlooking the cemetery. There are even stories of blood gushing from the windows of the small hilltop church.

Other tales allege that her tombstone is located just outside the consecrated grounds of the cemetery, while others say it's in the graveyard proper, but her marker faces the opposite direction of all the others. This, at least, can be debunked, as her grave is in the boneyard and pointed the same way as the others.

Another legend says that there's a bottomless pit covered by a boulder on the grounds. If you can move the rock a smidge and toss a stone down the hole, you'll never hear it land.

Of course, some people believe the tale was just a by-product of the 2002 mystery book "Katie's Church" by L.A. Flick, which recounts - or maybe invents - the legend of Katy. On the other hand, we have a reader that says the legend predates the novel, and others that support him.

BaltimoreMan wrote:
I am originally from a couple of miles from Katy's. The tale has been around for a long time. I couldn't guess the original source, but definitely not a 2002 book.

Another reader added:
"I also live near Katy's church. I am 36 and have heard the tales since I was a young child."

So we can cross Ms. Flick off the list off rumor-mongers.

May Shetler, granddaughter of Katy several times removed, denies the tales on her web site:
"Catherine Vandine attended services there until her passing at 87 years old. Since its closing in 1969, the urban legends surrounding Katys Church have given birth to increased incidences of vandalism, tales of hauntings, and even a horror novel. But, as with most legends, these tales are simply not based on fact. The only haunting comes from the young people in search of an adventure who are being fined for trespassing and destruction of private property."

Sadly, this is another spot that vandals have ransacked. The church, which by some tales is also haunted, isn't used for regular services anymore, just weddings and other special events, and goofs feel free to break in and spray graffiti on the walls and floor.

The cemetery has been desecrated, despite being fenced, gated and watched over by the locals, the caretaker, and the State Police. Those folk that use the graveyard as a party spot should be much more ashamed than poor Katy.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Heilbron Mansion

heilbron mansion
The Heilbron Mansion from Delaware County Paranormal

"If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" should be the motto of this house. The home, built by the Murchison family on the corner of Painter's and Rose Tree Roads in Middletown Township in Delaware County, burned to the ground a few years after its' construction.

Seven Murchisons died in the blaze, and their crypt was built on a hill under an oak tree. Another home was built by the Edwards family, the new owners, in 1837, called Chroledale, and the graves were within view of their digs. In fact, it was built on the blackened foundations of the Murchison house. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1864, 14 year old Margaret Edwards was supposedly raped and murdered under a large maple tree in the yard. She was lured out of the house by Elisha Culbert, a farmhand on the estate. He was lynched by the other workers when the body of Margaret was discovered in the creek.

Her distraught and increasingly unhinged mother began spending her time in the library, Margaret's favorite room. She eventually hung herself from a beam above the third floor window (some say it was at the nearby creek.) All three spirits are said to haunt the mansion and its grounds.

Culbert and the mom could be heard, but not seen. Culbert's footsteps were heard approaching the front door from the coachhouse, while the mother's footsteps retrace her final act sometimes, and just wanders the halls looking for daughter at others. They were heard going from the library and up the stairs to the third floor where they end.

It's said that the library was her private domain. If anyone entered it, a book would fly off the shelf and hit the floor with a retort like a gunshot to show her displeasure with the unwanted visitor. Margaret was reported seen upstairs.

The basis for this tale is from a book released in 1977 entitled "Night Stalks The Mansion," written by Constance Westbie and Harold Cameron. It's purported to be non-fictional and based on their experiences from living there for two years in the 1960s.

Unfortunately for wraith fans, the Philadelphia Inquirer squelched a great ghost tale. The primary evidence against the tale is that Margaret showed up in the 1870 census, six years after her alleged death. She seems to have survived her murder quite well. And with no crime, no spooks.

There's also the little matter of the Murchison's, since the grounds were in the hands of the Edwards clan since the 1660's when they bought 82 acres from George Smedley, and stayed in the family until 1877. The story is news to the Edwards descendants and the area historical society.

Other locals, though, remember an old legend of a murder-suicide there, which may be the basis for the book. There was talk of building a B&B there decades ago, but the home was torched in 1987 by arsonists and a high-end housing development popped up on the old estate instead. But it's said the bad vibes remain.

The things real estate agents forget to tell you.