West Virginia State Penitentiary

West Virginia State Penitentiary

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Moundsville, West Virginia

The great stone walls, five feet thick, were designed to protect the world from those within.  High above the ground, turrets that used to hold guards and weapons now stand a lonely vigil, watching the yards for threats that no longer pass below.  Walking through the corridors, the sounds of pain and anguish of the unrepentant still echo, and behind every set of iron bars lies another story of horrific suffering.  And although the building has been empty for nearly ten years, those who visit still feel the icy grip of human monsters, hear the whispers in their ears, and occasionally feel their hot breath at the nape of their necks.  More than one hundred people died within these prison walls, and most of those were victims of not murder, but execution.  It’s little wonder that the West Virginia State Penitentiary has the honor of being called haunted.

West Virginia has its share of paranormal stories.  From the Mothman sightings of Point Pleasant, to the famed “Greenbriar Ghost” incident in which a ghost testified against (and convicted) her own murderer, folklore from the area is certainly vibrant.  However, aside from the more famous and bizarre cases, there are other locations that are sometimes overlooked.  Battlefields where Native Americans were slaughtered, homes in which people died and other unexplained phenomena dot the countryside from one end of the state to the other.  However, few places can boast the sheer number of paranormal events, or the true horror, that was the West Virginia State Penitentiary.

West Virginia split from Virginia in 1863, leading to the need for their own facilities to deal with, among other things, criminals.  As other states did not want West Virginia’s murderers, thieves, and other miscreants shipped across the state lines, the state legislature acquired a parcel of land in Moundsville, on which was to be built the State Penitentiary.  Living out of the North Wagon Gate, 150 inmates labored to complete the first real phase of the prison, using hand-cut limestone that was quarried nearby.  When they finished in 1876, ten years after the project began, the thing was a sight to behold.  Inspired by Joliet prison, but only half its size, it featured a main wall that was six feet wide at the base, tapering to a scant eighteen inches thick at the top.  At four stories tall, the structure boasted two completed cellblocks and twenty-four foot high fences.  There was even a home in the center of the prison for the warden and his family. 

By the time it opened in 1876, the population swelled to 251 inmates, all of whom were involved in the creation of their own cages.  They were also set to task in several forms of industry, from baking to carpentry, providing revenue for the prison. 

However, life at the prison wasn’t just a giant craft show.  In 1899, the prison system took a dark turn when the state took over responsibility for those sentenced to death.  Over a fifty-year span, eighty-five men were executed by hanging.  Between 1951 and 1959, an additional nine were executed in a chair made by an inmate and named “Old Sparky.”

Over the next ten years, conditions in the prison degraded.  The inmate population soared to a total of 2,000 inmates, forcing as many as three men in a single 5′ X 7′ cell.  There were two actual bunks, with one inmate sleeping on the floor.  Its final years saw a marked rise in violence, with many assaults occurring in the showers and the famed “sugar shack,” an indoor basement workout room where events earned the place its dubious name. 

Riots occurred during the years of 1973 and 1986, both making national headlines.  Fires broke out, and several suicides occurred while prisoners were relegated to solitary confinement, what the inmates called "the hole."  Complaints ranged from the poor living conditions, the sub-standard medical facilities, and general mistreatment of the inmates.  Following the riots, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the tiny cells and conditions constituted cruel and unusual punishment, leading the facility closing down in 1995. 

As an interesting side-note, there was one man who actually wanted to be transferred to the overcrowded penitentiary:  Charles Manson.  The cult leader actually wrote the warden in 1983, asking him to have Charles transferred, as the West Virginia State Penitentiary was the only place the guards seemed to treat him well.  Also, he claimed, relatives of his helped lay the stones in the street in front of the main prison gates.

While there are no specific identities of spirits identified, there are few that deny they exist.  Visitors have experienced voices, footsteps, cold spots, and unexplainable feelings of panic or remorse.  Some even claim to have been touched or hit by unseen forces within the stone walls. 

The maximum security wing is a place of great activity.  The prisoners held there were the worst kind of villain, and were locked away for not only the safety of the other inmates, but their own.  Often they would spend days at a time without leaving their cells, or even taking meals there. 

Another area of numerous phenomena is the famed “hole.”   Visitors report feeling nervous and apprehensive, even prior to entering.  Screams and cries have also been reported from this area.

Perhaps the most violently haunted area of the old prison is the “Sugar Shack.”   The site of a great deal of suffering, this basement workout room was often the site of beatings, stabbings, and other activities that earned the room its nickname.  Visitors have reported hearing cries from within the room as well as footsteps.  On several occasions, visitors have reported being physically assaulted. 

Present Day:
When the prison finally shut down, the Moundsville Economic Development Council leased the building for twenty-five years, aiming to use it as a tourist attraction.  At more than 100 years old, the facility has been registered as an historic place, and historical and educational tours are given often.  Part of the facility is used as the headquarters of the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center. 

Still, the reports of disturbances persist.   In fact, those running the facility now seem to revel in the haunting.  Ghost tours and night tours are also offered, with a “Ghost Hunter’s Contest” held annually.  During this event, for a nominal fee, visitors are allowed to spend the night alone in the facility to try to track down the restless souls.  There are also prizes awarded for those with the best evidence.

Best Times:
Tours of the facility run from March to November, with special events scattered in between.  May 21-22 marks the Elizabethtown 1800s heritage event which features arts & crafts, musical entertainment, children’s activities, demonstrations, a doll show, and food.  However, horror fans might want to attend during the Halloween season, when the penitentiary hosts their annual Dungeon of Horrors. 

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

Original artwork by Bill “Splat” Johnson.

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