West Virginia State Penitenitary, Moundsville, West Virginia


The West Virginia State Penitentiary is not only a prison, but an architectural marvel in itself.  The architectural type is Gothic Revival and it is modeled after the state prison in Joliet, Illinois, but on a smaller scale.  The prison operated from 1876 until 1995.


The first building constructed was the North Wagon Gate in 1876 and afterwards more were added.  There are 224 cells in the South Hall and the North Hall has a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel.  The 4-story tower connects the two halls and houses the administration portion of the building, which includes living quarters for the warden and his family.  Once this phase was completed, work began on secondary facilities such as a carpentry shop, a paint shop, a wagon shop, a stone yard, a brickyard, a blacksmith shop, a tailor, a bakery, and a hospital.  The prison also had a farm and in 1921, they opened a coal mine.  The prison was self sufficient and education was a priority during the early 20th century--the construction of the school and library was completed in 1900  to help "reform and educate inmates".


As the years went by, the conditions of the prison worsened to the point that the US Department of Justice (US DOJ) would rank the prison in the Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities in the country.  This wasn't just due to multiple events that happened, but some of the most violent, heinous crimes to occur inside or outside of prison walls, there were at least 36 know homicides during the time it was open.  The Sugar Shack is where most of the violence occurred, so much to the point that guards refused to go in there for fear of their safety.  The building was supposed to be a recreational room, but it was much, much darker than anyone could imagine--there was gambling, fighting, and rapes happened here.  At one point, a prisoner was beaten so badly he could barely move and either crawled out of The Sugar Shack or was thrown out, but no guard would help him due to retaliation and fear of for their safety--if you take the daytime tour, the guide will tell you about this.


The best known homicide to occur in the prison happened to R.D. Wall on October 8, 1929.  R.D. was on his way to his job in the boiler room when he was jumped by three fellow inmates with dull shivs for being a snitch.  His fingers were cut off and he was decapitated.  His spirit is said to be seen roaming the yard.


Overall, there were 94 men executed between 1899 and 1959.  Until 1949, there were 85 men hung and until June 19, 1931, the hangings were a public event.  What made this change from public to invitation only?  On this date, a man by the name of Frank Hyer was being executed for the murder of his wife.  When the trap door opened and his full weight settled into the noose, he was decapitated.  In 1951, Old Sparky became a fixture at the prison, this is the year that electrocution became the fate of those on death row.  Between 1951 and 1965, when the state prohibited capital punishment, nine men died were put to death in this manner.  The ironic part of this--Old Sparky was built by an inmate.


More famous inmates or those wanting to be an inmate here are Eugene V. Debs and Charles Manson.    Mr. Debs served time here from April 13 - June 14, 1919 for charges of violating the Espionage Act of 1917.  He was then transferred to a prison in Atlanta.  In 1983, Charles Manson wrote a letter asking to be transferred to the prison to be closer to his family--his request was denied, but his letter is in the prison museum.  There was also a prison break in 1979, fifteen prisoners escaped and in 1986 there was a riot that lasted two days with three inmates killed.


With all this violence, heinous crimes, and death there is sure to be some spirit wandering around. 

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