Haunted West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville

Inmates working in West Virginia Penitentiary Factory in about 1923.

Inmates working in West Virginia Penitentiary Factory in about 1923.

In 1929, the size of the prison was doubled as overcrowding had become a problem. Prior to this time, three men were assigned to a 5 x 7-foot cell, with two prisoners sleeping on the bunks and the third sleeping on a mattress on the floor. Inmate labor was again used to build a new wing that was connected to the south side of the prison and was completed in 1939. More expansion was also planned, though it was delayed by a steel shortage during World War II and wasn’t entirely completed until 1959.

During these years, conditions worsened until the facility was ranked by the U.S. Department of Justice as one of the top ten most violent correctional facilities in the country. Conditions began to deteriorate even more in the 1950s when overcrowding once again became a major problem. Once again, three prisoners were often forced to a 5 x 7-foot cell.

The penitentiary housed approximately 80 women prisoners up until 1947 when a new facility was opened at Pence Springs, West Virginia and the women were transferred.

West Virginia Penitentiary Cell, by Carol Highsmith

West Virginia Penitentiary Cell, by Carol Highsmith

The warden and his family continued to live in the Administration Building until a new dwelling was built just south of the penitentiary. The new Colonial Revival house featured a circular fish pond, side bay windows, a curved drive, a patio, tennis courts, and gardens.

The 1960s and 70s, many of the older brick buildings within the North Recreation Yard were removed and replaced with concrete block and metal buildings. One of the buildings removed had been utilized for church services. In the 1970s, the local Pastors Association donated the present chapel building in the South Recreation Yard.

On November 7, 1979, there was a large prison break when 15 inmates escaped. During the escape, inmate Ronald T. Williams stole a prison guard’s service weapon and when he encountered 23-year-old off-duty West Virginia State Trooper Philip S. Kesner, he shot and killed him. For the next 18 months, Williams remained at large, committing crimes across the nation and killing a man in Arizona during a robbery. After making the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List, he was involved in a shootout with federal agents at the George Washington Hotel in New York City in 1981 and was apprehended and returned to West Virginia to complete several life sentences. As of January 2019, he remains in West Virginia custody.

During the prison break, the communication between the State and local police was said to have been poor, with local authorities hearing about the escape over the police scanner, which very well could have led to an earlier capture of the fugitives.

West Virginia Penitentiary Cellblock by Carol Highsmith

West Virginia Penitentiary Cellblock by Carol Highsmith

By 1986, the prison was undergoing several problems including loose security, plumbing issues, insect infestations, and once again — overcrowding with a population of more than 2,000 men. During this time, security was so loose that some described the facility as a “cons’ prison”, where most of the locks on the cells had been picked and inmates roamed the halls freely. On January 1, 1986, when the prison was short-staffed due to the holiday, inmates in the prison rioted.

At about 5:30 pm, 20 prisoners, who belonged to a group called Avengers, stormed the mess hall and attacked Captain Glassock, five other officers and a food service worker. All of them were slammed to the floor and handcuffed with the guards’ handcuffs. More hostages were taken throughout the two-day upheaval. During the riot, three inmates were killed. Negotiations with Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. resulted in a new list of rules and standards on which the prison would operate. None of the hostages were seriously injured.

That same year, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that confinement to the 5 x 7-foot cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment. Over the next decade, the population was reduced due to the building of more prisons. By 1995, the facility held only 600-700 inmates when the decision was made to close the facility.

West Virginia Penitentiary Excercise Yard by Carol Highsmith

West Virginia Penitentiary Excercise Yard by Carol Highsmith

During its 119-year tenure, approximately 998 men died in the prison; of these, 36 were homicides.

From 1899 to 1959, 94 men were executed at the prison, with 85 men executed by hanging. These executions were open to the public until June 19, 1931, when inmate Frank Hyer was hanged for murdering his wife. Unfortunately, when the trap door beneath him was opened and he fell, he was instantly decapitated. Afterward, attendance at executions could only be by those who were invited. The last man hanged at the prison was a man named Bud Peterson from Logan County. Upon his death, he was buried in the prison’s cemetery because his family refused to claim his body. In the early days, hangings probably took place near the North Wagon Gate. Later, a 1929 publication states that the Main Hospital Building was the location of the death row and execution room.

West Virginia Penitentiary Electric Chair, courtesy Wikipedia

West Virginia Penitentiary Electric Chair, courtesy Wikipedia

In 1949, the State Legislature decided electrocution was more humane. Nine men were killed in the electric chair before the state prohibited capital punishment in 1965. At that time executions took place in a building called the Death House where there were four holding cells on the first floor. This building no longer stands today.

Prisoners who died from execution or other causes were buried at the Whitegate Cemetery if their bodies weren’t claimed by relatives. The graves are designated with a license plate type marker. The cemetery is located about 3.5 miles east of the prison at 700 Toms Run Lane.

Today, there are no buildings or structures standing from the prison farm and coal mine as these sites are currently utilized by the Regional Jail facility in Moundsville.

After the prison closed, the Moundsville Economic Development Council leased the complex for 25 years. Today it serves a dual purpose as a training facility and a tourist attraction.

During its 119-year life as a penitentiary, the facility held some of the most violent killers, rapists, and other criminals, many of whom never left the institution alive. It comes as no surprise that this type of environment would leave behind more than a few wandering spirits.

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