Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary) is a prison in Moundsville, West Virginia. It opened in 1876 and closed in 1995.
The prison, which opened in 1876 and closed in 1995, was among the most violent and crime-ridden in the United States. Inmates suffered harsh living conditions and inhumane treatment. Many died violently during the years it operated as a prison facility. Nearly a hundred executions occurred there.
Folklore alleges that the tortured spirits of the people who lived, suffered, and died at Moundsville Penitentiary haunt the facility.
It is now a museum and tourist attraction.
The West Virginia state legislature officially approved building Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary) in February 1866.
Governor Arthur Boreman, the state governor from 1863 to 1866, had asked the legislature to approve the construction of a prison after secession from Virginia in 1863. But interest in building a state prison did not gain traction until several inmates escaped from county jails in 1865. Following the incident, the legislature approved the request for a state prison.
The government acquired several acres of land on the outskirts of Moundsville, a few miles south of the state capital, Wheeling. The architectural design for the building took inspiration from the pre-existing facility, the Joliet Correctional Center (then known as Illinois State Penitentiary) at Joliet, Illinois, constructed in 1858.
Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary) is a Gothic revival architectural style complex on a 19-acre property (Bill Lynch, Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 2016). It has a medieval fortress architectural design with stone walls, towers, and battlements.
Construction of the prison started in the summer of 1866. The builders made a makeshift structure to house inmates while constructing the first building, the North Wagon Gate. They later added other structures, including cellblock areas.
Conditions of living at the prison were fair during the early years. The authorities provided prisoners with training in carpentry, tailoring, catering, and farming. The prison also had a school and library that served the needs of inmates who wanted to enroll in educational programs.
Famous Moundsville Penitentiary inmates: Eugene V. Debs
Moundsville Penitentiary hosted many famous inmates, such as Eugene V. Debs.
Debs, a controversial political and social activist who ran multiple times for the office of U.S. president on the platform of the Socialist Party, was an inmate at Moundsville Penitentiary for a few months in 1919. He came to Moundsville Penitentiary after being convicted of violating the Espionage Act of 1917 and the Sedition Act of 1918, which prohibited public speech and actions that obstructed the war effort (World War I) and the military draft.
The authorities arrested him after he spoke against the military draft during a public speech in Canton, Ohio, in 1918. They held him at Moundsville Penitentiary from April to June before transferring him to Atlanta.
Debs returned home from prison on Christman Day 1921, after President Warren G. Harding commuted his sentence.
Famous Moundsville Penitentiary inmates: Harry Powers
Harry Powers (birth name: Harm Drenth) was one of the most notorious criminals to have passed through the gates of Moundsville Penitentiary (Bill Lynch, Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 2016).
Powers, a native of Clarksburg, West Virginia, was a serial killer believed to have been responsible for the deaths of several women. He specialized in ensnaring women looking for love and marriage. He would post newspaper ads, introducing himself as a single male looking for a partner. Many women who responded to the ads ended up being robbed and murdered.
Law enforcement arrested him in 1931. A court convicted him of the murder of two women and three children. The authorities executed him by hanging at Moundsville in March 1932.
Conditions at Moundsville Penitentiary
The fair conditions at Moundsville did not last long. Things started deteriorating in the late 1900s and 1920s.
Overcrowding at the facility led to the proliferation of vice and crime. Violence, sexual assault, torture, gambling, and homicide became rampant.
Violent gangs, such as the Aryan Brotherhood and The Avengers, ruled the prison. The section of the facility the inmates used as a recreation room was called the Sugar Shack. It gained notoriety as the center of violence and murder.
By the mid-1920s, Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary) had acquired the reputation of being one of the most violent and crime-infested correctional facilities in the country. The authorities attempted to improve conditions by expanding it. But the construction, delayed by the outbreak of World War II, did not end until the late 1950s.
The R.D. Wall murder case: 1929
Several murders occurred among prison inmates between the 1920s and 1950s. One of the most notorious murder cases at the prison occurred on October 8, 1929.
A group of prisoners armed with improvised weapons ambushed fellow inmate R. D. Wall (Prisoner #44670) near the boiler room and killed him for “ratting” on colleagues. They stabbed him multiple times with improvised weapons, and he died painfully.
The murder of William “Red” Snyder
Several murders occurred at the notorious North Hall section of the prison, where they kept the most violent offenders.
An inmate at the North Hall murdered Willaim “Red” Snyder (Prisoner #45512) in 1992. Snyder was a violent criminal convicted of killing his father, Emory Snyder, and a neighbor Frank Grogg whose son was dating his sister. He was the feared leader of the Aryan Brotherhood gang at Moundsville.
He reportedly played a role in the 1986 uprising at Moundsville Penitentiary and stabbed a fellow inmate, Kent Sile, to death during the riot. Sile was allegedly a “snitch.”
Snyder was an unpleasant fellow who often quarreled with other prisoners. Rusty Lassiter, a fellow inmate and reportedly a close friend, stabbed and killed Snyder in 1992. Lassiter allegedly killed Snyder on the orders of another inmate who wanted to take over leadership of the Aryan Brotherhood.
Prison break by Ronald Turney Williams in 1979
A group of prisoners escaped from Moundsville Penitentiary on November 7, 1979. One of the gang leaders was Ronald Turney Williams, a violent criminal convicted of the May 1975 murder of Beckley Police Department officer David Lilly.
Williams stole a service weapon. As he and his group of escapees made their way out of prison premises, they encountered West Virginia State Trooper Philip S. Kesner, 23, in the company of his wife. Although Kesner was off duty, he attempted to stop the prisoners, but Williams shot him fatally.
Williams then went on a robbery and murder spree. He reportedly committed robberies in Colorado and Pennsylvania and a murder during a bank robbery in Scottsdale. Federal agents caught up with him in 1981 at the George Washington Hotel. They sent him back to Moundsville Penitentiary to complete his sentence.
He is now an inmate at the Mount Olive Correctional Complex in West Virginia.
An uprising in 1986
A two-day uprising in protest of harsh conditions at Moundsville Penitentiary erupted on New Year’s Day in 1986.
The protest was due to deteriorating conditions at the prison. The facility was severely overcrowded and vermin-infested. Essential utilities such as heating, power, and water were grossly inadequate. Leaking sewer pipes resulted in insanitary conditions and the spread of diseases.
The poor conditions led to restiveness among the inmates. They plotted to take advantage of New Year’s Day holiday when many prison staff and guards would be off duty.
Trouble started toward dusk when members of a notorious prison gang, the Avengers, went to the mess hall and attacked the guards on duty. Brandishing improvised weapons, about 20 Avengers overpowered the guards under Captain Glassock and handcuffed them. They also took the kitchen staff hostage.
The Avengers then appointed negotiators to present their grievances and demands. One of the men they chose to represent them was Danny Lehman. He was a leader of the Avengers, but multiple sources claimed he was not among the group of 20 who plotted and planned the hostage action.
Lehman led the negotiating team that met with Governor Arch A. Moore and his aides. The uprising ended after both parties agreed on things to do to improve conditions at the prison. One concession they got for the governor was a promise to build a new cafeteria (Billy Lynch Charleston Gazette-Mail).
Moundsville Penitentiary decommissioned in 1995
Following the New Year’s Day uprising in 1986, a West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the conditions at Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary) were inhumane.
The eventual closure of the prison in 1995 was the direct consequence of the 1986 uprising and the ruling by the Supreme Court.
The prison closed after the authorities transferred the inmates to other facilities. They moved most of them to Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County, West Virginia.
Locals started sharing tales about ghosts and paranormal events at the Moundsville Penitentiary long before the facility close in 1995 (Bill Lynch, Charleston Gazette-Mail, October 23, 2016).
Allegedly haunted sections of the facility include the North Wagon Gate, boiler room, death row, psych ward, and the infamous sugar shack.
Visitors and staff reported encountering dark shadows and apparitions of former inmates wearing prison uniforms. Other alleged paranormal manifestations include strange odors, noises, and voices. People reported feeling an invisible presence around them down in the dungeons. They felt someone breathing down their necks, brushing past or touching them.
The gruesome deaths at the prison inspired the ghost tales. Many inmates died as a result of violence. Inmates and guards also died during escape attempts, riots, and other disturbances.
In some cases, guards killed inmates while torturing them. Prisoners who couldn’t adapt to the harsh conditions committed suicide.
The prison housed felons convicted of grave offenses such as rape and murder. Thus, homicide occurred with a relatively high frequency at Moundsville Penitentiary. The prison acquired notoriety as a place of violence and murder. The U.S. Justice Department ranked it as one of the most violent in the country.
Folklore claims that the spirits of people who died at the prison haunt it.
Executions and murders
The prison authorities executed nearly 100 men at Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary). Legend claims that the ghosts of executed inmates, including Frank Hyer, Bud Peterson, and Elmer Brumer, haunt the facility.
Paranormal enthusiasts also believe that the ghosts of murdered inmates and guards, such as R. D. Wall and West Virginia State Trooper Philip S. Kesner, haunt the facility.
Hanging was the preferred method of execution from the time the prison opened in 1876 until 1949. About 85 men died by hanging there.
The early hangings were public events. However, the public events stopped after multiple botched hangings, such as during the execution of Frank Hyer in June 1931. Hyer suffered decapitation during execution.
Bud Peterson of Logan Country was the last man executed by hanging at the prison. A court found Peterson guilty of murdering a woman over a poker debt (Lethal Injection by Justin D. Anderson, Tuesday, June 5, 2007).
The botched execution of Orville Adkins at the North Wagon Gate
The North Wagon Gate is the oldest structure at Moundsville Penitentiary. The prison authorities conducted the first executions there. Paranormal enthusiasts claim that the ghosts of executed prisoners, such as Orville Adkins, haunt the old structure.
Adkins was a kidnapper and murderer executed at the North Wagon Gate in 1938. An inexperienced operator botched the hanging.
The executioner released the trapdoor too soon, and instead of the victim hanging, he fell through to the ground below. He survived the fall but suffered injuries. He had to walk back to the execution platform and go through the process of being hanged again.
Some people reported seeing Adkins’ ghosts walking around in the North Wagon Gate area as if reliving the harrowing experience of walking back to the scaffold to be executed after the first botched attempt.
Ol’ Sparky the electric chair
An inmate, Paul Glenn, built Ol’ Sparky, the prison’s famous electric chair. The authorities used Ol’ Sparky to electrocute nine men between 1951 and 1959. The last execution (the electrocution of Elmer Brumer) occurred in April 1959.
Old Sparky finally retired after the West Virginia government prohibited capital punishment in 1965. Tourists can still see the electric chair at the Moundsville Penitentiary (West Virginia Penitentiary).
An old Native American burial ground
Legend claims that the site of Moundsville Penitentiary served as a Native American burial ground centuries ago. The mounds marking the burial sites are still visible in and around the prison premises. Native Americans of the Adena culture (500 BCE-100 CE) reportedly buried their dead at Moundsville.
Some paranormal investigators claimed to have seen dark shadows and apparitions lurking in the dark around the mounds. Some said they obtained photographic evidence of ghosts of the ancient dead roaming the prison grounds.
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Top image courtesy of Rhonda Humphreys is used under Creative Commons license CC BY-SA 4.0.
|Other Name/s||West Virginia Penitentiary|
|Address||818 Jefferson Ave, Moundsville, WV 26041|
|Activity reported||Haunting, Shadow Figures|
Where to find
In the media
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https://dcr.wv.gov/aboutus/Pages/history.aspx, “West Virginia Division of Corrections and Rehabilitation: History,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://www.cityofmoundsville.com/explore/west-virginia-penitentiary/61, “West Virginia Penitentiary,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://apnews.com/article/2d498b826eae1bca40495bd185f1e736, “Inmate To Testify In Murder Trial Killed, Mistrial Declared,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://theresashauntedhistoryofthetri-state.blogspot.com/2014/10/moundsvilles-infamous-prisoner-45512.html, “Theresa’s haunted history of the tri-state,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://ghostwalks.com/articles/last-hanging-west-virginia-penitentiary, “Last Public Hanging at West Virginia Penitentiary | Violence of Frank Hyer,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
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http://lethal-injection-florida.blogspot.com/2007/06/first-hanging-at-state-pen-was-in-1899.html, “First hanging at State pen was in 1899; the last man executed there in 1959,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://www.travelchannel.com/shows/ghost-adventures/articles/moundsvilles-haunted-history, “Moundsville’s Haunted History,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/west-virginia/most-haunted-place-on-earth-wv/, “This Abandoned West Virginia Prison Is Thought To Be One Of The Most Haunted Places On Earth,” accessed on May 16, 2023.
https://adelaidehauntedhorizons.com.au/haunted-west-virginia-penitentiary-moundsville/, “Haunted West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville,” accessed on May 16, 2023.