WEST VIRGINIA PENITENTIARY
In the heart of Moundsville, West Virginia, stands a haunting relic of the past - the West Virginia Penitentiary. A place where time seems to have stood still, this gothic-style prison, with its castellated Gothic stone structure, once held the shadows of the condemned from 1866 to 1995. Today, it no longer serves as a house of incarceration but has found a new purpose as a chilling tourist attraction, a museum of the macabre, a training ground for the curious, and even a setting for the eerie tales of filmmakers.
The prison's design, reminiscent of the 1858 state prison in Joliet, Illinois, exudes an air of foreboding with its turrets, battlements, and stone walls that stand as silent sentinels. These formidable walls, 5 feet thick at their base and towering 24 feet high, conceal the secrets of those who were once confined within. The central tower, stretching an imposing 682 feet, marks the front entrance on Jefferson Avenue, inviting you to step into a world of darkness and despair.
The prison's history is a tale woven with the threads of necessity and the horrors of incarceration. In the turbulent days of the American Civil War, West Virginia seceded from Virginia, leaving a void in the establishment of public institutions, including prisons. The quest for a state penitentiary was long and arduous, as Governor Arthur I. Boreman relentlessly lobbied the West Virginia Legislature. It took a daring escape by nine inmates in 1865 and the rallying cry of the local press to finally spur the legislature into action. On February 7, 1866, the state legislature approved the purchase of land in Moundsville, a site cloaked in its own eerie allure. Ten acres were procured for the purpose, laying the foundation for what would become the West Virginia Penitentiary.
The prison's construction commenced with the creation of the North Wagon Gate, a formidable structure hewn from hand-cut sandstone. The laborious efforts of prison inmates, both in its construction and throughout the prison's growth, gave birth to a complex that included north and south cellblock areas, each measuring 300 feet by 52 feet. South Hall harbored 224 cells, each a chilling 7 feet by 4 feet, while North Hall housed essential facilities such as a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel. Connecting these ominous halls stood a 4-story tower, the administration building, encompassing living quarters for the warden and his family, along with a space for female inmates. The prison opened its foreboding gates in this year, welcoming a prison population of 251 male inmates, some of whom had a hand in constructing their own prison. As the years passed, prison workshops and secondary facilities took shape, creating a self-sustaining world within these imposing walls.
Within the confines of the prison, inmates toiled in various industries, from carpentry to blacksmithing, contributing to the prison's self-sufficiency. A coal mine, a mile away, helped meet the prison's energy needs and saved the state thousands. In the early 20th century, education became a priority, with inmates attending classes and the construction of a school and library to aid in their reform.
However, as the years wore on, the prison's conditions deteriorated, and it descended into infamy as one of the United States Department of Justice's Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities. The recreation room known as "The Sugar Shack" became a notorious hotspot for gambling, fighting, and worse. Notably, the prison housed labor activist Eugene V. Debs in the early 20th century.
In 1929, overcrowding forced an expansion of the prison, doubling its size, but the cramped 5 x 7-foot cells remained a grim reality for inmates. Tragedy struck within these walls, with a total of thirty-six homicides occurring, including the brutal murder of inmate R.D. Wall in 1929.
The prison's grim history includes a request by Charles Manson to be transferred here, which was denied. In 1979, a daring prison break saw fifteen inmates escape, and one of them, Ronald Turney Williams, went on a violent rampage before his capture.
The year 1986 marked a dark chapter in the prison's history as a riot erupted. Overcrowding, poor conditions, and a lack of security converged to create a volatile situation. Inmates, known as the Avengers, stormed the prison, taking hostages and demanding change. Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. met with the inmates, resulting in new rules and standards for the prison.
As the years passed, the prison's population dwindled, and its fate was sealed in a 1986 ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court, declaring the prison's cell sizes cruel and unusual punishment. In 1995, the West Virginia Penitentiary closed its doors as a prison, and most inmates were transferred elsewhere. A smaller correctional facility was built nearby to serve as a regional jail.
Within these haunted walls, ninety-four men met their fate from 1899 to 1959, either by hanging or electrocution, with the infamous "Old Sparky" serving as the instrument of death. The prison's dark history is etched in its very stones, and the echoes of its tormented past can still be felt within its chilling confines.
- Sat, Aug 24Moundsville - WVAug 24, 2024, 11:00 PM EDT – Aug 25, 2024, 4:30 AM EDTMoundsville - WV, 818 Jefferson Ave, Moundsville, WV 26041, USA