For almost 1,000 men, Moundsville's prison was the last stop. Dozens were hung, several electrocuted, many more were murdered by their own kind. Then there were those who couldn't take the sentence of prison living and committed suicide to escape.
The stone walls of the West Virginia Penitentiary have seen hard men broken, dreams shattered and evil punished. The death and carnage have left a mark that will never wash away. By many accounts, some of the tortured souls who served time under this roof are still lurking in the shadows of the prison walls.
History of the Haunted Prison
The story of Moundsville's penitentiary begins in 1863 when West Virginia seceded from Virginia to side with the Union in the North. The newly formed state needed a prison, and the close proximity to then-capital Wheeling made the tiny village of Moundsville the perfect location.
Located on the banks of the Ohio River, the town of Moundsville derives its name from the many Adena Indian burial mounds located here that date back more than a millennium. It would seem this area was a place for death even before the penitentiary rose upon the West Virginia skyline.
Life inside the walls of the West Virginia Penitentiary was hard. Moundsville had the dubious honor of being on The United States Department of Justice's Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list during its 119-year history.
Prisoners were rarely safe inside these stone walls. Downstairs is one of the most infamous rooms in the complex. The prisoner recreation room was better known as "The Sugar Shack" by the inmates. It was here that illegal activities like gambling, fighting, rape and murder took place.
Life (and Death) Behind Bars
Like many prisons, West Virginia Penitentiary had its own social hierarchy among the inmates. The prisoners had ways of helping each other, but they also had ways of dealing with the rats among them. Inmate number 44670, better known as R.D. Wall, was one such snitch who suffered the ultimate punishment at the hands of his fellow prisoners. On October 8, 1929, Wall was heading down into the bowels of the prison to where the boilers were kept when he was jumped by three other inmates. The men cut and stabbed at R.D. Wall with dull shivs. When they were finished, Wall was literally butchered into pieces. He's only one of the 36 homicides to take place here. Wall is also connected to one of the earliest ghost-sighting reports here at the prison.
Between 1899 and 1949, 85 men were hung from the gallows at the penitentiary. The practice often drew crowds of locals who would come to watch the condemned meet their end. However, the practice of hanging was ruled cruel and unusual punishment in 1951 after the state reviewed some of the botched hangings, including a prisoner who was inadvertently decapitated.
Inmate Bud Peterson from Logan County, the last man hanged here, was put to death on February 25, 1949. He was convicted of murdering a woman over a poker debt. After his sentence was carried out, Peterson's family refused to claim the body, so he was buried in the penitentiary cemetery, where many other unwanted corpses have also found their final resting place.
In 1951, an inmate named Paul Glenn was asked to build an electric chair to carry out future executions. The chair, dubbed "Old Sparky" is still on display here. Nine more prisoners were executed by electrocution before the state of West Virginia finally outlawed capital punishment in 1965.
Living Like Caged Animals
During the 1950s, there was a period where overcrowding was so significant that up to three prisoners were forced to share a five-by-seven-foot cell. There was room for only two steel bunks and a mattress on the cement floor. The men lived liked caged animals, and the pressure led to deadly riots.
In 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that putting men in five-by-seven cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In 1995 the prison closed their doors for good, and the inmates were sent to larger facilities that could handle them.
Tortured Souls Still Haunt the Prison
Though the prisoners are gone, they're not forgotten, and by many accounts, the ghosts of some of the 998 men who died here still roam free. There's a shadow man that has been seen and even photographed. Staff of the prison have been accosted by unseen forces. Strange noises still echo throughout the cell blocks, and something dark lurks in the bowels of the building.