West Virginia  State Penitentiary 

  • June 14, 2024
  • USA

In West-Virginia, in the city of Moundsville, you can find the West-Virginia State Penitentiary. This prison is also referred to as the Moundsville Penitentiary. It was built in 1866 with a maximum capacity of 480 inmates and was closed in 1995. Nowadays it is a training facility and a much loved ghost-hunting location. 

The history of the West Virginia State Penitentiary  

West Virginia State Penitentiary via Pxhere
Pxhere public domain

The West Virginia State Penitentiary is a Gothic building with a brick structure including medieval looking battlements and towers. During the American Civil War, in 1863, West-Virginia became independent of Virginia. The new state had a shortage of public facilities such as prisons. There was only one prison in West-Virginia so requests were made to build a new one. Those requests were turned down repeatedly until nine prisoners escaped from the only facility in 1865. The old prison was no longer sufficient and the build of the new state penitentiary could finally begin. It took a while to find the right location for the new prison, but the area around Moundsville was the most suitable for the project. That summer a wooden, temporary, prison was built. Ironically, this prison was mainly built by inmates.  


Within the prison walls there was plenty of work for the inmates as well. There was a timber shop, a paint shop, a blacksmith, a bakery, a tailorshop and an infirmary. The penitentiary was mostly self-sufficient because of a prison farm. In 1921 a coal mine was opened one mile (1,5 km) away from the prison. Inmates even stayed on the terrain under the supervision of a foreman. These foremen were no prison guards. The circumstances at the beginning of the 20th century were good. Education was considered important to return into society. In 1900 a school and a library were built at the prison because of this ideal.  

Like herrings in a barrel 

Taken via Pixabay
Taken via Pixabay

This all seems fantastic, but the circumstances soon changed the years after that. And not for the better. There number of inmates grew and the prison started to become overcrowded. At one point, there were even 2000 inmates held in the penitentiary. This meant that three inmates were living in a jail cell no bigger than 21,5 square foot (2 m²)Of course, this meant trouble. This prison was even in the FBI’s top 10 most violent prisons in the US. A total of 36 murders were committed within these walls.

The murder on inmate R.D. Wall was the absolute lowest. Wall was looked upon as a snitch. One evening, Wall was followed down to the basement by three other inmates. They brought self manufactured knives with them. When Wall was on the toilet, the three raided him and cut his head off with the knives. In 1929 the government was fed up with all the violence. The penitentiary should at least double its size. Unfortunately the construction wasn’t ready until 1959 because there was a shortage of steel because of the Second World War.  

Four sections 

There were four sections at the prison where different types of inmates were held. The North Hall (nicknamed The Alamo) was reserved for convicts who behaved badly. They got a 5×7 foot cell. The New Wall was the place where everyday convicts were housed. The Rat Row was reserved for rats and snitches, who had earned special protection and a separate exercise area in the yard because they testified against their cellmates. The Honor Hall housed trustees. They had certain privileges and decreased security.  

A special request 

Carol M. Highsmith via Picryl
Carol M. Highsmith via Picryl

In 1983 the prison management received a handwritten letter from the infamous serial killer Charles Manson. In his letter he requested to be transferred  to West Virginia to be closer to his family. His request was denied.   


There was a huge uprising at the prison on January 1st of 1986. During that period there were lots of changes at the prison and those resulted into problems. There weren’t many guards around because of the holidays. At 5:30 PM, 20 inmates named the Avengers, took over the dining area. The six guards and one kitchen help were taken hostage within seconds. They were cuffed with their own handcuffs. None of the hostages were seriously harmed, but three of the inmates were butchered. The riot wasn’t well planned, that’s why the Avengers appointed Danny Lehman as their leader, while Lehman didn’t even participate in the riot. 

He negotiated with the authorities and informed the media about the demands. Governor Arch A. Moore Jr. was sent to prison to talk to the inmates. A list with new rules and values was made. In the days that followed, there were more riots and escapes. The Supreme Court determined that same year that the cells were too small and degrading. The number of prisoners had to be brought down. The construction of new prisons  brought the numbers back to 700. In 1995 the building was shut down due to the poor state it was in. All inmates were then transferred to other prisons.  

Death penalty 

Up until 1965 West Virginia carried out the death penalty. Ninety-two men were executed here from 1899 to 1959. Until 1949 this was done by hanging. At least 83 men were killed this way. Everybody who wanted, was allowed to be present at the executions. Until the execution of a man named Frank Hyer. He was sentenced to death for killing his wife on June 19, 1931. When the hatch opened and Frank fell down he was spontaneously decapitated because of his weight, right in front of the eyes of the spectators! Ever since this incident it was only possible to witness an execution by invitation. From 1951 executions were done by the electric chair. The chair in Moundsville was nicknamed “Old Sparky” and was ironically built by an inmate. Nine men lost their lives on that chair until the death penalty was abolished in 1965.  


Falkenpost via pixabay
Falkenpost via pixabay

To keep the inmates under control, the guards sometimes used torture devices. This went pretty far. One of these devices was the “Shoo Fly”. The hands, feet and head of the inmate were restrained in this device and ice cold water would be sprayed hard in the face. It was impossible to turn your face away. Even worse was “Kicking Jenny”. Like “Old Sparky”, “kicking Jenny” was invented and built in the prison. An inmate would be bound to the device and was almost beaten to death by the whip.  

Many ghosts 

According to many there’s no prison in the world that’s haunted as much as the Moundsville Penitentiary. A reason for that might be because of the fact that the prison was built on top of an Indian burial ground. Which is, of course, asking for trouble. Legend says the grounds are cursed. Ever since the 1930’s people claim to have seen, heard or felt something. Because of all the violence the place has seen over the years, there’s residual energy at the place. This means that certain incidents play over and over again, like a movie. The spirit of R.D. Wall is seen in the basement, without his head. Prisoner Roberts is haunting his own cell, probably because he was buried just outside of the wall behind it.  

Executed twice 

Carol M. Highsmith via Picryl
Carol M. Highsmith via Picryl

Orville Paul Adkins’ spirit is often seen at the place where he was hanged. He was actually executed twice on March 21st 1933. When kidnapper Adkins was about to be hanged, the hatch accidentally opened before the noose was around his neck. He fell down, head first, and was mortally injured. With Frank Hyer’s gruesome death still in everybody’s minds, he was put back on his feet and executed as fast as they could. No wonder the man still haunts the gallows.  

Shadow Man 

Many have seen the Shadow Man who is believed to be the ghost of a gruesome guard, but it might as well be the spirit of an influential inmate. This is a highly intimidating ghost that roams the former cafeteria. When people walk into the North Hall, where heavy criminals were held, fear is often experienced. The “Sugar Shack”, the winter recreation room is loaded with ghosts. There is no evidence of people ever getting murdered here, but many rapes and fights took place here.

Also the chapel, the shower rooms and the electric chair “Old Sparky” are referred to as being ghostly hotspots. People often hear footsteps and whispers here and they have the eerie feeling of being watched. Some even claim they were followed! There are reports of people being grabbed by the arm there, even though they were alone. The heavy iron revolving door sometimes turns by itself like a new inmate is brought in.  

The West Virginia State Penitentiary  today 

Mike Sharp via commons.wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0
Mike Sharp via commons.wikimedia CC BY-SA 2.0

The penitentiary is now vacant but the West Virginia government rented the prison for a period of 25 years to use as a training facility for police officers and prison guards. The prison also a tourist attraction, where people can go on a ghost hunt. Would you dare to go in?  

Do you want to read more about haunted places in America? Click here!

Cover photo: Carol M. Highsmith via Picryl public domain
Sources: Wikipedia, wvpentours.com, atlasobscura.com, haunted-places-to-be.com 
Address: Morgantown, WV 26506, USA 

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