West Virginia Penitentiary
1866-1995

Moundsville, WV

October 11, 2008

Originally built in 1866, the fortress-like stone structure features 24 ft high walls, battlements and turrets. Following several additions, the rectangular complex covers 19 acres with an imposing and formidable 3 block long facade, which belies the cramped, overcrowded and inhuman conditions for which the penitentiary became so infamous.

These are a combination of my pictures and John's from the Tour

It has been called both one of the Most Haunted Places in America and one of the top 500 places to visit while traveling. The prison site was chosen because of it’s location close to the then-state capitol Wheeling, VA.

Prior to the Civil War and the birth of WEST Virginia, Wheeling was in Virginia.


The prison was built by prisoners (excluding the cafeteria) who hand cut the stones. Originally built for 480 prisoners, by the early 1930s it housed a total of 2,400.

This is a classic prison nightmare, a human warehouse where men would freeze in winter and broil in summer. Tier after tier of tiny cells stacked to the ceiling, and open-air showers on the concrete floor.

Walls are covered with paintings done by former prisoners.

The inmates were given jobs that supported the community. A variety of industries were located within the prison including a blacksmith, wagon shop, carpentry shop, brickyard, stone yard, paint shop, tailor, bakery and hospital.

Visitor's side of the visitation room. The other side of the glass was a small enclosed room where prisoners sat along 2 sides. Telephones were used to communicate.


Prisoner living quarters were small as cells were a tiny 5' x 7' and held 3 prisoners at a time for many years!


Cells were literally one on top of the other with very little ceiling space. The 3 levels above the main level can be seen here. The prison has 10 cell blocks like this.

For most of the years in operation Moundsville maintained a position on the Department of Justice's top ten most violent correctional facilities list. The prisoners had a common mentality of kill or be killed, which made the prison a "hot-bed" of violent behavior.

The guard shows us how the doors to the cells were operated from this control tower. We were able to go into the cell and have the door close behind us - as I did below.


Me standing in a cell next to a bunk. A second bunk previously hung above it and a third person slept on the floor on a mattress! Painting your cell a color was a privilege that had to be earned.


Outside in one of the yards of the prison.
The top floor was where the Warden and his family lived.


The outdoor bathroom of the yard originally had walls and no surveillance inside. After a prisoner was badly beaten in the bathroom, the warden had the walls removed.


The Wagon Gate, where new prisoners were brought into the prison and where those on death row were executed by hanging.


The executions were only a small part of the violent past at Moundsville. Suicide, murder and violent punishments contributed to the death of hundreds of inmates.


Inside the Wagon Gate, prisoners stood over the trap door above and a noose was placed around their necks. The trap door opened and the prisoner fell to his hanging death, often with a cheering crowd below.

85 men were executed by hanging at the prison until one was accidentally decapitated
. Old Sparkie, the electric chair took over after that.


A small prison chapel at the far end of one of the larger yards.


A view of the serving area in the huge prison cafeteria which fed 200 men per hour.
Tables and benches have been removed.



However, there are many beautiful paintings on the walls in the cafeteria done by a few of the prisoners.



A close up of the previous painting, done in 1993, by Shawn Adams, who was color blind and Smitty Harding who helped Shawn with the colors.



This wall was set across a corner and the guards took their meals on the other side of the wall away from the prisoners. Shawn and Smitty painted this truck on the wall.


Another painting by Shawn and Smitty, also in 1993. It's said that they both have returned to the prison for the tours with their families to show them where they lived for years and also their beautiful paintings which remain today.


The North Hall, called The Alamo Cell Block, where the "BAD, bad guys" were housed. Prisoners were once fed through slots in the cell doors called "the bean hole."


Prisoners in this section literally lived in cages.
Guards did not enter any of these areas as it was far too dangerous to do so.



Our guide showing us a modified door to accommodate an inmate in a wheelchair! The doorway wall was cut wider too. You can see the feeding slots in the doors.



View of one of the cells in this area. Sink and toilet is an all-in-one deal. Three men, crammed into these cells, stayed here for 22 hrs of their day!

For some reason, upper bunks had been removed in all cells that we saw.



Later a small eating area was built for these prisoners. Everything in this section is completely enclosed with fencing and guards do not enter these areas.



Looking up from the eating area to the stairways for the other three floors of cells. Every area, stairway, cell area etc has heavy chain link fencing which is more visible if you enlarge the picture.


Above the dining area, another guard is posted keeping watch from above.
It was really a creepy feeling being so completely caged in!



Prisoners in North Hall were considered so dangerous they were segregated from the main population into small yard areas as these two yards here.

I have a short video on You Tube consisting mainly of the Alamo Cell Block area. It can be viewed at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=69o4xyGtcCg

More hallways, more gates and doors. This is the original tile floor.
The prison is constantly undergoing refurbishing.



The Wheel House in the administration building, a revolving door with iron bars instead of glass, which separated the Warden and his family from inmates. The warden, by law, had to live at the prison. That law was finally abolished in 1959.


Looking through the bars of the Wheel House above. New prisoners entered these doors and into the holding cell on the right. After processing, they went through the "revolving gate" into the prison. Those who left after serving their sentence went out the same way. Area is currently being restored.


At the end of the tour, we were led into a small prison museum. Here is a display of confiscated hand-made weapons, a replica death cell, and a hand-written letter from Charles Manson, requesting a transfer to West Virginia. (It was denied.)



In 1951 the State began using an electric chair. The State of West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1959 but not before Old Sparky could take out 9 more convicts.



Old Sparkie was built by a prisoner in 1950, after which he had to be moved to another prison in order to prevent his being killed by other inmates.

A leather bag was dropped over the condemned prisoner's head. It wasn't just for privacy. The electricity would go down through the head, and then exit the cavities of the face: the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears. It was gross to see.


In 1986, after the worst riot in the prison's history, the West Virginia Supreme Court ordered the penitentiary to be closed. The process of relocating prisoners and closing took until 1995, when the state's oldest and largest prison finally shut its doors.


The following year, in an effort to preserve this historic landmark and to stem the town's economic loss due to its closing, the Moundsville Economic Development Council opened the prison to the public, offering 90 minute guided tours.

Since that time, visitors have flocked by the thousands to the facility, which is now included on the National Register of Historic Places.
For more information on the tours, visit http://www.wvpentours.com/

The tour was very interesting - seeing everything behind these walls and hearing all the stories. I have wanted to go here for several years and finally, we did.

Send comments & questions to MerryGoRnd@aol.com

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