Throughout its’ history, the West Virginia State Penitentiary has seen its share of violence and death. The amount of inhumane treatment and dangerous living situations actually lead to the prison being named one of the top ten most violent correctional facilities by the U.S. Department of Justice. This prison is probably as close to the cliché of “prisoners running the asylum” as you can get. The numerous gang affiliations and normal trade and barter systems were commonplace, and not just with the prisoners but the guards as well. Riots and breakouts would be nothing new for a prisoners or guards life at West Virginia Penitentiary. The cemetery situated on the grounds followed suite with the prison eventually and deceased inmates would begin to make their way into the public cemeteries causing strong displeasure from locals. In time, these issues all sorted themselves out as the state closed the facility and relocated prisoners to nearby jails but, as many visitors will tell you, there is still someone or something detained in the prison.
It’s hard to imagine a prison being as old as a state but this is the case with the West Virginia State Penitentiary. As soon as Virginia seceded from the United States in 1863 at the onset of the Civil War, West Virginia in turn seceded from Virginia to stay neutral in the national conflict. One of the first decisions of the state of West Virginia was to create a prison for the existing prisoners of the state. The government did not want to establish a prison in the original state capital of Wheeling, so instead they began construction in the nearby small town of Moundsville.
The property of the penitentiary was actually once occupied by the Native American burial grounds of the Adena tribe. The land was purchased for $50,000 and upon ground breaking of this humongous structure, the burial mounds were excavated and displaced. There is only one burial mound that was left unscathed across the street and it is still recognized and protected to this day. After the excavation, it was discovered that these mounds had been in existence since approximately 200 BC.
Stone walls were first constructed, and the erection of the building was built from the outside inward so the inmates could be brought in little at a time but kept secure behind the 25-foot-tall exterior stone walls. These walls were meant to keep the inmates secure and the public out. The stone was nearly five-foot-thick and encapsulated nearly seven acres of land. The gothic architecture, which was popular for the time period, made the prison appear as a castle complete with stone turrets and fortifications. The prison yard was an extremely large open area of 240,000 square feet and appeared to take the shape of a parallelogram with guard towers overlooking the entire area.
The prison opened its’ doors in 1866 but was under constant additions and renovations until 1908. The ideals of the prison were to rehabilitate inmates and even give them trades and skills to use in society upon their release. Prisoners would be put to work on the grounds of the facility and even released to the public under watchful eye to accomplish yard work and construction projects in the area. However, as the prison began to take in more violent and dangerous criminals, these activities became obsolete. Instead of rehabilitating prisoners, the penitentiary began implementing punishment techniques to “teach them lessons.”
Within the stone walls of the prison the building was split up into four different main sections, each housing its’ own type of criminal behavior.
The North Hall, nicknamed the Alamo, was used to hold prisons in a tiny 5’ x 7’ cell sometimes up to 22 hours per day. This treatment was based on the inmate’s actions on the inside of the prison walls. These were typically the more dangerous criminals who had no morals and committed even more crimes behind bars than out in society. For a lack of a better description, the guards just didn’t know what else to do with them.
The New Wall, also called the Main Line, was the main holding area for inmates stretching to petty crimes to the more well-behaved hardened criminals. This area stacked cell upon cell stretching all the way to the ceiling but also allowed the inmates outdoor time and socializing occasions.
A specialized separate wing was utilized to house the inmates who would eventually testify against their own kind. Rat Row, as it was known, allowed these criminals special protection on a regular basis and even a separated area in the outdoor yard. These criminals typically had targets on their backs but were used to help keep their peers behind bars, or worse – given the death sentence.
The final separated wing was called Honor Hall and was used to hold the more trusted inmates. Prisoners would be held under minimal security here and were given this extra treatment due to their good behavior while they were locked up.
During its’ 129 years in operation, the West Virginia Penitentiary would account for nearly 1,000 deaths. Hangings were commonplace at the prison and there are 85 death records of men being hung from their neck until dead. However, these records only began in 1899. It is said that there are more than 120 deaths from hanging before hanging was put to an end in 1951. These hangings at the prison served as a means to an end for prisoners but more of a social gathering for the community of Moundsville. Locals would be permitted to enter the outside grounds of the prison to watch these criminals take their final breaths.
Death by hanging was common place at the jail until the state of West Virginia stepped in and reviewed some gruesome and infamous failed hangings. A criminal, Bud Peterson, was convicted of murder and was sent to the gallows in 1949 and ultimately was the last hanged inmate at West Virginia Penitentiary. His botched hanging led to him being decapitated, leaving the audience shocked and disgusted by the practice. Like many other inmates killed at the prison, Bud Peterson was buried on the grounds of the penitentiary’s cemetery.
Following the abolishing of death by hanging, the prison actually looked within the walls of the penitentiary and tasked a resident criminal named Paul Glenn to construct the next killing method: the electric chair. Up until 1965 when West Virginia formally made death sentences illegal, the electric chair which was nicknamed Old Sparky was responsible for the deaths of nine inmates. Old Sparky is still on display at the prison to this day.
Aside from deaths due to convictions and crimes, the inmates themselves were responsible for murders and suicides. Stabbings and beatings were commonplace, especially when the rats and informants had run-ins with the general populace. There were a recorded 36 deaths to inmates at the hands of their peer inmates. The most popular area for these homicides occurred in the infamous Sugar Shack in the basement of the prison. This location was known for gambling, raping, beatings, and these murders. One of the more popular stories of murder in the West Virginia State Penitentiary is the death of R.D. Wall taking place in the Sugar Shack. Wall was a prisoner informant and his peers had enough of his rat antics. Three criminals jumped him while he was en-route to the boiler area. They stabbed and slashed him with dulled shanks leaving Wall in pieces and unrecognizable.
Gangs such as the Aryan Brotherhood and Avengers (motorcycle gang) were housed in the prison and lead to many deaths and even more beatings and clashes. These gangs had a way to pay off guards to get their way and even managed to run certain aspects of the prison, like who the rats and inmates who crossed the line had to answer to. Another notorious story is that of the Aryan Brotherhood leader William “Red” Snyder. After a guard supposedly forgot to lock Red’s cell door, another Aryan Brotherhood member, Rusty Lassiter’s door was unlocked. Rusty charged into Red’s cell with a sharpened metal shiv taken from his bedframe. He stabbed Red 37 times leaving him to choke to death on his own blood. Rumors swirled and it was said that the next in line to lead the Aryan Brotherhood, Elijah Sutton, commanded Rusty Lassiter to murder Red. Elijah was convinced that Red was a rat and an informant which led to numerous inmates getting severe punishment and death penalties. William “Red” Snyder was buried in the prison’s cemetery.
Over time the prison became over crowded and the state did not having the funding or the land to expand the prison. By the 1950’s, it was recorded that there were up to three prisoners housed in the 5’ x 7’ cells. With each cell only holding two bunks, this led the third man to sleep on the cold concrete floor. This sparked more violence and even numerous riots. In 1986, the largest scale riot occurred and even relied on the West Virginia governor to step in and negotiate. The riot really hinged on a broken sewage pipe under the cafeteria which prevented the prisoners from eating food and having guests visit. During the riot, the hostages, in the form of guards and kitchen employees, ultimately went unharmed but the prisoners ended up murdering three of their peers who they deemed to be rats and informants. The negotiations included the construction of a new cafeteria and visiting area as well as better living conditions. This led to a multitude of prisoners to be shipped out to the nearby Mount Olive prison.
Following the riot, the state stepped in and deemed the living conditions cruel and unusual punishment and inhumane. The 5’ x 7’ cells were reduced to hold to one inmate rather than the three that they were currently holding. Mount Olive took on even more prisoners after this decision by the state. During these transfers, in 1992, three inmates managed to dig a small tunnel through the greenhouse and escape. By this point, the state began to formally decommission the prison while it held 653 prisoners and was only guarded by 32 staffed employees. By 1995, the West Virginia State Penitentiary officially closed its’ doors for good.
There are many different factors that lead to hauntings, too many to count really. But the basics are tragedies, anger or happiness during peoples’ lives, inhumane treatment, untimely deaths, or acts of panic or despair. West Virginia State Penitentiary encompasses all of the above, except happiness but then again some inmates were legally insane so who knows?
Hauntings actually were reported while the prison was still in operation. Guards and inmates alike reported strange noises and shadows throughout the grounds. There were actually a few recorded occurrences of guards, while on duty, sounding the alarm claiming that they saw men in shackles and prison attire wondering the area right outside the fenced in prison yard. These areas were off limits and they acted accordingly. However, after thorough searches and all of the inmates accounted for, these were reported as false alarms. This happened 12 times during the 1930’s. After these false alarms, guards would actually be stationed outside the prison yard “just in case.”
While on duty, guards had reported hearing footsteps following close behind them, but when they attempted to apprehend the mischievous inmate, there was no one to be found. Staff, including some of the kitchen employees and administration recorded that they had former employees and inmates (both of whom had since passed away either on the premises or away from the jail). These occurrences were first reported as false identification but with the increase amounts of these incidences, they could not be overlooked as simply coincidence.
One of the arguably most notorious criminals of all time, Charles Manson, actually formally requested a transfer to the West Virginia State Penitentiary due its’ supposedly haunted nature. The request was denied but the hand-written letter is actually still on display in the prison.
Even though the prison as a whole carries a dark and heavy feeling throughout, there are a few notable locations for hauntings within the prison. Most prominent locations comprise of the Sugar Shack, North Wagon Gate, Death Row, North Hall, New Wall, and the main entrance gate.
The Sugar Shack is an area located in the basement that was originally designated to help give inmates a place to gather when the weather was not permissible for outdoor recreation. Essentially, it was an indoor prison yard. It was set aside and isolated from the majority of the guard stations. In time, this recreation area took a devious turn. The Sugar Shack became the ideal location for illegal gambling and prisoner goods trading. This ultimately lead to dangerous physical altercations, rape, and even death.
Shadows can be seen lurking around corners and voices echo throughout the activity area. R.D. Wall has been said to roam this area, lost in this massive compound ever since his murder. Arguments and bickering are reported from the area when staff are alone in the building, while other times, whispers can be heard from a distant but the origination cannot be pinpointed. Cold spots are commonplace and the area itself is said to just emit a heavy feel and dark energy.
The area of the North Wagon Gate and Death Row are both rumored to be the home of spirits, as cell doors are known to swing open and closed on their own, and there are various reports of voices in the areas.
North Hall and the New Wall were the tight quartered homes of the majority of the prisoners. Among the stereotypical ghostly noises such as whispers and chattering of the loose cell doors, there lurks a shadow man in this spot. This shadowy figure prowls the empty cells and hallways of this long abandoned cell block. The shadow man does not have any distinguishable features either facially or structurally. He / It is entirely encapsulated in a dark veil. This shadow is also very tall and has been seen crawling on ceilings and down the bars of the cells themselves. There is no identity know to this entity but the common theories revolve around this being a previous guard who was murdered in the prison and has returned to keep the prison in check in the afterlife. The secondary theory states that this shadow figure is an old inmate who was actually innocent and is still trying to find their way out the West Virginia State Penitentiary even after his demise.
This area is also known for Red Snyder’s restless spirit, who still resides in his cell. Red has been heard whispering through his bars to anyone who passes by. EVP’s will pick up Red’s voice when the investigator enters his cell. When these recordings are played back, his language is foul in nature. He has been known to push and shove visitors when they stay too long in his former home.
Right inside the main entry visitors have reported cold gusts brush past them. The circular caged door will move on its’ own and turn without anyone operating the door. Many visitors will claim that they feel eyes on them, being watched as if they are not trusted in the old facility.