Long before the beautiful and historical state of West Virginia joined the Union on June 20, 1863, it was part of the state of Virginia. The desire for change and independence led to West Virginia seceding from its mother state while the Civil War was taking place.

The new state located in the Appalachian region lacked many of the facilities and institutions it had previously shared prior to secession.  One of the institutions that the new governor of West Virginia, Arthur I. Boreman, petitioned to have built was a new state penitentiary. Despite his countless requests Boreman was repeatedly told to use existing jails or institutions in other states.

Eventually, the West Virginia Legislature could no longer deny the need for its own prison. This led to the building of the West Virginia Penitentiary, one of the most haunted prisons in West Virginia as well as the United States.

West Virginia State Penitentiary

Brief History of West Virginia Penitentiary

The West Virginia Penitentiary (Moundsville Prison) came about thanks to the efforts of Governor Arthur I. Boreman. He devoted the years from 1863 to 1866 doing his best to convince the West Virginia Legislature that the young state needed a penitentiary of its own to house the criminals in West Virginia. His attempts proved futile until finally, with the help of the local press in 1865, the legislature decided it was better to have a state facility than risk the escape of more inmates. With approval given, the state was allowed to purchase a plot of land, which would house the new state penitentiary.

The decision was made to purchase ten acres of land in an area of the state called, Moundsville. The capital city of the state at the time, Wheeling, was a mere 12 miles from the site of the new state prison. Prior to starting construction on the new prison, a wooden prison was built temporarily. This afforded the officials in charge of the prison’s construction with determining how it would be designed. Although no blueprints for the West Virginia Penitentiary have ever been located, the inspiration for the new prison appears to be the Joliet penitentiary in Northern Illinois. The key difference is that the West Virginia prison was built on a much grander scale than Joliet.

It took roughly ten years from the design of the penitentiary to the official opening of its doors in 1876, it was, however, established in 1866. The Gothic-style prison was built with locally quarried hand-cut sandstone. During part of the construction process prison labor was used to help expedite the process. When the West Virginia Penitentiary was completed it had a north and south cellblock. Two hundred and twenty-four prison cells measuring 7 ft. by 5 ft. were located in the South Hall. The chapel, hospital, kitchen, and dining area were located in the North Hall. The area that connected the two cellblocks was four stories in height. It housed female inmates, the administration building, as well as living quarters for the prison warden and his family.

Moundsville old sparky
‘Old Sparky’ – The electric chair used to execute WV Pen inmates

Throughout its more than 100 years of operation, the West Virginia Penitentiary was home to 93 executions, 9 by electrocution, and 83 by hanging. Those 93 deaths were all legally sanctioned. Hundreds of other inmates living within the walls of the penitentiary had their day with fate. People not legally executed died after they were murdered when they committed suicide or at the hands of the incredibly violent punishments, they were subjected to by the members of the prison staff.

Some of the barbaric punishments were exposed to the public in 1886. The source of the violence and torture was a former superintendent of the institution. Prisoners were subjected to being restrained in contraptions such as the “kicking Jenny” and the “shoo-fly.” The “kicking Jenny” involved the restraining of a prisoner while completed nude, bending them over a machine and restraining them prior to whipping them to near death. The “shoo-fly” included restraining the prisoner and spraying them directly in the face with water from a hose until they were within an inch of death.

The West Virginia Penitentiary was also the site of prison breaks and riots. In 1979 a group of 15 prisoners managed to escape the prison. While fleeing the prison, West Virginia State Trooper Philip S. Kesner noticed the escaped convicts while driving past the area with his wife. Although he attempted to thwart their escape he was killed by one of the escapees a murderer by the name of Ronald T. Williams. Williams remained on the run for eighteen months prior to his capture.

In 1986, conditions in the prison had hit an incredible low. The prison was suffering from severe overcrowding yet again. There were countless problems with plumbing, inmates roaming free due to poor security and locks being picked, as well as a lot of illness due to the infestation of bugs.

Fed up with the poor and inhumane conditions, the Avengers, a group of 20 inmates began a riot in the mess hall. Captain Glassock, a kitchen staffer, and five officers were captured, handcuffed, and held hostage. Fortunately, the two-day riot ended with a few hostages injured, but not mortally wounded while three inmates perished. Until the day the penitentiary officially closed its doors it would see multiple escape attempts and riots.

Hauntings of West Virginia Penitentiary

West Virginia State Penitentiary, Moundsville, WV 1
The cells were WV State Pen’s worst inmates were kept

The West Virginia Penitentiary, also known as Moundsville, housed prisoners until 1995. Claims that the penitentiary was haunted began as early as the 1930s and have not stopped since. According to local legend, the site of the penitentiary was at one time a sacred Native American burial ground. There are those that believe the cursed land plays a role in the tremendous amount of paranormal activity that occurs at the location. Despite the land being blessed, there are those that feel the curse lingers. Leading many to believe it’s one of not THE most haunted prison in America.

With such a violent history and so many violent criminals in the West Virginia Penitentiary, there is no wonder many consider the prison one of the most haunted places in West Virginia. There are those that have been to the prison that state multiple locations throughout the prison have large amounts of paranormal activity, or “hot spots.” Some of the locations that receive the most activity include Death Row, the Chapel, the rec area, and the shower cages. The location of the electric chair and also the North Wagon Gate, the area in which inmates were put to death via hanging, is also known for ghostly activity. The circular entrance gate that was used to admit new prisoners is reportedly said to turn on its own when no one is inside.

In all the years that people have stated they have experienced either odd activity or ghostly sightings, one ghost is reported by many. The “Shadow Man,” is said to roam around the entirety of the prison. He appears as more or less a silhouette as he makes his way around the place.  Other people have made claims that they have seen the ghosts of former inmates as well as former prison guards. Their apparel is typically the key to identifying what role they had in the penitentiary when it was open.

One location in the penitentiary with a surprising amount of activity is the “Sugar Shack.” With such a sweet name one would not expect paranormal activity. In reality, if you are visiting this haunted prison, you will be remiss if you forget to visit where the inmates enjoyed some rec time when they were not allowed to go outside. It is said that it is quite common to hear people talking and arguing when in this area of the basement. Other people have stated that they have heard people off in different areas of the basement whispering. Of course, there are countless cold spots and bizarre noises heard when people are in the basement as well.

Back in the 1930s when the first reports of hauntings at the prison started they came from assorted guards on duty. According to the reports, guards that were on duty at night made claims that they saw inmates walking freely on the grounds so alarms were sounded. Once the alarms were off and the area was properly searched, no one ever found inmates wandering around on the loose. This repeated false sightings of inmates walking around the grounds freely led to the West Virginia Penitentiary gaining a reputation for being haunted.

Of the hundreds of people that died in the prison many spirits remain bound to the jail. Red Snider was murdered in the prison and still appears to wander the halls. A man that worked on a haunted house in the prison claimed that while he was walking around with his tools, someone, not living, grabbed him by his arm. The man maintained when questioned that nobody else was near him during this event.

Today it is possible to take tours of the most haunted places in West Virginia. It is also possible to stay overnight in different areas of the prison if groups or individuals are interested in conducting their own paranormal investigation.