Dark and Gruesome Times
Within the Walls of West Virginia Penitentiary
Moundsville, West Virginia
The two most notable tourist attractions in the small town of 10,000 people are right across the street from each other on Jefferson Avenue. On the west side is the largest conical burial mound in North America, and on the east side is one of the most haunted abandon prisons anywhere.
The Grave Creek Mound, for which the town takes its name, was successively built upon starting around 250 BC. The Adena / Hopewell people (natives of that region) saw this as a great honour for village leaders to be buried in the mound. As one level ran out of room, a new one was added, until the mound reached the size that you see today, over 65 feet high.
It’s possible the history of this land played into the decision to open one of the United States most notorious prisons across the street. The West Virginia State Penitentiary opened its doors in 1876, only 13 years after the state separated from Virginia as a result of the Civil War.
With separation came the need for new prison facilities as the main prison was in Virginia. Governor Arthur Boreman tried, but failed to get approval. All criminals were held at a small jail in Wheeling (only 20 minutes from Moundsville). Over time the prison became overcrowded, and after 9 inmates escaped, the state was forced to re-evaluate Boreman’s idea of a new State Prison.
10 acres were purchased in Moundsville for $3,000 (that’s $60,000 in today’s money) and a temporary wooden building was erected until the final architectural designs were approved. It would come down to the psychology of the building, as they wanted to convey a feeling of strength and depression when inmates were marched through the front doors of their own personal hell. The gothic style was perfect!
The North Wagon Gate was constructed first from hand-cut sandstone, and then the North and South cellblocks were built up around it. The unique 4-storey tower was added last as administration space, including the Warden’s office on the upper level, and became the crown of this royal building.
Unrest in the Pen
In 1886 the secrets of inhumane punishments were leaked to the Cincinnati Enquirer by former assistant superintendent, Captain W.E. Wilkerson. After leaving employ of the West Virginia Penitentiary, he told amazing stories of torture being done to many inmates.
Reporter: “Captain, did you ever see any of the prisoners treated as cruelly as report says they have been?"
Captain Wilkerson: “Yes I have indeed. I have seen dozens of men hauled up for being short in their tasks and beaten so brutally that the sight made me sick.”
One instrument used was a “Kicking Jenny”. An inmate would be bent over a small table, his arms and legs stretched out to the floor and secured to large blocks. This would tighten the skin on his back, making the slightest cut rip the skin under the pressure, and with every lash from a leather whip. The inmate’s back would be a pool of blood when the guard’s strength finally gave out.
When the “Kicking Jenny” became boring, a method known as “The Shoo-fly” was put into play. This was an extreme version of water boarding, where an inmate was tied down and a hose was aimed at his face and turned on full. After a while he would choke and the water would be stopped, and then repeated until the man was close to death or insanity.
These methods of torture, neglect and violence among the inmates made this one of the worst places for the convicted to live out their time. This place became the stereotypical standard for the worst stories of prison life.
One example, but not the only story by far, is that of William “Red” Snyder. Red was one of the most violent men locked up in the prison. He was convicted for murdering his parents, dismembering their bodies and storing the pieces under his bed so they could be close while he slept.
Because of his strange personality, the other inmates avoided him. Red was unpopular and many disagreements occurred. It was one too many when an inmate attacked Red in front of his cell. He was stabbed repeatedly, so much that they said Red’s cell was turned red with his blood.
Because of poor record keeping we may never know the full extent of inmate violence and death at the prison. Some estimate that around 1,000 lives were ended within those walls.
The Official Executions
In 60 years during the life of this building as an active prison, 94 men were officially put to death. 85 were hanged, as was the acceptable method up till 1949. In West Virginia, the public was permitted to attend hangings until 1931. This would be great entertainment for couples and families of the time. They would look forward to the day when justice would be carried out.
The officials felt this was a win-win situation, because it would be proof that crime only leads to the worst kind of punishment, and would lower the overall crime rate due to fear. They couldn’t be more wrong as public executions turned out to be abhorred by the same public that thought they wanted it. This in turn put a black mark on the officials who facilitated it.
It all came to a head on June 19th, 1931, when during the execution of Frank Hyer for murdering his wife; the man’s head popped off, severed by the noose. After this executions were by special invitation only, given to those directly affected by the crime.
After hanging was deemed obsolete, “Old Sparky” was introduced to West Virginia. The electric chair was built by an inmate named Paul Glenn. This would lead to 9 men having their hearts stopped by harsh electrical currents.
This ended when all executions were outlawed in the state in 1965. The final man to die was Elmer Bruner. Bruner was convicted of tying up a 58 year old woman and beating her to death with a claw hammer. He was executed on April 3rd, 1959.
Do you want to go to the West Virginia Penitentiary?
Haunted Hamilton does bus trips to this location usual twice a year.
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Photos: © All Photos taken by Stephanie Cumerlato, Haunted Hamilton
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