The West Virginia State Penitentiary's design is similar to the facility at the 1858 state prison in Joliet, Illinois, with its castellated Gothic, stone structure, complete with turrets and battlements, except scaled down to half the size. Unfortunately, the original architectural designs have been lost. The dimensions of the parallelogram-shaped prison yard are 82½ feet in length, by 352½ feet in width. The stone walls are 5 feet (1.5 m) thick at the base, tapering to 2½ feet at the top, with foundations 5 feet (1.5 m) deep. The center tower section is 682 feet (208 m) long. It lies at the western side of the complex along Jefferson Avenue and is considered the front, as this is where the main entrance is located. The walls here are 24 feet (7.3 m) high and 6 feet (1.8 m) wide at the base, tapering to 18 inches (460 mm) towards the top.
In 1863, West Virginia seceded from Virginia at the height of the American Civil War. Consequently, the new state had a shortage of various public institutions, including prisons; the Wagon Gate was the only building at this site during the Civil War. From 1863 to 1866, Governor Arthur I. Boreman lobbied the West Virginia Legislature for a state penitentiary but was repeatedly denied. The Legislature at first tried to direct him to send the prisoners to other institutions out of the state, and then they directed him to use existing county jails, which turned out to be inadequate. After nine inmates escaped in 1865, the local press took up the cause, and the Legislature took action. On February 7, 1866, the state legislature approved the purchase of land in Moundsville for the purpose of constructing a state prison. Ten acres were purchased just outside the then city limits of Moundsville for $3000. Moundsville proved an attractive site, as it is approximately twelve miles south of Wheeling, West Virginia, which at that time was the state capital.
The state built a temporary wooden prison nearby that summer. This gave prison officials time to assess what prison design should be used. Northern Illinois Penitentiary at Joliet proved to be an attractive design. Its Gothic Revival architecture "exhibit[ed], as much as possible, great strength and convey[ed] to the mind a cheerless blank indicative of the misery which awaits the unhappy being who enters within its walls."
The first building constructed on the site was the North Wagon Gate. It was made with hand-cut sandstone, which was quarried from a local site. The state used prison labor during the construction process, and work continued on this first phase until 1876. When completed, the total cost was of $363,061. In addition to the North Wagon Gate, there was now north and south cellblock areas (both measuring 300 ft. by 52 ft.). South Hall had 224 cells (7 ft. by 4 ft.), and North Hall had a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel. A 4-story tower connecting the two was the administration building (measuring 75 ft. by 75 ft.). It included space for female inmates and personal living quarters for the warden and his family. The facility officially opened in this year, and it had a prison population of 251 male inmates, including some who had helped construct the very prison that now held them. After this phase, work began on prison workshops and other secondary facilities.
In addition to construction, the inmates had other jobs to do in support of the prison. In the early 1900s some industries within the prison walls included a carpentry shop, a paint shop, a wagon shop, a stone yard, a brickyard, a blacksmith, a tailor, a bakery, and a hospital. At the same time, revenue from the prison farm and inmate labor helped the prison financially. It was virtually self-sufficient. A prison coal mine located a mile away opened in 1921. This mine helped serve some of the prison's energy needs and saved the state an estimated $14,000 a year. Some inmates were allowed to stay at the mine's camp under the supervision of a mine foreman, who was not a prison employee.
Conditions at the prison during the turn of the 20th century were good, according to a warden's report, which stated that, "both the quantity and the quality of all the purchases of material, food and clothing have been very gradually, but steadily, improved, while the discipline has become more nearly perfect and the exaction of labor less stringent." Education was a priority for the inmates during this time. They regularly attended class. Construction on a school and library was completed in 1900 to help reform and educate inmates.
However, the conditions at the prison worsened through the years, as the facility would be ranked on the United States Department of Justice's Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list. One of the more infamous locations in the prison, with instances of gambling, fighting, and raping, was a recreation room known as "The Sugar Shack".
A notable inmate in the early 20th century was Eugene V. Debs, who served time here from April 13 to June 14, 1919 (at which time he was transferred to an Atlanta prison) for violating the Espionage Act of 1917.
In 1929, the state decided to double the size of the penitentiary because overcrowding was a problem. The 5 x 7-foot (2.1 m) cells were too small to hold three prisoners at a time, but until the expansion there was no other option. Two prisoners would sleep in the bunks with the third sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The state utilized prison labor once again and completed this phase of construction in 1959. The construction had been delayed by a steel shortage during World War II.
In total, thirty-six homicides took place in the prison. One of the more notable ones is the butchering of R.D. Wall, inmate number 44670. On October 8, 1929, after "snitching" on his fellow inmates, he was attacked by three prisoners with dull shivs while heading to the boiler room.
In 1983, Charles Manson requested to be transferred to this prison to be nearer to his family. His request was denied.
On Wednesday, November 7, 1979, fifteen prisoners escaped from the prison. One of the escapees was Ronald Turney Williams, serving time for murdering Sergeant David Lilly of the Beckley Police Department on May 12, 1975. He managed to steal a prison guard's service weapon in the escape, and upon reaching the streets of Moundsville, encountered twenty-three-year-old off-duty West Virginia State Trooper Philip S. Kesner, who was driving past the prison with his wife.
Trooper Kesner saw the escapees and attempted to take action against them. The prisoners pulled him from his car and Williams shot him. Trooper Kesner returned fire at the fleeing suspects despite being mortally wounded.
Williams remained at large for eighteen months, sending taunting notes to authorities and making the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. During that time, he murdered John Bunchek in Scottsdale, Arizona during a robbery and was connected to crimes in Colorado and Pennsylvania. After a shootout with federal agents at the George Washington Hotel in New York City in 1981, he was apprehended and returned to West Virginia to complete several life sentences. Arizona had sought his extradition for his execution, but as of 31 March 2017 he remains in West Virginia custody.
At the time, Marshall County Sheriff Robert Lightner was very critical over the poor police communications during the break. The sheriff's office and local police did not learn about the escape from the state police. They first heard of it over the police scanner. "It was a good twenty minutes before we knew about the escape. If somebody had notified us, there's a good chance that the sheriff's department and the Moundsville police could have been on the scene while all the prisoners were still on the block." He was also critical of the four-state manhunt that followed, when convicted murderers David Morgan and Ronald T. Williams, along with convicted rapist Harold Gowers, Jr., remained at large. "Communications have been very poor. I think they should keep the local law enforcement officers more informed I have no idea what they're doing, what they've found."
January 1, 1986 was not only the beginning of a new year, but also the date of one of the most infamous riots in recent history. The West Virginia Penitentiary was then undergoing many changes and problems. Security had become extremely loose in all areas. Since it was a "cons" prison, most of the locks on the cells had been picked and inmates roamed the halls freely. Bad plumbing and insects caused rapid spreading of various diseases. The prison was now holding more than 2,000 men and crowding became an issue once again. Another major contribution to the riot's cause was the fact that it was a holiday. Many of the officers had called off work, which fueled the prisoners to conduct their plan on this specific day.
At around 5:30 pm, twenty inmates, known as a group called the Avengers, stormed the mess hall as Captain Glassock was on duty. "Within seconds, he (Captain Glassock), five other officers, and a food service worker were tackled and slammed to the floor. Inmates put knives to their throats and handcuffed them with their own handcuffs." Even though several hostages were taken throughout the day, none of them were seriously injured. However, over the course of the two-day upheaval, three inmates were slaughtered for an assortment of reasons. "The inmates who initiated the riot were not prepared to take charge of it. Danny Lehman, the Avengers' president, was quickly agreed upon as best suited for the task of negotiating with authorities and presenting the demands to the media." Yet, Lehman was not a part of the twenty men who began the riot. Governor Arch A. Moore, Jr. was sent to the penitentiary to converse with the inmates. This meeting set up a new list of rules and standards on which the prison would build. National and local news covered the story, as well as the inmates meeting with Governor Moore.
Towards the end of its life as a prison, the facility was marked with many instances of riots and escapes. In the 1960s, the prison reached a peak population of about 2,000 inmates. With the building of more prisons, that number declined to 600 – 700 inmates by 1995. The fate of the prison was sealed in a 1986 ruling by the West Virginia Supreme Court which stated that the 5 x 7-foot (2.1 m) cells were cruel and unusual punishment. Within nine years, the West Virginia State was closed as a prison. Most of the inmates were transferred to the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County, West Virginia. A smaller correctional facility was built a mile away in Moundsville to serve as a regional jail.
From 1899 to 1959, ninety-four men were executed. Hanging was the method of execution until 1949 with eighty-five men meeting that fate. The public could attend hangings until June 19, 1931. On that date, Frank Hyer was executed for murdering his wife. However, when the trap door beneath him was opened and his full weight was put onto the noose, he was instantly decapitated. Following this event, attendance at hangings was by invitation only. The last man to face execution by hanging, Bud Peterson from Logan County, lies in the prison's cemetery, as his family refused to claim his body. Beginning in 1951, electrocution became the means of execution. Ironically, the electric chair, nicknamed "Old Sparky", used by the prison was originally built by an inmate there, Paul Glenn. Nine men died in the chair until the state outlawed execution entirely in 1965. The original chair is on display in the facility and is a part of the official tour.
After the prison closed its doors as a state institution, the Moundsville Economic Development Council obtained a 25-year lease on the complex. The facility is used for training law enforcement and corrections practitioners with regular mock-riot drills. To assist teams in the planning and execution of scenarios the West Virginia High Technology Consortium Foundation commissioned The 3D Model of the West Virginia Penitentiary, an interactive 3D model of the penitentiary, and made the software available to the public prior to the 2009 Mock Prison Riot. Some previous training programs for law enforcement officials that took place here, such as the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center, are now discontinued.
Tours are available for tourists wishing to see the prison. The Elizabethtown Festival is held every May to celebrate and remember historic Moundsville. A haunted attraction called the "Dungeon of Horrors" is also set up for the Halloween season. Paranormal groups and enthusiast travel guides consider Moundsville Prison to be one of the most haunted prisons in the United States, with ghost stories originating as early as the 1930s. Legends include the prison occupying the site of a Native American burial ground. Reports include former guards seeing phantom inmates and a "shadow man" wandering the premises, as well as unexplained noises, voices, and cold spots.
The prison has appeared in various books, films, television shows, songs and video games.
Moundsville native Davis Grubb has written a couple of novels with Moundsville as the setting, Fools' Parade (also known as Dynamite Man from Glory Jail) and The Night of the Hunter. The penitentiary played key roles in both plots.
The previously listed works of Davis Grubb have also been adapted into major motion pictures. The Night of the Hunter was adapted into a film by Charles Laughton and James Agee in 1955. It stars Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. Fools' Parade, starring James Stewart, Kurt Russell, and George Kennedy, was adapted into a film in 1971.
Prison scenes in the 2013 film Out of the Furnace were filmed on site at the penitentiary.
Many ghost-themed or science fiction television shows have visited the prison:ABC Family’s Scariest Places on Earth originally aired on October 29, 2002.
A&E's Paranormal State originally aired on January 12, 2010.
Discovery Channel's Ghost Lab originally aired on November 20, 2010.
MTV's Fear allowed six college students to experience the so-called "haunted prison" for themselves in the 2000 pilot episode.
Syfy's The Dresden Files (Exterior images)
Syfy's Ghost Hunters episode 303, originally aired on October 25, 2006.
Syfy's Stranded, a paranormal reality show, featured the prison in the first season's third episode on March 13, 2013.
Syfy's Warehouse 13 (Exterior images)
Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures originally aired on October 31, 2008.
Destination America's Ghost Asylum, which originally aired on May 17, 2015
The prison is mentioned in the song "You Missed My Heart" by Mark Kozelek and Jimmy LaValle on their 2013 collaboration Perils from the Sea. Kozelek also references Wheeling in his lyrics to the song.
The West Virginia Penitentiary is also the setting for two Left 4 Dead video game campaigns titled Moundsville Slammer. The campaign's original incarnation has garnered over 10,000 downloads. while the 2.0 release has received 8,234 downloads as of this writing. The campaign data was developed using LIDAR laser range finding techniques