In 1863, at the pinnacle of the Civil War, West Virginia triumphantly seceded from Virginia. Governor Boreman had one complaint…he had no public service buildings in his new state, including the absence of a prison. It took him three years to convince the State Legislature to grant his request. The state then purchased 10 acres of the small town of Moundsville. Initially, a temporary wooden prison was built near the site. It then took ten years more to complete Moundsville State Penitentiary, enlisting the labor of its prisoners.
The prison is a formidable structure in Gothic style with turrets and battlements. It’s said to be fashioned after another notorious prison, Joliet, located in northern Illinois. Governor Boreman’s vision of a bone-chillingly intimidating structure became a reality.
Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, the conditions improved annually with the activity for prisoners becoming primarily educational. A school and library had been constructed for their use. However, about the turn of the 20th century, conditions began to worsen until the penitentiary was ranked as one of the Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities in the country.
The first inmates sentenced to death were hung and the hanging was a public event until one prisoner was immediately decapitated as the trap door opened and his full weight was put on the noose. Attendance was then by invitation only. In the 1950s, the electric chair was the preferred method of execution, which last until 1965 when executions were outlawed in West Virginia entirely.
Over the years, dozens of murders took place within those walls, some men being butchered with shivs for snitching on their inmates. Several prison breaks culminated in the stabbing deaths of guards and Sheriff’s deputies, leaving the rapists and murderers at large in the community and beyond. Ninety-four men were executed in the 100+ years the prison was in operation…and some of them never really left.
Moundsville State Penitentiary was decommissioned in 1995, and since has been used as a law enforcement training facility and is open for tours on the historical building circuit. An annual Halloween event, dubbed the “Dungeon of Horrors” is a popular attraction with its foundation built on legends and actual sightings of ghostly former inmates and a ‘shadow man’ who roams the halls. Paranormal groups consider Moundsville to be one of the most haunted prisons in the United States. Disembodied voices, cold spots and unexplained noises have been documented by several groups.
Part of the legend’s origins lie in the fact that the prison was constructed on Native American burial grounds, the Grave Creek Mounds. According to Wikipedia, at 62 feet (19 m) high and 240 feet (73 m) in diameter, the Grave Creek Mound is one of the largest conical type burial mounds in the United States. The builders of the site moved more than 60,000 tons of dirt to create it.
The mounds date back to 150 B.C and and are thought to have been discovered in the 1770s by Joseph Tomlinson, 30 years before Lewis and Clark found them on their expedition and wrote about them. Tomlinson proceeded to gut the mounds, destroying most of the archeological evidence of the Native American Adena culture. Burial vaults, including the remains, ornaments and a large amount of jewelry were found in 1868 when they were excavated by amateurs. Thanks to the fund-raising efforts of The Daughters of the American Revolution in 1908, the site was acquired and saved from demolition. The state of West Virginia then purchased the land in 1909 and declared it a National Historic Landmark.
*Note: A huge thank you goes out to my dear friend, Ed, who took these photos on a trip with friends to tour the Moundsville State Penitentiary. He generously agreed to let me use them for this post on this most intriguing subject. (((Hugs to Ed)))
Is it Native American apparitions or the ghostly presence of former inmates that haunt the cells and dining halls of this abandoned prison? I’m looking forward to touring this historic site…how about you?
You know I love hearing from you and anxiously await your comments!