Bank robbers, rapists, arsonists and cold-blooded killers are just some of the lost souls that can be found haunting the premises of the former cages that once imprisoned them. The West Virginia Penitentiary not only showcases a sampling of Gothic architecture resembling a castle, but also has a deep history of haunted tales and strange happenings.
From 1866 to 1900, the growing years of the prison were established. After West Virginia separated itself from Virginia in 1863, the need for places to lock up criminals was more important than ever. In 1866, a plot of land located in the Moundsville area was set aside for the construction of the West Virginia Penitentiary. The location was selection because it was situated close to what was the state capitol at that time, which was Wheeling. The first building of the complex completed was the North Wagon Gate. The purpose of this building was to house the 150 inmates who worked on the establishment of the public building, which is now the second oldest in the state. Hand-cut sandstone was taken from a nearby quarry and used to create the walls of this site. Buildings to follow included the warden’s home, as well as the north and south cellblock areas.
Soon, the 24-foot high walls of the West Virginia Penitentiary were ready to house the first installment of prisoners. In 1876, the prison became fully operational, serving as home to more than 250 inmates. Within the West Virginia Penitentiary complex, a variety of services could be completed. The prison possessed its own blacksmith, brickyard, stone yard, paint shop, wagon shop, carpentry shop, tailor, bakery, as well as hospital.
It wasn’t until 1899 that the first execution took place at the West Virginia Penitentiary. During the reign of this prison, close to 95 men lost their lives due to execution. The executions were carried out in the form of electrocution and by hanging. From the years of 1899-1949, eighty-five prisoners were hung. From 1951-1959, nine men were electrocuted.
Throughout the years of the prison’s operation, additional means of making money were explored. For example, in the early 1900s, a prison farm was established where prisoners took up the bulk of the labor. In 1921, a prison coalmine was open. The coal extracted from this mine saved close to $15,000 per year in fuel costs. This allowed the double expansion of the prison in 1929. At this point in time, three people were assigned to a bunk, creating nasty living conditions. Since the abolishment of the death penalty in 1959, the method of killing prisoners by electrocution was ceased. The original electrocution chair can be viewed when taking a tour of the premises.
The last years of the West Virginia Penitentiary dealt with numerous riots and escapes. The prison population continued to grow, but the conditions of the prison were less than humane. In 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court declared that the size of the cells within the West Virginia Penitentiary could be classified as cruel and unusual punishment. The cells measured 5×7. The final year of operation for the prison was in 1995, when the remaining prisoners were shipped to other correctional facilities. Today, many tourists come to the former prison to experience the harsh realities of incarceration, as well as attempt to interact with the tortured souls trapped within the site.