West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville

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An infamous former prison in the USA. Once the "most dangerous felons" were incarcerated here. It was West Virginia's premier high security penitentiary and has seen plenty of internal violence, riots and escapes … and also executions. It was mainly due to the appalling and cruel conditions that it was closed in 1995. It has since been turned into a tourist attraction. 

>More background info

>What there is to see


>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations


More background info: The Penitentiary was established from 1866 – as only the second public building in the state of West Virginia. It was even built by the early prisoners themselves ("hard labour" – indeed!), which took 10 years.
The prison was initially intended as a "penitentiary", i.e. a place to generate penitence in the prisoners. The system adopted here was the "Auburn system", where prisoners would be locked in solitary confinement only at night, but were working together during the day – as opposed to the "Pennsylvania system", where prisoners were kept in silent isolation almost all the time (cf. Eastern State Penitentiary).
However, even this idea of semi-solitary doing time was soon abandoned as more and more prisoners arrived, leading to increasingly overcrowded conditions. Originally built to house up to ca. 700 inmates, the penitentiary at times had a prison population exceeding 2700! The tiny cells, measuring only 5 by 7 foot (1.5 by 2 metres) and only 7 feet high, once intended as solitary confinement spaces, then each housed three inmates, two in bunk beds, while one had to sleep on a mattress on the floor.
West Virginia Penitentiary also gained notoriety as one of the most violent correctional facilities in the USA. That violence included various means of torture during its early years, executions (mostly by hanging, later electrocution) until West Virginia abolished capital punishment in 1965. But there was also violence amongst the inmates (ranging from rape to most brutal murders). Wardens too were exposed to some violence, from having excrement and vomit hurled at them to even murder, in particular one in 1979 committed by an escapee. In fact, a surprisingly large number of escape attempts from the WV Penitentiary were successful. One especially elaborate escape involved tunnelling from the greenhouse under the 6-8 feet (1.8 to 2.4 m) deep foundations of the outer prison walls.
The prison was the scene of various full-on riots too, culminating in the New Year's Day riot of 1986, when inmates took 12 prison personnel hostage. What the rioters demanded was better conditions! And indeed, they were granted e.g. a new cafeteria in the wake of the riot.
This points to one of the central problems with the penitentiary: it was outdated, cruel,  overcrowded – and overall a failure.
Some cell blocks were three-tier stacks of basically just barred cages, with the summer temperatures at the top level reaching over 115 F / 46 C. Eventually, the tiny cells were outlawed as "cruel and unusual punishment" and the whole prison closed for good in 1995 and the remaining inmates were transferred to other, more contemporary correctional facilities.
On occasions, however, the place still serves as a training facility for active prison guards to gain experience in simulated prison riots!
The otherwise disused, empty building was taken over by the Moundsville Economic Development Council who opened the old prison up for tourists – with great success.
For the dark tourist, it is one of the best sites of its kind. Shame, though, it is a bit out of the way. But it is certainly worth the detour!
What there is to see: Even from the outside it's a huge menacing gothic-style edifice, with thick high walls and guard turrets at the corners and atop the central administrative block. The entrance for tourists is a bit further down the south wing these days. It's also here that a historical marker was erected in 1996.
Inside the foyer the visitor of today is right by what used to be the visitation area (still fitting, then). Apart from a souvenir shop you are greeted by the first exhibit – a guard's machine gun behind bars!
Tour groups are first taken along some corridors and for a peek into the south yard, before entering a room adorned with large-scale wall paintings made by the inmates, including rural scenery with bears etc. – which gives it a strangely kitsch atmosphere. Also quite incongruous is a museum display moved here from the nearby archaeological museum (see under combinations). Apparently the diorama of Adena culture natives sitting around a campfire was deemed too "risque" because of the nudity of the dummies (this is, after all, rural America!).
Then it starts getting gloomier: the former cafeteria, now a dark open space without any chairs, exudes a certain grim atmosphere, though one of dilapidation rather than sinisterness. Some of the disused kitchen facilities are still in place behind a security glass window front. It's a bit ghost-town-y.
Out in the north yard, you get to see the cage-like basketball exercise areas with high fences with razor-blade barbed wire on the top, and a crow's nest guard position overhead, where back then a machine gun would have been placed.
At the northern end is the so-called Wagon Gate, the prison's main entrance for vehicles and one of the oldest parts of the whole complex. This also served as an execution site: hangings took place here. You can see the trapdoor overhead when standing inside the centre of the gate. It's partly open and a rope with a noose at the end is dangling out from the opening. I think I could even make out a kind of dummy in blue overalls. I had read beforehand that on the tours a guide would release such a dummy to pop down the trapdoor. But on the tour I was on (in April 2010) this was not done.
The guide did, however, elaborate on the historical facts that such executions used to be public – until one went awry, namely in that the rope must have been employed wrongly in some way so that the executionee, instead of dangling on the rope, was decapitated by his own full weight hitting the noose at the wrong angle so that the neck just snapped.
Back inside the prison proper you get to see the north wing cells, where the real baddies were apparently held, typically in 22-hour solitary lock-in confinement. It was also here where some of the cruellest events happened, such as inmates murdering fellow inmates in the most brutal fashion.
All the time, by the way, the guide will relay such episodes that took place here, dropping many a name in the process. These names didn't mean anything to me, but it could well be that they're better known in America. But for me, lacking that kind of context and background knowledge, these episodes were at times rather hard to follow. So occasionally I switched off and concentrated more on photography. And the place really does offer some extraordinary photographic opportunities!  
The whole atmosphere, in the cell blocks especially, is really dark and eerie to the max. You also get to see inside various cells (though only on the ground floor, never on any of the upper levels). There's a lot of very remarkable cell graffiti to be spotted, some pretty chilling, some predictably "titillating", some even funny in a rather black humorous kind of way!
The tour continues into the former administrative building, where the peeling paint and general dilapidation makes for rather a spooky film-set look. The administrative areas and that of the cell blocks part of the prison proper are connected by an unusual revolving-door contraption – like a cylindrical cage with one opening that can be rotated, to serve as kind of sally port. This particular type, according to the guide, is one of only two of its kind (the other apparently to be found in Birmingham, Great Britain). You even get to use it – as the group is guided through it in batches back into the main cell bock wing.
In another three-tier stack of cells, the cell door mechanism is demonstrated. Some of the group are invited to enter a cell each. They are then admonished to stand back from the bars as the guide activates the remote mechanism by which all the doors simultaneously slide shut with a loud metallic clank following a spine-chilling siren warning sound – all reverberating in the cavernous hall of cells. Thankfully, the guide releases the thus incarcerated visitors just a moment later with another loud siren and clanking of steel mechanism. This is certainly the darkest of the showy elements of the tour!
Another showy bit follows in a long corridor connecting two cell blocks: here the guide lines up his group in single file, behind a yellow line, just as past inmates had to do it. You are then instructed to place your right hand on the shoulder of the person in front of you and are then frog-marched forward in lockstep. Only, of course, this quickly breaks down, with giggling tourists losing the prerequisite co-ordination. For them, however this does not result in any reprisals …
The last station of the tour is the museum's exhibition room – which to me looked like it had been recently done-up (and not as spooky as I had read – e.g. on roadsideamerica.com). Here, various confiscated weapons as well as guards' rifles, newspaper clippings, items from the prison's cemetery, and old execution equipment are on display … as well as a couple of death masks.
On one wall there is a glass cabinet relating to the especially infamous ritual mass murderer Charles Manson. On display are photos of him and his most famous victim, Sharon Tate (then wife of Roman Polanski and pregnant at the time), together with a timeline of his case, more newspaper cuttings, and most significantly as regards the connection to the West Virginia Penitentiary: the letter that Manson wrote in 1983 in which he asked to be transferred here (the request was denied – he remained in California).
The "star piece" of it all, however, has to be without any doubt "Old Sparky", the electric chair used here in the 1950s. Ironically, it was even built by an inmate ... who was then moved elsewhere because of fears for his security had he remained in this prison. The chair itself is just a simple wooden structure, but the straps on it and the electric equipment around it make clear its purpose. Nine murder convicts (at least one in denial of guilt!) were executed in this gross manner in this very chair. Text panels elaborate on the details of the executions. It doesn't get much more chilling than this.
After this, some of the offerings at the souvenir shop by the visitor entrance may seem a little on the sick side, especially the T-shirts with a picture of "Old Sparky" on them complete with zig-zag-y lines along the sides to indicate, in the usual symbolic style, electric charges. (I admit, though, that I couldn't resist getting one of these … my wife was appalled …) Other than that, there are also postcards, coffee mugs etc, as well as a few books, including one of 129-pages (incidentally the same number as the years the prison was in operation) which is richly illustrated with black-and-white photos.
Location: in the northern "panhandle" corner of West Virginia that is wedged in between Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the city of Moundsville, right by the border with Ohio, about 60 miles (100 km) south-west from Pittsburgh. Address: 818 Jefferson Ave. (between 8th and 11th Street), Moundsville, West Virginia 26041, USA.
Google maps locator: [39.916,-80.743]
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track, but still fairly easy to reach by car; access to the interior by reasonably priced guided tour only.
Details: for many travellers getting to Moundsville is easiest from the town of Wheeling just 10 miles (16 km) to the north along Route 2, where Interstate 70 provides fast access east and west (into Ohio and Pennsylvania, respectively). From the south, Routes 2 and 7 wind their way up on either side of the Ohio River's banks, and to the east US 250 wriggles its way through rural West Virginia all the way to Fairmont, Charlottesville and eventually Richmond, Virginia.
The West Virginia Penitentiary dominates the southern section of central Moundsville, its front facade stretching out for some 400 yards along Jefferson Ave between 8th Street and 11th Street. Coming in on Route 2 from the south, turn right into 12th  Street and then left into Jefferson Ave – coming in from the east on US 250, follow 1st Street until it becomes Jefferson Ave, where, instead of continuing on the 250 branching off to the right, you take a left turn heading south. Coming in from the north on Route 2 from Wheeling, after leaving Glen Dale take the 250 forking off to the left and, instead following the 250 turning off to the left, carry on straight ahead on Jefferson Ave. There is limited parking at the Penitentiary right by the public entrance, otherwise you have to find street-side parking in the vicinity.
Access to the interior of the penitentiary is by guided tour only. These tours last 90 minutes and take place from 11 a.m., with the last tour departing at 4 p.m. – so it's advisable not to get on your way too late in the day.
Price: Regular day tours are a reasonable 10 USD for adults (8 USD for senior citizens and 6 USD for children).
There are also several special tours on offer including night tours (groups only, but with both increased fear and fun factor) and even so-called ghost hunts (reputedly the place is haunted …) as well as annual special "Dungeon of Horrors" shows around the Halloween season (see schedule and prices at wvpentours.com).
Open for guided tours only from April to November, Tuesdays to Sundays. Tours take place between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. (phone 304-845-6200 to check exact times of opening and tour schedules). Closed Mondays and all public holidays.
Time required: Regular guided tours last ca. 90 minutes; add a little time if you want to study the displays in the exhibition room more closely, and also for a look around the shop and the exterior of the building.
Combinations with other dark destinations: Moundsville is close to Wheeling, WV, where Interstate 70 provides one of the region's main east-west arteries, leading e.g. to Dayton, Ohio, ca. 200 miles (320 km) to the west, or to Harrisburg, PA, a good 200 miles (320 km) to the east (via I-76/ the Pennsylvania Turnpike). A bit closer is Weston, WV, a couple of hours drive south (less than 70 miles (112 km) away, but on slow and winding roads) – see Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Moundsville itself is a rather sleepy, nondescript little town. Somewhat more attractive is Wheeling, WV, is just 10 miles (16 km) to the north, which also boasts the historic Wheeling Suspension Bridge across the Ohio River, one of the oldest and once the longest structure of its kind. The bridge also provides access to Wheeling island with its casino and racetrack.
Moundsville itself is home to the semi-eponymous Grave Creek Mound, a prehistoric Adena culture burial mound, located just a stone's throw away from the Penitentiary, two blocks west between 10th and 8th Street. Adjacent to the site, accessible from Jefferson Ave, is the associated Delf Norona Museum where artefacts and exhibits about the Adena culture are on display (Tue – Sat 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sun from noon).
Further up Jefferson Ave is also the Marx Toy Museum, a nostalgic (for Americans) affair with a fittingly 1950s-design snack bar. Quirky, but only for the really dedicated.
For a few attractions further afield to the south see the relevant section under Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 01West Virginia Penitentiary 01
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 01b - historical markerWest Virginia Penitentiary 01b - historical marker
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 02 - in the lobbyWest Virginia Penitentiary 02 - in the lobby
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 03 - canteenWest Virginia Penitentiary 03 - canteen
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 04 - former canteen no longer serving anythingWest Virginia Penitentiary 04 - former canteen no longer serving anything
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 05 - dust settled in the canteenWest Virginia Penitentiary 05 - dust settled in the canteen
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 06 - courtyard with watchtowerWest Virginia Penitentiary 06 - courtyard with watchtower
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 07 - main exercise yardWest Virginia Penitentiary 07 - main exercise yard
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 08 - crows nest overlooking the yard where a machine-gun would have been placedWest Virginia Penitentiary 08 - crows nest overlooking the yard where a machine-gun would have been placed
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 09 - Wagon GateWest Virginia Penitentiary 09 - Wagon Gate
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 10 - where public hangings took placeWest Virginia Penitentiary 10 - where public hangings took place
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 11 - hangmans trapdoorWest Virginia Penitentiary 11 - hangmans trapdoor
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 12 - cell doorsWest Virginia Penitentiary 12 - cell doors
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 13 - cell interiorWest Virginia Penitentiary 13 - cell interior
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 14 - a rather sick Rolling Stones referenceWest Virginia Penitentiary 14 - a rather sick Rolling Stones reference
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 15 - sinister emptinessWest Virginia Penitentiary 15 - sinister emptiness
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 16 - old names chartWest Virginia Penitentiary 16 - old names chart
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 17 - revolving barred entrance to the administrative sectionWest Virginia Penitentiary 17 - revolving barred entrance to the administrative section
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 18 - view from behind barsWest Virginia Penitentiary 18 - view from behind bars
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 19 - points for communication with visitorsWest Virginia Penitentiary 19 - points for communication with visitors
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 20 - cell blocksWest Virginia Penitentiary 20 - cell blocks
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 21 - cell block with automated cell doors mechaismWest Virginia Penitentiary 21 - cell block with automated cell doors mechaism
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 22 - museum partWest Virginia Penitentiary 22 - museum part
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 23 - electric chair in the museumWest Virginia Penitentiary 23 - electric chair in the museum
  • West Virginia Penitentiary 24 - Charles Manson letter demanding transfer to WVPWest Virginia Penitentiary 24 - Charles Manson letter demanding transfer to WVP

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