by Walt Bissell
In 1866, a plot of land in Moundsville, West Virginia was purchased by the state for a new state penitentiary. This site at 818 Jefferson Avenue was chosen because it was close to the then-state capitol in Wheeling. ” The West Virginia Penitentiary, with its striking stone facade and Gothic castle-like style opened in 1876.” Just being near the structure on the outside gives one the creeps with its imposing walls and dark appearance, especially when seen at night.
Some claim that the prison is plagued with what is called, residual haunting, which are defined as a replay of a tragic event from the past. It has become a popular destination for those who study paranormal activity. But, there have been multiple sightings of a shadow man that is not a residual ghost.
The facility opened for full operation in 1876 with 251 male inmates. The structure was originally built for 480 prisoners, but by the early 1930s it housed a total of 2,400. At times, three prisoners would be assigned to one of the tiny 5’ x 7’ cells. The inmates were given jobs that support the community. “A variety of industries were located within the walls of the prison including a blacksmith, wagon shop, carpentry shop, brickyard, stone yard, paint shop, tailor, bakery and hospital.”
The first execution at the penitentiary occurred in 1899. In total, ninety-four men were executed there. Eighty-five of those men were hanged from 1899-1949, and the remaining nine men were electrocuted from 1951-1959. The original electric chair is on display at the prison. Some believe that the prisoners themselves constructed “Old Sparky”. The state abolished the death penalty in 1959. In 1986, The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the Penitentiary's inmates were receiving cruel and unusual punishment. Also cited were the deplorable conditions in the 5’ x 7’ cells, violence, and the occurrence of two major riots. The prison officially closed in 1995, and all of the prisoners were moved to other locations.
Cult leader Charles Manson is said to have served time at Moundsville. On several different occasions he asked to be transferred back. He spent some of his childhood in West Virginia and has said if he ever left prison he would return to the area.
“There are several areas in the prison known as 'hot spots,' where an unusual amount of paranormal activity reportedly occurs. Such places include: the Chapel, shower cages, Death Row, the Sugar Shack and the North Wagon Gate.” The “Sugar Shack” is a room in the basement that was used for indoor recreation when the weather was too severe out side. The prisoners were pretty much left to themselves in this room; a guard would check in on them only periodically. Even though no one was killed in the Sugar Shack, there was a lot of violence and injuries reported there. Also, “other things would happen in this room that gave it the nickname...definitely not pleasant to think about!” Another area known for strange occurrences is the circular entrance gate, which was used to separate arriving inmates from the outside world. According to reports, the circular cage turns periodically by itself, giving the impression that the spirits of criminals are still arriving at the prison.
One ghost that is reported the most is that of a maintenance man who lived in the basement. The maintenance man was thought to be a snitch, would tell the warden and guards whenever he caught the prisoners doing something inappropriate. The prisoners got their revenge, stabbing him several times with homemade knives while he was sitting on the toilet in the bathroom. Today his ghost supposedly wanders around that section of the basement. One of the most intriguing photos taken at Moundsville is that of the “Shadow Man” by Polly Gear.
As of this writing, West Virginia Penitentiary Tours invites you to be one of its 30,000 visitors. A day tour consists of an astonishing 90 minutes that offers an awesome history, a touch of art, cold hard facts, an education of the Justice System, and a little fun with your tour guide. “You will truly walk through this gothic-style structure in amazement and wonder why you did not visit sooner!” Your night tour begins at midnight as groups of at least 20 people participate in a 90-minute historical, educational tour of the facility with a trained guide. After that, create your own lights-out tour with only a flashlight and a camera, until 6:00 am. “Is fear a factor for you?” Bring your own food and drink (alcohol is prohibited).
For More Information, Check Out the:
Moundsville Penitentiary Shadow Man Ghost Picture Investigation
West Virginia Pen Tours Website