Feel the chill of the prison walls. Hear the stories of former prisoners. Walk the halls of the former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia, as cold sensations permeate the skin. Some say this happens because the spirits of many former prisoners still hang out at the prison. Or perhaps it is that feeling of being locked away from the world that causes the chilling sensations.
The prison began back in 1866 when the government of West Virginia made a major decision. Eleven acres of land became available for govenment use in Moundsville, West Virginia. The choice was between building West Virginia University there, or a State Penitentiary. Those in charge concluded that a penitentiary would bring more jobs into the area and give them an economic boost.
The prison originally occupied the Wagon Gate, a prison used for confederate prisoners during the Civil War. One hundred prisoners could be held there in two stories. These prisoners were taken daily to the stone quarry where they cut stones to expand the prison – now three city blocks long.
It was here inside the Wagon Gate that they also had a Hanging Gate. 85 prisoners were hung either at the gate or on the courthouse square. Since people had no television to watch back then, in the early 1900’s thousands would gather on the courthouse lawn to watch the hangings while eating their picnic lunches.
The Bull Pen, with stainless steel razor wire around its top, served as an exercise place for maximum security prisoners. They most likely appreciated their one hour outside each day.
West Virginia Penitentiary was a self-sufficient prison. The only things they had to purchase were salt and sugar! Besides quarrying rock to build their own prison, the prisoners produced many valuable items that were used in the prison and sold to local residents – some of them through the Mound Museum Gift Shop located across the street. Hand tooled leather purses, brooms, whips, soap, signs and beautiful paintings and drawings were products of prisoner endeavors. Since they had lots of time on their hands, they often became very creative.
One noteworthy prisoner was Charles Manson’s mother, in prison for armed robbery. Charles Manson himself wrote a letter to the warden asking to be transferred to the West Virginia Penitentiary so he could be closer to his mother. Everyone knew the reputation of Charles Manson, so the warden immediately answered with just four words: “When Hell freezes over.”
Prisoners had inside freedoms according to the crime for which they were imprisoned. The worst were kept in Maximum Security, which will be more fully described in a future blog. Most however were in the “Main Street”, where they actually were able to get out of their cells for most of the day if they desired.
Many of these passed the day with their crafts as well as participating in sports in the yard. Basketball, softball, boxing, weight lifting, and table games were all possible activities to keep them occupied. There was a beautiful chapel in “The Yard” in case they desired to worship.
Cells were not very comfortable spots so spending as much time as possible outdoors was a goal. Most cells were very small with usually two cots for prisoners, who shared a small sink and toilet. At a time when there were 2400 prisoners at the penitentiary, it became necessary to have three men to a cell. That was rough as the third person had a mat on the floor. This made his head located right at the base of the toilet bowl. They always slept with their feet toward the bars as otherwise someone might bash in their head as they passed by.
The front door is a locking, revolving door where prisoners either entered or were freed from the prison. Imagine the thrill of seeing that door after years of imprisonment, knowing that through the glass was a free world waiting. Today some say they still see that door slowly spinning on its own – maybe from the energy of some of the inmates who walked through it.
West Virginia Penitentiary is located in Moundsville, West Virginia just ten miles south of Wheeling along the east bank of the beautiful Ohio River. From Wheeling, follow Route 2 into Moundsville. Turn left on 8th Street and after two blocks turn right onto Jefferson Ave. The penitentiary is on the left side of the street. You can’t miss it!