Life behind bars is not for the faint of heart. Prison is a dangerous, lonely, and psychologically taxing place for anyone, no matter who they are or what they've done. Just thinking of the overcrowded cells, the cramped showers, and the cafeterias packed with bodies is enough to make anyone claustrophobic. Though the treatment of inmates has improved dramatically over the years, life inside the cold, hard confines of prison is still extremely difficult and very dangerous. As hard as prison life is today, it's hard to imagine that it was once so much worse. Many prisons across America were found to be unconstitutionally run, with conditions so abysmal that they actually caused disease. Though many of the better stories on this blog end in prison, the entirety of this story takes place in one ranked as one of the worst in the United States before closing its doors in 1995.
Our story begins in 1863, when West Virginia seceded from Virginia during the height of the Civil War. The brand new wild and wonderful state was in dire need of various public institutions, such as a prison. Governor Arthur I. Boreman lobbied the West Virginia Legislature repeatedly for a state penitentiary to be built between 1863-1866. For some reason he continued to be denied this more than reasonable request. He was first told to send inmates to other facilities out of the state. Then they asked that he simply pile them up into the existing county jails, which were grossly inadequate for the task.
In 1865, nine prisoners escaped from one of these overcrowded county jails, causing uproar among the media and the public. Once the local press took up the cause to have an adequate facility built, the Legislature finally acted. They approved the purchase of land in Moundsville, West Virginia for the purpose of building the state's first penitentiary on February 7, 1866. Ten acres were purchased just outside of the then thriving city of Moundsville for $3000. Today that would be worth $51,263.40. With the land positioned only 12 miles south of Wheeling, then the state's capitol, it was an attractive site for such a facility.
With guards overseeing all of the work, inmates hand-carved sandstone blocks quarried from a local site. They also built the prison that they would live in from the sandstone they carved. The construction site and future prison was located right across the street from an ancient burial mound of the Adena tribe. This burial mound is what gives Moundsville its name. It still sits right across from the shell of the old prison turned tourist attraction, and is estimated to be around 2000 years old.
That summer a wooden prison was built to house the inmates responsible for building the structure that would be the final home of so many. Prison officials used this opportunity to asses what design was being used. A modified version of the Northern Illinois Penitentiary in Joliet was used to sculpt the enormous, foreboding Gothic-style prison that would be the West Virginia State Penitentiary. The architectural designs have been lost to time, but when it was finished the dimensions of the parallelogram shaped yard came out to 82 and a half feet in length by 352 and a half feet in width. The stone walls are 5 feet thick at the base, tapering off to 2 and half feet thick at the top, with their foundations 5 feet deep in the earth. The western side of the building, where the front entrance can be found along Jefferson Avenue, is 682 feet long. The walls that surround the intimidating fortress are 24 feet high and 6 feet wide at the base, tapering off to 18 inches at the top.
The first phase of construction wasn't completed until 1876. Enough had been done to open the prison, though. Inmates were already being housed there while construction continued on the north and south cell blocks and the four-story tower that connected those two halls with the administration building. By the time the first phase was finished, it ended up costing $363,061. That would be worth $9,218,899.20 today.
Once the north and south halls were finished a great deal had been added to the facility. The South Hall contained 224 five by seven foot cells. The North Hall contained a kitchen, dining area, hospital, and chapel. The tower had space to house female inmates as well as personnel living quarters for the warden and his family. Upon its official opening the prison was already housing 251 inmates. Some of the male prisoners aided in the construction of the massive structure. Once these phases were completed, work began on workshops and other secondary facilities.
In 1886, just ten years after the penitentiary opened its doors, cruel and harsh punishments were brought to light by a resigning superintendent. This man sat down with a reporter for The Enquirer to do a tell-all interview on the torture being inflicted on prisoners in West Virginia's state facility. Whips and actual torture devices were being well hidden from state inspectors. The ex-superintendent described two devices used at the penitentiary to not only torture inmates, but nearly kill them. Some poor souls didn't survive the sadistic torture of the officials charged with looking after them.
The Kicking Jenny was said to have been invented and built at the Moundsville Penitentiary. It was described as being in somewhat of a semi-circle kind of shape. The device stood with its highest end about 3-4 feet above the platform on which it stood. Prisoners would be stripped naked and bent over the machine. While their feet were fastened to the floor with ropes, their hands were stretched over the upper end and tied with ropes as well. These ropes were attached to small blocks. With the slightest pull, a tension could be created that could rip the prisoner in two.
Once the men were placed into position, they were beaten with a heavy whip made of two long pieces of leather sewn together. The lash was three inches wide at the handle and tapered off to a point at the end. Either the superintendent or another official would dole out the unreasonably harsh punishments. Once a prisoner was strapped in, they were beaten either until they were near death or the official responsible gave out from exhaustion.
The Kicking Jenny wasn't the only torture device hidden behind the prison walls. There was one more that was considerably worse. The Shoo-Fly was an instrument that arranged the prisoner with their feet in stocks, their arms tied, and their heads fastened in such a way that they could not turn away. Officials would then take a hose with a one inch nozzle and turn icy-cold water up to full capacity on their faces. Unable to move their heads in the slightest, the men were forced to nearly strangle to death on the brutally strong stream of the hose. The torture would be kept up until the men were near death. Due to officials' callus policy of not ending their torture until inmates were near death, many didn't make it off of these devices alive.
Thankfully, one superintendent couldn't bear to watch the needless torment taking place at the penitentiary any longer. Once he tendered his resignation, he spoke out publicly and exposed everything going on behind the tightly closed prison gate. Thanks to his courage to speak out, these punishments were abolished within the West Virginia State Penitentiary and by the dawn of the 20th century things were looking much better for the facility.
By the early 1900s, the prison was virtually self-sufficient. Inmates had jobs throughout the facility that kept it running from day to day. Inmate labor and the revenue produced from the on-site farm financially supported the institution. Besides their farm, other industries within the sandstone walls included, a carpentry shop, a paint shop, a wagon shop, a stone yard, a brickyard, a blacksmith, a tailor, a bakery, and a hospital. Once the prison's coal mine opened in 1921, their need for power was also filled completely self-sufficiently. This innovation would save the institution $14,000 a year. That works out to $212,499.66 in today's currency. Some of the prisoners working the mine were even allowed to stay at the mine's camp under the supervision of the foreman, who was not an employee of the prison.
At the turn of the 20th century, a warden's report described how the institution was thriving. According to Wikipedia, the report stated, "Both the quantity and quality of all the purchases of material, food, and clothing have been very gradually, but steadily, improved while the discipline has become more nearly perfect and the exaction of labor less stringent." In 1900, a school was completed to aid in educating prisoners. During this time, education was this facility's number one priority.
While it was no week at the Hilton, the conditions at the West Virginia State Penitentiary weren't anywhere near as horrendous as the institution would become known for. At one point in the early 20th century it was actually a much sought after invitation to dine with the warden and his family at their apartment inside the prison. At that same time, residents of the city would even go there for entertainment. The prison featured an orchestra and the inmates would put on plays and minstrel shows for the public.
As though sought after invitations from the warden and plays accompanied by an orchestra weren't odd enough, locals in Moundsville could actually rent prisoners as well. The going rate to rent a prisoner for the day was around 25 cents. This fee was to be paid directly to the prison. Residents could rent prisoners for any type of work they needed done. Yard work, farm work, and even household chores were performed by these men that were rented out like moving trucks. While they were allowed to earn pay for their services, the locals were not required to pay the prisoners they rented.
The death penalty was legal in West Virginia from 1899-1965. Throughout that entire time only 94 men were executed and no women. All of these men met their end at the penitentiary in Moundsville. The method of executon in the state was hanging from 1899-1949. All executions were public until June 19, 1931, when a traumatizing incident made executions invitation only.
Frank Hyer, or inmate #20377, was 54-years-old when he was put to death for the murder of his wife. The long drop method was utilized in hangings in West Virginia as it was considered more humane. The long drop method factored the offender's height and weight into how far they would need to drop to instantly break their necks. The short drop method was much more brutal, allowing the offender to slowly strangle to death as a crowd hungry for justice looked on. Frank was a very large man, so when the trapped door opened beneath him and he dropped into his noose, instead of having his neck broken he was decapitated. It comes as no surprise that the hauntings at the prison started being reported in the 30s. One of the specters seen is a headless man wandering about the facility. This could be Frank Hyer, or it could be another man decapitated at the prison just a couple of years prior to Frank's botched execution.
Before the method of execution was changed in West Virginia 85 men were hanged. The electric chair, predictably named Ol' Sparky, was introduced to the institution in 1951. Between the time of it's introduction and the time of the death penalty being abolished in 1965, only 9 men were electrocuted in the chair.
The very last hanging to take place in Moundsville was on February 25, 1949. Bud Peterson, or as he was known to guards, inmate #35825, was convicted of murder. After his execution, Bud was buried in a plot in the prison's cemetery because his family refused to claim his remains.
Once electrocution was established as the method of execution in West Virginia, the gallows were removed from the Death House. This was the building purposed for executions. Ol' Sparky was moved into its place and there it stayed until 1965. Now, the chair greets tourists from inside its protective cage as they walk through the circular gates into what was once the prisoners intake.
When electrocution was instituted at the prison it became necessary for an electrician to make a trip out every time an inmate was put to death. It was the electrician's job to make a connection on one of the three switches that needed to be pulled simultaneously. Three guards were needed to pull all three switches at once. To determine who was up for the daunting task of pulling the switches, names were drawn from a hat. It was made known upon employment that this was a required duty for all officials. Refusal resulted in immediate dismissal from the position. Once the death penalty was abolished, the death was torn down at the request of the inmates.
By the time the facility closed conditions had declined horrendously. The state penitentiary in Moundsville even earned a spot as one of the United States of Justice's Top 10 Most Violent Correctional Facilities. The worst of the worst were sent to Moundsville. Rapists, murderers, and even a couple of serial killers were all sentenced to serve their time there. Charles Manson even requested a transfer there to be closer to family, but his request was denied. It can still be found framed inside the defunct prison today. Before the courts finally deemed it the Godless, inhumane cesspool of disease that it was, riots, murders, and escapes took place alongside the commonplace assaults. To this day the mere mention of the old state penitentiary inside of West Virginia correctional facilities is enough to place the institutions on lock-down for fear of a Moundsville-scale riot.
On March 24, 1973, inmates had had all they could stand of the abysmal, dangerous conditions they were forced to live under. A riot broke out, leading to five guards being taken hostage by around three dozen prisoners. As maximum security inmates were being taken to the showers at 11:00 that morning, they jumped a guard and stole his keys. Once the keys were in the hands of the prisoners, control of the facility quickly fell to them. It didn't take long for 175 police officers to flock to the scene, laying siege to the institution.
Acting Warden, William O. Wallace had landed in one hell of a predicament. Only the acting warden, he likely felt in over his head. If he had any doubts about how to handle this situation, he didn't show it, though. He stepped up and handled the violent incident remarkably, managing to have control of the prison turned back over to officials in just 26 hours. Whoever decided to leave him in charge was clearly confident that they were leaving the prison in capable hands.
As prisoners smashed windows to yell at the gathering crowd, acting warden Wallace and administrative assistant, Norman Yost walked inside for a briefing. Afterward the two men walked down the yard to a busted window and began speaking with the rioters. One man in particular that they spoke with, Gene Jarvis, was listed as a ringleader in the disturbance. Yost requested that two men under safe-conduct be sent to the office to negotiate. After thirty minutes of discussion among the inmates, they came back with a reply of yes. Wallace and Yost already knew that the ringleaders wouldn't be attending the negotiations. They would instead opt for sending emissaries in their place.
While emissaries were preparing to negotiate, prisoners were barricading themselves in the North Hall, which held a walled-off exercise yard. Those that wanted no part in the riot camped out in the yard, rather than risk adding time to their sentences. While rioters set up in the North Hall, Wallace was hard at work setting up his command post in Tower 7. From his vantage point in the tower, he had a clear view of the entire front wall. A phone located in the tower also gave the acting warden the ability to reach anywhere in the prison.
Prisoners started busting out all of the windows along the south entrance located on Jefferson Avenue. When they were done, 15 of the 24 tall windows had at least their panes broken. The inmates began yelling their plight to the crowd through the broken glass. Wikipedia states that one man asked, "When are you going to send the newspaper people to talk to us?" When a reporter from the Moundsville Daily Echo showed up to the chaotic scene, he witnessed a man standing on the shoulders of another inmate as he shouted things that were mostly unprintable in the papers.
As this outspoken man used his fellow inmate's shoulders as a platform, he shouted several comments to the reporter as well as his photographer. The tamer of these comments were, "How can I act like a man when they treat me like a dog?" When he saw the photographer pointing his camera in his direction, he yelled at the man, "Don't take pictures of us, we're nice people. Take those pigs out front. Oink, oink." He also informed the reporter on scene, "Nobody knows what I've gone through for five years...I've been here for five years and haven't had a decent meal yet."
This very same reporter was said to have frequented the prison. He also regularly ate in the facility's dining area. He described the food as being good and wholesome.
Before this man finally climbed down from his friend's shoulders, he informed the authorities, "If any of us gets hurt, the guards will have to go." While rioters were continuing to yell through the windows, smoke began to rise from the basement. A minor fire had been started, but it was so small that it posed no threat to the people inside. Regardless, firemen hooked up water lines just to be on the safe side. As officials expected, the fire quickly burnt itself out. To reduce the possibility of new electrical installations being damaged, the electric company was called out to shut off power to the penitentiary.
The loss of power did pose a problem for officials. Instead of having electricity to open the large circular front gate, they now needed to turn the wheel by hand in order to get hostages out. The gate interlocks were nearly impossible to operate, making it difficult to get people out when needed. At one point in the midst of the chaos, police were seen taking two inmates to the hospital, while five more were being taken to the county jail. Both men taken to the hospital had been stabbed in the process of taking the guards hostage. One of these men had a shiv broken off inside of him.
Word was sent out by the ringleaders that if teargas or guns were used they would kill the hostages trapped inside. The men leading the riot made 2o demands in all, only two of which were outright denied. Governor Arch A. Moore wasn't going to allow immunity from reprisals or give prisoners permission to carry unlimited amounts of cash inside the facility. He would, however, consider more sharply defined rules and regulations, possible inmate representation on the penitentiary court, and possible easier access to medical attention. The fact that inmates had to start a riot and demand easier access to medical care paints a picture of their treatment all on its own. It's hard to imagine having to protest to receive such a basic human need when we're all so used to just going to the hospital, urgent care, or scheduling an appointment with a doctor.
The other demands taken under consideration included an investigation into the killing of a guard named William Quillen. A lawyer would also be provided for one of the three indicted on the charge. Ultimately, Governor Moore would agree to 15 of the 20 demands set forth by the prisoners. Among those accepted were: ten solitary confinement cells being removed from the basement, rules and regulations for guards and inmates alike being written and enforced equally, and clean sheets. I will stress again that these men had to start a riot and demand the right to clean sheets. This is a basic human necessity that should've never had to have been demanded in the first place.
The riot ended up costing thousands in damages, and was the first of three major, damning events recorded in the penitentiary's long history. The five hostages were released unharmed, but visibly shaken 26 hours after they were taken. Though the men were a little worse for wear, they were okay. Lloyd Miller, Larry O'Niel, Alfred Fernandez, Billy Richard Thomas, and Basil Raley stated that at no time while they were held were they harmed or mistreated by their captors. Lloyd Miller even commented that no threats had been made on his life and nothing at all had happened during their captivity.
Once control of the institution fell back into the hands of officials, newsmen walked the prison's halls, taking pictures and looking around. As they learned all they could of this exciting story, they discovered three mental patients sitting in the middle of a cell block previously overrun by rioters. They hadn't wandered far off from the psych ward located on the North Hall. As reporters continued to walk the dank, dirty halls of the institution, they witnessed the destruction and mayhem everywhere they looked. Parts of the maximum security wing were littered with debris, paint, and tar. Though the prison itself was ripped apart, many of the bunks within the cells were neatly made.
After the riot, it was found that a convicted murderer, 22-year-old Willie Hale, had been killed during the upheaval. He had been stabbed for being a snitch. A convicted robber said of Willie, "He was ratting on a few people...he was the warden's rat." His stepfather, Willie Lee Hale, was very upset, not just about his stepson's murder, but about the way it was handled by prison officials. He was not immediately informed of his stepson's death, instead learning the terrible news in the papers. By the time someone finally thought to drop by his place of employment, he had already heard all of the gruesome details in the news. Willie Lee Hale was very vocal in blaming the warden. He must have known that there was some trouble and had all the power to send the boy elsewhere for his protection.
The prison riot of 1973 wasn't the only notable disaster to take place at the penitentiary during the disco decade. An escape that resulted in the deaths of a young state trooper and an inmate occurred on Wednesday, November 7, 1979. At around 8:20 that evening, 24-year-old Stephen Jack Hart, and 30-year-old Thomas Burton, broke out with a group of 15 other inmates. Burton and Hart took men convicted of rape and murder along with them as they broke free, causing bedlam in Moundsville. Davis Morgan, Ronald T. Williams, and Harold Gowers were among the 15 that joined the frenzied prison break.
Hart had been a barber at the prison. Taking the opportunity to inform a guard he needed to return his barber tools, he pulled a smuggled .32 caliber automatic pistol on the man once outside of his cell. He overpowered another guard and managed to steal his keys to a door that opened directly onto Jefferson Avenue. A brawl ensued on the residential street between guards and the 15 escapees. It was the appearance of 23-year-old Trooper Philip S. Kesner's car that provided the prisoners with opportunity.
That evening, Trooper Kesner was off-duty and out with his wife, Connie. The two were just driving around the city when their innocent evening out on the town turned deadly. Seeing the on-coming car, one of the escaped prisoners pushed a guard out into the street. Connie was stunned as their car struck the man suddenly. Ronald T. Williams dragged the young officer and his wife from their car, fatally shooting Trooper Kesner before jumping into his car with his fellow escapees. Though he was mortally wounded, Kesner managed to return fire and fatally shot one of the prisoners. Connie was left unharmed, but reasonably shaken after losing her husband so violently before her very eyes.
After the prisoners disappeared in Kesner's car, a five-state manhunt ensued to track them down. Marshall County's Sheriff at the time, Robert Lightner, was very critical of the lack of communication during the escape. The Sheriff's Office and the local police were never informed about the prison break from the State Police, instead finding out about it over police scanners. According to Wikipedia, Sheriff Lightner ranted, "It was a good twenty minutes before we knew about the escape. If somebody had notified us, there's a good chance that the Sheriff's Department and the Moundsville Police could have been on the scene while all the prisoners were still on the block." He was also very critical of the manhunt being conducted to find the men, commenting on poor communication between agencies.
It was later found that 10 of the 15 escapees had previously attempted escapes. The Army-retired head of the West Virginia State Police at the time decided to conduct his own investigation of the penitentiary. This comes as no surprise as the State Police and the West Virginia prison officials were regularly at odds with one another. By the time the State Police stepped in to investigate the operations within the prison, the structure was already 113-years-old and had been modernized twice since 1959.
Richard Mohn had been the superintendent for less than a year before the prison break. He had informed the Moundsville City Council a month before the escape that only about half of the 690 prisoners being held at the facility could actually be locked into their cells. The State Penitentiary had already been regarded as an example of administrative neglect within the penal system. After this daring escape, the New York Times published an article describing frequent stabbings and a "reputation for poor control to avert homosexual violence." As though the facility didn't already have a violent reputation, now it was beginning to spread across the country.
Everyone seemed to have their own opinion about who or what was to blame for the escape. Governor John D. Rockefeller IV was critical of his predecessor, Arch A. Moore's administration. Moore had a chain link fence acting as a secondary barrier around the fortress removed. Rockefeller argued that had he just left the fence in place the 15 escapees may not have made it out, and Trooper Kesner would not have died that night. Richard Mohn blamed the escape, along with previous attepmts, on the "tighter institution we are running here now." Though, he did admit to running a severely understaffed facility, with only 24 guards to oversee 690 inmates on the night of escape.
The New York Times reported on the capture of 8 of the 15 escaped prisoners the day after they broke out. Six of these men were convicted murderers, while the other two were convicted rapists. The day after the prison break, Trooper Kesner's car was also discovered abandoned about 40 miles away, near Waynesburg, Pennsylvania. In the back seat they found 34-year-old escapee, James L. Collins. He had been shot to death, presumably by Trooper Kesner's own bullets.
Ronald T. Williams remained on the run for 18 months, sending taunting notes to police all the while. He made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list while committing crimes in Arizona, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. He was finally caught and returned to the West Virginia State Penitentiary to serve out several life sentences after a shootout with federal agents at the George Washington Hotel in New York City in 1981. Arizona sought for his extradition to execute him for the murder of John Bunchek in Scottsdale during a robbery. He was not extradited and continues to serve his life sentences in West Virginia today.
Two more were caught on November 13, 1979, just six days after their escape. They were found hitchhiking on a highway in Parkersburg, West Virginia. In case you needed another reason to never pick up a hitchhiker, there you go. Eventually all 15 were recaptured and returned to the penitentiary, with the exception of James L. Collins, found shot to death in Trooper Kesner's car. This would hardly be the last violent incident in the prison's history.
Thirteen years after the riot that was supposed to change so much and seven years after the brazen escape of 15 inmates, another riot broke out within the penitentiary's walls. Overcrowding had long been an issue, with officials making no effort to improve the hellish conditions prisoners were forced to live in. Since the 1960s, prisoners had been forced to live three to a cramped 5x7 foot cell. Two slept on bunks chained to the walls, while the third slept on a mattress plopped down on the roach and rodent infested floors. At its peak in the 60s, the facility housed somewhere around 2000 inmates in a structure only meant to hold 650. When the 1986 riot broke out on New Years Day, the institution was housing around 750.
The riot was planned and staged by the motorcycle gang, the Avengers. They were protesting the abhorrent, disgusting conditions they were forced to live in. Bad plumbing resulted in toilets gushing urine and excrement into the floor when flushed. This repulsive mess would of course flood into adjacent cells. Insect and rodent infestations were so rampant that various diseases were wildly spreading from cell to cell. The institution was also growing more violent and dangerous than ever before, with 1986 its banner year for brutality. 1986 would end up being the most violent in 26 years. In less than a year, six men were killed, while twice as many were injured in assaults.
On January 1, 1986, inmates gained control of the lower, main floor. In the process they took 14 hostages, 13 guards and 1 unfortunate outside food service worker, wielding homemade weapons. The riot was purposefully planned for New Years Day as inmates knew several guards would call in sick to nurse their hangovers from the previous night. Once the captain's booth was overrun and the guards were taken hostage, control of the facility quickly fell into the hands of prisoners once again. The South Hall was taken with absolutely no resistance whatsoever. Amid the rioting inmates and surrounding chaos, a few brave guards remained inside to monitor things from a distance. Now that the prison was taken, the police were laying siege, and the press was flocking to the scene, it was time to reveal the horrendous conditions to the world. All while officials scrambled to cover their own asses.
Prison officials swore that they had no idea what had sparked the uprising. They speculated that it was possibly changes in policy that led to the riot. While Warden Jerry Hendrick was on damage control with the press, the rioters were making sure that everyone knew why they had risen up and taken over. They were ready to tell the world quite frankly and honestly what they were living through.
Though adjustments had been made to fortify security, I'd like to know exactly where that money went, because it definitely didn't go to the prison. At that time the national average was one guard to every four inmates. On any given day the guards at Moundsville were typically outnumbered 13-1. In July of that year additional money was budgeted to employ 50 more guards at the facility. According to their doctored numbers, this brought the ratio to 259 guards to a reported 541 prisoners. It was later found that the actual number of prisoners in the institution at that time was 750.
The building's 19th century design was partially blamed for the prisoner's ability to plan such an uprising. The reasoning behind this comes from the fact that the prison was designed in such a way that all of the inmates could see the comings and goings of the guards all day and night. Modern prison designs purposefully limit inmates' knowledge of the institutions they're housed in. Isolated cell blocks keep prisoners from becoming too intimate with the facility's layout and guards' schedules.
The conditions that rioters were protesting were found to be appalling and down-right unconstitutional. The riot and the conditions that it shed light on began the downfall of West Virginia's first state penitentiary. It was found in 1983 that Circuit Court Judge Arthur Recht had actually declared the conditions there to be unconstitutional. The state Corrections Department was issued a court order to improve conditions that largely went ignored. Thomas Knight, the Chairman of the state House of Delegates' committee responsible for monitoring the prison's conditions, admitted to the state government's lack of response to the court's decision. Knight said, "We have been wrong. My committee has tried and tried and tried, but nobody cares about prisons except at times like this. Up until a couple of years ago, we had open sewers in the prison basement. My, God, that's awful."
The riot of 1986 was not the first attempt made by inmates to better their living situation. They tried going through the legal system, filing class-action suits. They even went before the West Virginia Supreme Court over the state's failure to comply with Judge Recht's ruling. It would seem that going to the state about the state wasn't very helpful. Although, it wasn't for nothing. The lawyer representing the inmates, James Companion, managed to help the men gain some improvements to their circumstances. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough to stop the spread of roaches, rodents, disease, or the severely defective plumbing, flooding the floors of the prison.
The first demand made by rioters was to speak personally with Governor Moore about improving conditions. He initially refused the demand, saying that he would not come to negotiate until all of the hostages were released. His tactic didn't work and he was forced to return to West Virginia from out of the state to speak with the prisoners. Among other demands, the men wanted decent meals, and at least one hot meal every day.
Though Danny Lehman was not one of the original 20 inmates to take control of the prison, he was named the Avengers' president. As such, he was tasked with negotiating with authorities and presenting demands to the media. Their meeting would lay out a new set of rules and standards for the institution to build upon. Local and national news feverishly covered every last second of the riot and the negotiations. The signing of a pact was even televised live. As part of that televised signing, six hostages were also released unharmed. As a precaution, they were taken by ambulance to the hospital to be checked out. This came after the previous release of three hostages due to medical reasons.
On the third and final day of the siege the last of the hostages were finally released. Three inmates would lose their lives as a result of the 1986 riot in Moundsville. One was not even brought to light until after the televised signing of the pact. When the third body was removed from the prison in the riot's aftermath, inmates became very agitated. The body was taken without incident, though.
It was found that the West Virginia State Penitentiary, known as a cons prison, had most of its cells locks picked. Prisoners could just come and go as they pleased, wandering the understaffed prison to do whatever they wanted. It was no wonder the facility had been so easily taken twice in just seven years. By the time the three-day long riot concluded, $200,000 worth of damage had been done to the prison. Today that would be worth $495,795.62.
Just two years after the infamous riot, another daring prison escape was carried out. On April 3, 1988, three convicted murderers broke out of the facility: 45-year-old Tommie Mollohan, 35-year-old Bobby Stacy, and 28-year-old David Williams. Corrections Commissioner A.V. Dodrill had no doubt in his mind that Tommie Mollohan had been the mastermind behind the escape. He was said to be very familiar with the prison's layout and an excellent plumber. Dodrill knew that in order to concoct such a plot at least one of these three men would need intimate knowledge of what was by then a 112-year-old structure. He said of the building, "This prison is in terrible shape. The plumbing is especially bad. It needs constant renovation."
Tommie Mollohan had been convicted of robbing and killing a grocer in 1973. At the time of his escape from Moundsville, he had already broken out of a prison in Florida. He was also wanted in Georgia and North Carolina on charges of armed robbery.
Bobby Stacy had been convicted of killing one police officer and accused of killing another. He had sworn revenge on those that had taken part in locking him up. During the escape, the people responsible for putting him away were all assigned police protection. Of particular concern was the judge that sentenced him and a woman in Columbus, Ohio that had testified against him.
David Williams was serving life for felony murder, arson, and robbery when he joined in on the prison break. With nothing more to look forward to than bad food, cramped quarters, and disgusting living conditions for the rest of his life, his choice wasn't hard. Live in filth with the roaches and the rats, or tunnel out of there Shawshank style? He chose the latter.
The trio managed to dig a 32 foot long, 6 foot deep tunnel to freedom. The men went completely unnoticed as they crawled out of the hole and ran away. Authorities looked into the possibility of the men having outside help in their plan. No evidence was ever produced of such help. It's not known exactly when the escape took place. It wasn't discovered until 4:00pm on April 3, 1988, when guards noticed a hole at the back of the building. Upon inspection, they found prison uniforms and a ladder inside the tunnel that had been dug underneath the wall.
While the three escapees were caught, Tommie Mollohan and David Williams weren't done trying to get out of that Godforsaken place. The two would attempt another escape in February 1992. This time, 34-year-old Fred Hamilton was their third conspirator. Fred was serving three consecutive life sentences with the possibility of parole for conspiracy to commit murder, kidnapping, and armed robbery. The three were recaptured and returned to Moundsville to serve out their terms until being moved to other facilities in 1995, when the penitentiary closed.
You can't talk about the West Virginia State Penitentiary without talking about Red Snyder. Born in 1946, Red was a rotten egg from the very start. Known as an extremely violent man, he began his life of crime in his early 20's with arson. It didn't take long for his crimes to escalate from setting fires to more violent acts. He spent time in many different prions in his life, Moundsville's penitentiary included. In 1967, Red was paroled from the state prison and committed his worst atrocity yet the very next day.
Upon returning home after his release, 31-year-old Red Snyder discovered that his 15-year-old sister had fallen in love with the boy next door. The neighboring Grogg family was a delightful bunch with respectful children. Red's father, Emory Snyder, had no issues at all with his daughter dating the boy. Instead of being happy for his sister's new love, Red became enraged at the prospect. Many have speculated that Red may have been having an inappropriate relationship with his younger sister. It does seem an awful lot like he became jealous of the boy next door.
Red brought his concerns up with his father, but Emory saw no problem with the young boy whatsoever. He liked the boy and was quite supportive of the relationship. This just enraged Red all the more. Regardless of what Emory thought, Red was determined to end the relationship. He stated his intention to kill the boy next door to his father. Emory was equally determined to stop his son from committing such a crime against the boy his daughter loved. Much to the dismay of Emory, Red would not be stopped by anyone, even his own father.
In the wee hours of the morning after his release from prison, Red crept into his father's bedroom, gun in hand. As Emory slept peacefully, he had no idea what kind of evil had just walked right up to his bedside. For a moment Red stood there, watching the soft breathing of the man that had raised him from a baby. Then he leveled his gun, lined up his shot, and fired, killing his father instantly. Leaving Emory's cold, lifeless body behind in a puddle of his own blood, Red walked out of the house and over to the Grogg residence.
Red arrived at the Grogg's home to find that the parents had gone out that morning. The eight Grogg children were left at home alone, the boyfriend included. Red took the children hostage, holding them in pure terror until their father returned and ran to their rescue. Mr. Grogg jumped Red and tried his hardest to wrestle the gun away from him. The gun went off in the struggle, killing Mr. Grogg. Immediately, he fled the scene of the crime and the hunt was on for Red Snyder. Mr. Grogg did manage to save the lives of his children, but at the cost of his own.
The chase ended quickly enough when Red was shot in the leg as he tried to run away. He was found guilty of the double murder of his father and Mr. Grogg. Red was promptly returned to the West Virginia State Penitentiary after enjoying only one day of freedom.
Upon his return to prison, or home as he would've considered it, fellow inmates began to find his behavior extremely odd. Men around the facility started to think that the man was down-right insane. His strange behavior was enough to make other inmates feel uneasy around him. Some feared him, while others wanted to see him dead. He led a very tense life behind those bars, made all the more difficult by his own damning behavior. For a time, Red became the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood. Not because he actually believed any of the garbage they were spewing, but because he needed protection from the other prisoners out to kill him. As Red was a very unpopular man behind those sandstone walls, he needed to find protection anywhere he could.
Eventually Red would gain some respect from inmates and guards alike. He was known as a "straight shooter." Fellow inmates would say of Red, "You leave him alone and he'd return the favor." Guards would later remember Red for his knit hat, love of chewing tobacco, and never missing an episode of Days of Our Lives. Apparently chewing his tobacco as he watched his soaps calmed him down a good bit as he got older. He was no longer known as the odd man that may or may not be insane, according to fellow inmates. I'm willing to bet he was trying for a retrial on an insanity plea, but that's just my opinion.
Red Snyder's chill was finally shattered in 1986 when the infamous three-day long riot broke out in the prison. Some reports state that Red was among the ringleaders helping to start the chaos on that cold New Years Day. It's really not clear whether or not he was, though. Once the riot was quelled a heavy lock-down was implemented on North Hall for quite some time afterward. This was where Red Snyder resided. Finally on November 15, 1992, guards were starting to feel comfortable enough to allow prisoners to wander their cell block.
That day, Red received a visit to his cell from a friend of his, Rusty Lassiter. Rusty walked down to cell #20, knowing he would find Red sitting there peacefully, probably chewing his tobacco. For a few minutes, the two spoke amiably, leading guards to suspect nothing at all. The men talked and laughed for a short time. Red probably never saw it coming, either. Rusty quickly grabbed a sharp metal shard from the bunk that Red rested his head on every night. Before he could even react to the oncoming assault, Rusty stabbed Red 37 times in his cell. As tiny as these cells are, Red would've been trapped with no way to escape or avoid the attack.
Rusty calmly walked away from the scene, leaving his friend drenched in his own blood. When guards finally discovered his blood drenched cell, it was too late. Red Snyder was already dead. Not surprisingly, his sister refused to claim his body. After this man murdered her father and her boyfriend's father, all to keep her from being happy, could you blame her? It's still not clear today whether or not Red was sexually abusing his sister, either.
Although his body wasn't claimed by family, he wasn't buried in the prison's cemetery, either. Mostly because the guards of the facility held respect for the man they remembered for his knit hat, chewing tobacco, and soap operas, they raised money to have him buried with his family. The public was reasonably outraged by this. No one except the prison guards wanted to see him buried at Moundsville's Riverview Cemetery. Locals fought the effort, but the guards won out. Red Snyder was laid to rest at the Riverview Cemetery with the stipulation that he would not be allowed a gravestone. Considering his crimes, this was probably for the best.
As for Rusty Lassiter, he remained in the Moundsville penitentiary until its closing in 1995. He was then moved to the new state prison in West Virginia, Mt. Olive. He was paroled in 2009 and arrested again on drug charges soon after. He resides at the Huttonsville Correctional Facility in West Virginia today. As my father served time time at both Mt. Olive and Huttonsville, I heard many stories of the hellscape that was the Moundsville penitentiary as I was growing up. I also heard stories of large men convicted of terrible, unspeakable crimes that were too afraid to get anywhere near certain parts of the prison. My father joked with these men, asking if they were afraid of Casper. They were all too serious when they told him of the terrifying things they'd witnessed at the old penitentiary.
The change of conditions within the prison between the early and the late 20th century is a true testament to the way times change. When convicted murderer, Jesse White went on a hunger strike in protest of the abhorrent conditions, the West Virginia Supreme Court finally dug their heads out of their asses and took notice. During his protest, Jesse lost almost 100 pounds, moving prison officials to force-feed him. Jesse objected to the guards' interference with his wish to die and filed a suit with the Marshall County Circuit Court. The Supreme Court ruled that the guards were well within their rights to force-feed him in order to prevent his death. The state of West Virginia may not put you to death, but they will make sure that you live out as much of your life sentence as possible, no matter the cost to the tax payers.
By the time the Supreme Court ruling had passed, Jesse had ended his hunger strike, making it a moot point. He had become the prison's head chef and even gained 40 pounds of his weight back by that point. His fight wasn't for nothing, though. His hunger strike and the resulting suits caused justices to take notice of multiple pending habeas corpus petitions filed by inmates at the facility. Every single one was petitioning the deplorable conditions at the prison. One such petition, filed in 1981 by inmate Robert Crain, alleged that conditions were so intolerable that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment, which is prohibited by the US Constitution. His allegations were compounded by the multiple others made by other inmates making the same appalling claims. The multitude of habeas corpus petitions spelled the beginning of the end for the institution.
It was at this point that Judge Recht was appointed to preside over the habeas cases in 1983. The testimony he heard shocked and horrified him. He ordered the Department of Corrections to get it together and make some serious changes. We know that his orders went largely ignored, resulting in the prison riot of 1986. Judge Recht resigned from his bench shortly after his ruling that year. He was replaced by Special Judge John F. Bronson. Bronson approved the compliance plan set forth by the Department of Corrections, even though it did not meet Judge Recht's requirements. Objections made by the appellants went ignored.
The prisoners ended up appealing their case to the West Virginia Supreme Court. Chief Judge Miller presided, and it was his opening lines that would set the stage for everything to come. He said, "It is difficult to accurately summarize the deplorable conditions that were found to exist at the WVP." He discovered after much investigation into the facility that Judge Bronson's approved compliance plan didn't meet Judge Recht requirements in the least. He found a plan submitted to rectify conditions and bring them up to standard, but saw clearly that nothing had been done. During the 1983 Supreme Court hearing the warden even admitted that he had avoided spending any money on repairs for the prison, deeming the structure too old and too far gone.
Between the Supreme Court hearing in 1983 and the prison riot in 1986, the facility was quickly being seen as the dirty, dangerous place that it was. The sickening smells of urine and excrement flushed into the floors wafted through the cell blocks. These smells would linger for long periods after each malfunction, and malfunctions were frequent. The nauseating smell was an assault on the senses and an everyday part of living in the penitentiary. The smell only became more pungent, and even suffocating in the summer months, when temperatures were known to climb up to 100 degrees.
The small, cramped 5x7 foot cells became like tiny ovens as they roasted their inhabitants in the summertime. Even today, there is no heating or cooling systems in the old prison. If you want to go on a tour, you are advised to dress appropriately for the season. If the summer months resembled the previews of Hell, then the winter months resembled the North Pole. Temperatures were known to drop to sub-freezing lows, practically flash-freezing inmates in their cells. These men were forced to huddle underneath thin, inadequate rags they called blankets until spring, when they could finally thaw out.
Experts that toured the facility called it "grossly inadequate," stating that conditions were "substantially below the minimum constitutional standards." These two very experienced experts said that the West Virginia State Penitentiary was the worst they had ever seen. The US Department of Justice would conclude that it was among the 10 worst prisons in the United States. A revised plan was submitted to rectify the conditions at the penitentiary, but it was rejected. Ultimately, the prison was closed due to the horrid conditions on March 27, 1995. With newer prisons built, there was no need to try repairing the old shell of a structure. A smaller facility was also built just a mile away to serve as a regional jail. After its closing, inmates were shipped out to different institutions, most of them to Mt. Olive in Fayette County, West Virginia.
For a time after the prison closed its gates for good, it seemed like the end for the city of Moundsville as well. Other jobs had already left from the area, and the closing of the old penitentiary only took more jobs away from those in need of work. Residents, of course, started picking up their roots and moving elsewhere. As the city's population left in search of work, Moundsville became a ghost town. This only added to the eerie, foreboding feeling that hung over the city alongside the crumbling Gothic-style structure towering over it. Moundsville after the penitentiary's closing is a stark contrast to the once thriving, bustling city of yesteryear.
It didn't take very long for the potential that this old building held to be seen. With very little work, it was turned into a very successful tourist attraction. People from all over come to see the defunct facility as it was when it was closed down, and hear all about its macabre history. Past inmates have even been known to bring their families, even their grandchildren, to the Hell on Earth they once called home. Don't worry, it was thoroughly cleaned, but the disrepair the building was left in was mostly untouched. This is so that tourists can really get the sense of what these men lived through.
Hauntings have been reported at the prison since the 1930s by inmates and guards alike. The defunct facility in Moundsville has become something like folklore to those within West Virginia prisons today. In the late 90s, my father served the first of what would be several prison stints before straightening out his life, and helping others exiting the penal system to do the same. During his first experience within the cold, impenetrable walls of prison, he began hearing stories told in hushed tones about the old institution. At that time, it had not been long since its closing. Many locked up with my dad still had fresh memories of the Hell hole they had recently been transferred from. Dad quickly learned that to even mention the facility's name where it could be openly heard meant for the entire prison to go on lock-down. This was for fear of the kind of riots, escapes, or murders that took place in Moundsville taking place in other facilities.
There isn't a prison in West Virginia that wants to see a repeat of the kind of violence that Moundsville became known for. While locked up in one of West Virginia's facilities, my father met and talked at length with a man that had been in prison for so long that he remembered being originally brought to Moundsville on a horse-drawn buggy. This elderly man, close to death by that point, was serving a life sentence for murder. He had many stories to tell that my father ate up like lunch, as he was as big of an enthusiast of macabre history as I am. This man spoke about the days when executions were carried out and when conditions were actually acceptable. He also talked about watching the steady decline of the institution as inmates broke out and riots erupted. These weren't the only stories my dad heard about the old, dilapidated prison. Shadow figures and a sensed evil presence made many prisoners feel more than just uneasy behind its walls.
One area of the old penitentiary that is often talked about is the indoor recreational area, known as the Sugar Shack. This particular area in the prison was where the majority of rapes, murders, and assaults took place. I would imagine a new inmate being sent to the rec room with other prisoners probably felt more like a death sentence rather than an opportunity to exercise. This room is storied to be one of the most haunted parts of the prison. As my father spoke with a man serving a life sentence, he was told that the man would not spend a single night alone in the Sugar Shack, not even for his freedom.
Previous prisoners of the old penitentiary aren't the only ones with stories to tell. Staff members of the now tourist attraction, retired guards from the days when it was still a prison, and tourists all have stories of their own. Of course, there are also plenty that have visited, toured, taken pictures, and experienced nothing. At least, nothing more than a feeling of disgust over the fact that prisoners were once treated so terribly. There are, of course, the shadow figure seen walking the halls and the basement, and the headless specter witnessed all over the prison grounds. This headless man is speculated to be Frank Hyer, the man accidentally decapitated during his 1931 hanging. There are others that think the ghost could be that of R.D. Wall, murdered in 1929.
R.D. Wall was known as a kind, friendly man that got along well with fellow inmates and guards alike. By all accounts, he seemed to be the kind of guy that aimed to please everyone around him. He regularly joked and laughed with the guards on duty, making pleasant conversation. He never had a thing in the world against the men overseeing the prison. The way he saw it, they were trying to earn a living just like everyone else. They were even nice enough to allow R.D. to perform small jobs in return for special rewards. While his fellow inmates were aware of his amiable nature and the arrangement he had with the guards, a group of new transfers to the prison were not.
Some of the new transfers thought that R.D. was a snitch. They didn't feel that prisoners should be interacting with guards at all. The fact that he was always talking and joking with them, while also doing odd jobs for them gave these new inmates the wrong idea. Though R.D. had never ratted on anyone, he was deemed a snitch.
The sadly misinformed men assembled a scheme to quiet the man they thought to be a nark. In 1929, they hid down in the basement, lying in wait for the poor, unsuspecting man to walk by. He eventually walked through the basement on his way to the boiler room for cleaning supplies. R.D. was jumped and attacked by a group of men wielding dull shivs. Once the men knocked him to the ground, one of them cut off the tips of each of his fingers. Another man sliced so deeply into his neck with the dull metal of his shiv that he nearly decapitated him. His body was taken to a bathroom stall and posed, with his mostly severed head rested upon his neck and propped against the stone wall. The guards that discovered him were shocked and horrified by the scene.
It's no wonder that many speculate whether the headless man seen in the basement could be R.D. Wall. While it's possible, it's also worth noting that reports of hauntings in the prison didn't start until the 1930s. This does make it more likely that if there is a headless ghost wandering the old penitentiary, it would be Frank Hyer.
With the amount of death that took place behind that circular gate, the numerous reports of hauntings come as no surprise. Aside from the 36 murders committed on the property, numerous suicides and accidents also claimed the lives of many. There were many more that died during prison riots, one man even burning to death. Not to mention the fact that only 50% of the inmates subjected to the Kicking Jenny survived its torture. All in all, a total of almost 1000 men died within the walls of that Godless pit. With the Adena tribe's ancient burial mound just right across the street, there are of course rumors of the building standing on top of an ancient Native American burial ground. Because what's a good ghost story without an old Poltergeist cliche jammed in there?
A chilling EVP taken inside the prison's psychiatric ward can be found online. The sound of a gunshot ringing out through the ward before a shell hits the floor can clearly be heard. The classic clanging of chains can be heard throughout the facility, as well as voices, screams, and footsteps. An ever-present feeling of someone, or something, looming over tourists has also been reported. People have seen apparitions in the windows, sometimes the shadow man. There are even reports of tourists walking down an empty hallway, feeling bodies bumping and brushing past them as though they were walking through a crowded hall. The hot spots for activity are said to be the Chapel, the shower cages, Death Row, the spot where the Death House once stood, the Sugar Shack, and the North Wagon Gate. The circular gate at the old prisoners intake is also known to sporadically start turning on its own, as though new inmates are still being processed.
The defunct penitentiary can be toured in the spring and summer months between April 1-November. It closes every winter due to the uncomfortably cold temperatures. The Dungeon of Horrors, set up every Halloween season, is a very popular attraction. The prison even features an escape room, aptly named Escape the Pen, for participants 12 and up. Princess themed tea parties can even be scheduled for young girls, starting at just $20. Historical day tours and haunted night tours can also be booked on their website, wvpentours.com. When booking a tour, be sure to pay attention to the details as there are age requirements for certain experiences.
When touring the facility you can see Charles Manson's framed request for transfer hanging on a wall. A wall inside the gift shop displays the black and white 3x5 photos of the men that were executed in the Death House. Some of the men pictured were dressed in their prison issued uniforms, while others were still wearing the clothes they were convicted in. Some of the men in these pictures were dressed neatly and sharply. A few even wore bow ties in their pictures.
This goose-bump inducing Gothic-style dungeon of terror had also made its fair share appearances in movies, television, books, and even a video game. Moundsville native, Davis Grubb, wrote two novels featuring the penitentiary so prominent in his hometown. Fools' Parade, also known as Dynamite Man From Glory Jail, featured the prison and was adapted into a film in 1971. The movie starred James Stewart, Kurt Russel, and George Kennedy.
Grubb's, The Night of the Hunter, was also adapted into a film in 1955, and starred Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. It was based on the true story of lonely hearts killer, Harry Powers, who was housed and executed at the West Virginia State Penitentiary. I won't get further into his story as I would like to cover it later. For the novel and the movie, his name was changed to Harry Powell.
Prison scenes from the 2013 film, Out of the Furnace were shot there. Season one, episode one of MTV's paranormal reality series, Fear, was also shot there. The old prison also served as a stand-in for the Shawshank State Prison in the Hulu original, Castle Rock, based on the work of Stephen King. The show runners of Castle Rock decided that they wanted to make the town around the prison more visible to the audience. The first penitentiary in West Virginia served their needs perfectly. External shots of the prison were used in season one, episode nine of Netflix's Mindhunter. It was even featured as the Eastern Regional Penitentiary in the video game, Fallout 76.
The creepy old institution, as well as the town's history have both become the subject of investigations by a few well known paranormal shows. Most Terrifying Places in America explored the bowels of the prison in their 2018 episode on the Travel Channel, titled Cursed Towns. The penitentiary would appear on television again on November 14, 2019, on the Science Channel. The fifth season of Mysteries of the Abandoned featured the facility in one of their episodes. Ghost Adventures also filmed an episode there as well.
With the practically cursed history at the old penitentiary, there's no wonder it's considered one of the scariest places in America. West Virginia's first state prison has one of the bloodiest, goriest, most brutal backgrounds in the country. There are still men alive today that remember the horrors faced there on a day to day basis. The violence, the filth, the disease, and the needless psychological torment permanently scarred many that were unfortunate enough to be sent there. To this day, you do not want to be the big-mouthed asshole that mentions Moundsville within ear-shot of a guard in any of West Virginia's correctional facilities. Fellow inmates will not be happy with you once the lock-down is lifted.
I urge you to check out their website at wvpentours.com and schedule your experience. There is a wide range of tours and events to choose from for history buffs, ghost enthusiasts, and even children. Even if you don't encounter anything other-worldly, you are guaranteed an eye-opening experience like no other. The stories of negligence, violence, and utter mayhem are enough to leave tourists in shock and awe. Who knows? You might just walk down an empty hallway, bumping into the souls of the dead. Or you could encounter the shadow figure or the headless man wandering about the institution. Whatever you do, just be careful in the Sugar Shack.