West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, WV, USA | Addresses - 818 Jefferson Ave - MAP

WEST VIRGINIA PENITENTIARY

Torture | Red | Executions | Ghosts

The two most notable tourist attractions in Moundsville, West Virginia are right across the street from each other.

West side is North America’s largest native burial mound at 65 feet high, and on the east side is the most haunted abandon prison.

The Grave Creek Mound - -
The Grave Creek Mound, for which Moundsville takes its name started around 250 BC.

The Adena natives knew it was a great honour to be buried with village leaders inside the mound. When one level filled up, a new one was added until the mound reached the size you see today.

West Virginia Penitentiary

It’s the 1860s, the Civil War is over and a little time has passed from West Virginia’s separation from Virginia.

Governor Arthur Boreman needed a prison. Unable to use Virginia State Penitentiary and he knew a facility was crucial to the reputation of the newly formed West Virginia.

But the money was denied and criminals were held inside a small jail in Wheeling, West Virginia. This was the new state’s capital.

The small jail got over crowded. Then 9 dangerous criminals escaped, leaving the state no choice.

Boreman’s idea was approved.

10 acres secured in Moundsville, just 20 minutes from Wheeling. A temporary wooden building put up in place of a final design… which like Mansfield [LINK-MansfieldArticle] was based on psychology.

Mansfield was based on hope, but West Virginia Penitentiary would be dread. Convey a feeling of strength and darkness, as inmates march into their personal hell.

Gothic architecture was perfect.

The North Wagon Gate was constructed from hand-cut sandstone, than the North and South cellblocks built up around it. The iconic 4-storey Administration tower was added last, including the Warden’s office on an upper level in the crown of West Virginia Penitentiary.

All was done by 1876.

Torture of Inmates

By 1886, stories of inhumane punishment were leaked to the Cincinnati Enquirer newspaper.

Former Assistant Superintendent Wilkerson had seen enough. After leaving West Virginia Penitentiary he told stories of torture and violence on inmates.

From the Cincinnati Enquirer interview with Wilkerson - -
Reporter, “Did you ever see any of the prisoners treated cruelly?"

Wilkerson, “Yes I have. I have seen men hauled up for being short in tasks and beaten so brutally the sight made me sick.”

He talked about the “Kicking Jenny”.

An inmate is bent over a small table. His arms and legs stretched out and secured to large blocks on the floor. This tightened the skin on his back and increasing the damage from every cut of the guard’s leather whip.

Wilkerson, “The inmate’s back was a pool of blood when the guard’s strength gave out.”

Then the “Shoo-fly”, or extreme water boarding.

Inmates tied down to the floor and a hose was turned on to full. They aimed it at the inmate’s face and when he started choked the water was stopped. Repeated minutes later, again and again, until the inmate was close to death or insanity.

This sealed the reputation of West Virginia Penitentiary as a standard for the worst prison life.

William “Red” Snyder

William “Red” Snyder was a very violent man.

Born in 1946, he’d started a life in crime with arson in his early 20s. Escalating, and over the years serving time in many prisons including West Virginia.

He was released on parole from West Viriginia Penitentiary in 1967.

One day later he killed 2 men.

Red returned home to find out his 15 year old sister was seeing a neighbour boy, the son of a man named Frank Grogg. Why Red was angry about this is unknown.

We do know he got a gun and told his father Emory about plans to stop the boy. Emory argued with Red, was completely against it, which may be why Red put a bullet in his father while the old man slept.

With his father lying cold at the house, Red walked down to the Grogg family home while Frank and his wife were out.

He took the 8 kids, including the hated son, hostage. The couple arrived home, Frank seeing what was happening and jumped Red. They wrestled for the gun and it went off. Frank Grogg stumbled back. The bullet went through his chest.

Red ran away but the police were waiting. A chase ends with a bullet to Red’s leg.

He’s sent back to West Virginia Penitentiary.

Prison Life - -
Red’s strange personality caused unease with inmates. He was feared but hunted, living a tense existence in West Virginia Pen.

He led the Aryan Brotherhood to survive, but not for control or ego. Everyone knew Red was a straight shooter. You leave him alone and he’d return the favour.

Guards knew him for his knit hat, love of chewing tobacco and the soap opera Days of Our Lives.

This calm reputation changed in 1986 when a riot broke out.

Some believed Red help start it. 3 inmates were killed and it began a heavy lockdown in the North Hall.

The End of Red - -
Rusty Lassiter was supposed to be Red’s friend.

On Sunday November 15, 1992, the guards felt comfortable in letting North Hall inmates walk around.

Rusty walked over to Red’s cell. Maybe they talked like so many times before or it was just silence before Rusty pulled out that sharp piece of metal fashioned from his bed.

He plunged it into Red fifteen times, covering Cell #20 with his blood. Red was dead.

They buried him outside the prison walls. This due to the respect guards had for him. They held a fundraising effort to buy a gravesite in Moundsville’s Riverview Cemetery, location of Red’s family.

Locals were against it. The guards were successful; Red was buried in Riverview but with no headstone. He remains in an unmarked grave.

Rusty Lassiter is still alive. Was released on parole in 2009 and then returned on a drug charge. We think he resides at Huttonsville Correctional. No further information could be found.

Executions at West Virginia Pen

Over a 60 year period (1899 to 1959) 94 men were put to death. 85 hanged up till 1949 when West Virginia Pen switched to “Old Sparky”.

See a full list of those executed at West Virginia Penitentiary

Public hangings happened in West Virginia until 1931.

Officials thought it a win-win, entertainment for the masses and a show of punishment to lower crime with fear. But people’s beliefs changed. Public executions were soon hated and a black mark placed on officials of West Virginia sealing the dark reputation of this jail.

The last public hanging at West Virginia Pen - -
In June 19th, 1931, Frank Hyer was to be hanged for murdering his wife.

Visiting Hyer before his death would have given you pause, he was the happiest one in the room.

While surrounded by guards, officials and a priest, he talked up a storm. Told the priest about his wonderful “Christian experience”, and confessing over and over, saying “whiskey caused it”.

He told them about wanting suicide, but the church brought him back. “It made me a good man”.

Then the time comes. Frank is dressed and ready to walk out, turning to the group he says, “Meet me in heaven… and when you preach Father, tell young men to leave whiskey alone”.

To the gallows, over the trap door, noose placed around Frank Hyer’s neck.

The Reverend says a prayer and Frank is asked for his final words. Never at a loss, he says, “I am guilty…” “I am perfectly willing to shed my blood for this crime. Jesus has saved my soul…” “I am not afraid to die.”

The trap opens and Frank falls but something wasn’t right.

The noose tightened quick, or maybe incorrect slack on the rope, but the pressure was too much. The rope squeezed Frank’s neck and with a hard jerk popped his head off his body.

The people were disturbed and disgusted leading to an unofficial end to public hangings in West Virginia.

Introducing Old Sparky - -
Hanging stopped in 1949. Welcome “Old Sparky”, the electric chair, to West Virginia Penitentiary. Built by an inmate named Paul Glenn and his device stopped the hearts of 9 men.

The last execution of any kind in West Virginia Penitentiary was Elmer Bruner in 1959.

Elmer was executed just 2 years after breaking into the house of a 58 year old woman named Ruby Miller and killing her with a claw hammer.

West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1965.

The End of a Dark Era

For 110 years this prison stood as a deterrent to criminals in West Virginia. Then in 1986 it was deemed cruel with its 5’ x 7’ cells. All inmates were transferred within 9 years.

West Virginia Penitentiary was closed in 1995.

Many thought this was the end. Nobody could have predicted it would be famous again, for ghosts.

The Ghosts of West Virginia Penitentiary

It’s haunted as any place with a horror movie history and residual energy darker would be. We believe more haunted than most places in the United States.

The revolving door of justice - -
The front door of the prison revolves like the entrances to fancy stores and hotels. Made this way so prisoners couldn’t escape after seeing pure hopelessness.

An officer escorted a prisoner to the door. When cleared they pushed through as the door spins and the sunlight disappears. If he ran, turned and pushed, the door would lock. It only spun one way.

Today that lock is forever set to open. Visitors walk through the administration building passed the door. They’d hear a squeak like steel rubbing on steel.

If looking at the right time the door would slowly spin into the building.

R.D. Wall - -
R.D. Wall was an inmate and maintenance clerk inside West Virginia Pen. He was popular with the Warden and guards.

Calmly serving out his time… until new transfers arrived, men who believed guards and inmates should be separate.

They didn’t trust R.D. Wall, how he laughed with the hated guards like they were buddies. The inmates didn’t know he was just doing small jobs, working the guards for special treatment.

They thought he was a snitch.

In 1929, these new inmates hid inside a bathroom stall once in a basement washroom. Quiet, clutching dull shivs as R.D. walked by headed for the boiler room. They made sure he was alone.

Jumping out, grabbing Wall and holding him down. One man cut into each of his finger-tips as the others sliced at his neck over and over with dull metal.

The guards found R.D. Wall shoved into a back stall, his head pushed straight up by the wall as they almost severed it from his body.

He’s still down there.

There are reports from visitors, like women who feel fingers running through their hair and light pressure stroking their cheeks.

Some will hear footsteps are coming down the stairs, then a man’s voice.

And R.D. Wall is seen walking down the hall to the boiler room wearing his regular khaki uniform. At times the man is missing his head.

The Sugar Shack - -
The “Sugar Shack” is called this because it’s where prisoners went for “sugar”. Not candy.

This recreation space was known for rape and violence among inmates. Scores were settled, fights broke out and men died.

Weaker inmates were fearful, preyed upon, beaten and raped. The fear some people feel today is connected with that residual energy.

Some hear men arguing, yelling or terrifying whispers coming through the walls from opposite rooms.

The North Wagon Gate - -
It’s the original structure that would later become West Virginia Penitentiary. Later would serve as the hanging gallows for public and private executions.

And it’s home to the most active ghost of West Virginia Pen.

Orville Paul Adkins haunts the Gate after being hanged privately in 1938.

Orville condemned for kidnapping a minister and leaving him in a local mine to be found by locals. He never meant to kill the religious man, just bad luck. The minister died from pneumonia due to the cold of the mine.

And bad luck followed Orville to the gallows.

On that day, standing over the trap door as a masked executioner put the noose around his neck. The nervous assistant working the trapdoor rushed and pulled the handle early.

Orville fell 20 feet to the stone walkway below.

Stunned and hurt but still alive, the executioner walked down, grabbed him by the collar and dragged him back up the stairs.

This time the noose was secured before the trap door opened and Orville Paul Adkins hanged.

Today footsteps are heard. Above the Gate, as if someone slowly paces back and forth. When visitors hear the steps, they feel uneasy and watched.

All the hot spots - -
On top of the above, ask your tour guide about these well known spots…

  1. The Shower Cages
  2. Death Row, common for emotional experiences
  3. The “Death House”, a wooden cabin once off of the recreation yard. Was home to “Old Sparky”. They tore down after the death penalty was outlawed in 1965. Inmates requested it be demolished, to forget about what used to happen
  4. The North Hall (called “Alamo”) where the most dangerous inmates were held

Inverted Pentagram in the Warden’s office

Ryan Buell looking at West Virginia Penitentiary Pentegram in Warden's office, USA

As featured on TV’s Paranormal State.

Many suggest the pentagram was satanic and the reason why West Virginia Pen was so negative.

We can’t say this is incorrect, but are happy to provide an alternate explanation.

The inverted pentagram is a symbol of Freemasonry. Derives from their interest in the Golden Ratio (a complex equation about parts of an object at visually appealing lengths).

The pentagram falls perfectly into the ratio.

Freemasonry is actively practiced by many Americans today, but was even more popular in the 1800s.

Many famous Americans were masons, like George Washington, Roosevelt, Truman, Lindberg and even comedians Don Rickles and Richard Pryor.

It’s possible the Warden at West Virginia Penitentiary was too.

Charles Manson writes West Virginia Penitentiary

Charles Manson contacts the Warden of West Virginia Penitentiary, USA

Some say the infamous murderer Charles Manson once stayed at West Virginia Pen.

He didn’t, but there’s a connection ... his mother Kathleen Maddox.

Charles Manson wanted a transfer, to be close to his mother who was doing time at West Virginia Pen for armed robbery.

Manson mailed a personal letter to the Warden in 1983. He was careful not to mention his mother, only saying he was nostalgic for his West Virginian roots.

How in 1939 he lived with his aunt and uncle in McMechen while “Mom and Dad served five years”.

The letter said, “I was razed in McMechen and Wheeling, and worked at the race track under big Bill and Charlie Stoneman who put them big stones at the prison and on the road.”

Manson ended the letter showing himself in a positive light, “I'm a good worker and I give you my word I'll start no trouble. I've been in prison hallways over 30 years and [have] never lied to you…” “That should count for something somewhere.”

The warden simply wrote back, “when Hell freezes over”.

Manson’s letter was kept, hung as a memento in the prison’s museum right near “Old Sparky”.

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West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, WV, United States of America