A new culture began emerging in North America around 1,000 BC. Known as the “Woodland Period”, there is evidence of well-organized societies throughout the area. These ancient people are known as “Mound Builders” and their settlements included large earth works and earthen burial mounds. The Adena were among the first known people to adopt this unique way of living and they had settlements in Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia, Kentucky and parts of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. What little information is known about the everyday life of the Adena people comes from the mounds and earthen works they left behind. They were hunters and gathers and lived in circular houses made of wickerwork and bark. They had established societies and traded extensively, using the rivers as transportation. The Adena burned the remains of their common people and buried them in small log tombs. However, for the remains of the highest-standing people in their society, including chiefs and shamans, large burial mounds were constructed to honor and respect them through all of eternity.
Along the elbow of the Ohio River in the northern panhandle of West Virginia is a small town now known as Moundsville. Sitting in a clearing and surrounded by big beautiful mountains, the oldest and largest burial mound in North America remains today. The Grave Creek Mound, a preserved archeological site, is a massive conical shaped burial mound constructed by the Adena Indians in 250 BC and is evidence of a sophisticated long-ago society that highly valued their dead. The Grave Creek Mound is one of 424 prehistoric mounds found in West Virginia alone and would have taken the Adena people centuries to build. The labor and time involved to construct this mound would have been extensive, especially for a people that did not yet use the wheel or have horses to help. It is estimated that over 60,000 tons of earth was moved by the basket load to build the Grave Creek Mound – that’s about 3 million basket loads of earth! This is an incredible reflection of the dedication involved to create these sacred, long-standing testaments of honor and respect that were meant to be eternal.
Moundsville, West Virginia was first settled by English colonists in 1771. Despite attacks from Native Americans in attempt to remove these settlers from their sacred land, the area was developed and eventually incorporated in 1830, officially becoming Moundsville. Although a low population area, or maybe because of that, the State of West Virginia Penitentiary was constructed here in 1867 and remained in operation until 1995. Constructed during the Civil War and literally in the shadow of the massive burial mound, this stone structure was designed to hold 480 prisoners and is an impressive example of Gothic Revival Architecture, complete with turrets and battlements. Employing inmate labor, this massive building was constructed from hand cut sandstone, quarried locally from land that was once held sacred to the Adena Indians.
The West Virginia Penitentiary was completely self-sufficient and included a carpentry and paint shop, wagon shop and a stone yard, a blacksmith, a tailor, a bakery, a farm and a hospital. In 1921, the prison also opened a coal mine about 1 mile away. Worked by inmates, this coal mine provided the heat for the prison. It also opened another wound deep into this sacred, historic land.
History of West Virginia State Penitentiary – Moundsville
With this history and sitting across the street from the sacred burial mound, it is little wonder that the prison quickly became a place of violence, torture and death. In 1886, prison officials were exposed for using whips and other implements of torture on inmates. Based on a “tell-all” from a previous superintendent, it is understood that officials invented and built at least two devices used to restrain and torture inmates in the prison. These devices were given names – “kicking jenny” and “shoo-fly”. From 1899 to 1959, 94 men were executed at this prison, first by hanging and eventually through the electric chair or “Old Sparky”. There have been almost 1,000 documented deaths in this prison, including 38 homicides. In comparison, Alcatraz – the well-known, infamously haunted historic prison – had 28 documented deaths in total.
The first building constructed was the North Wagon Gate. For decades, it was believed that this housed the gallows. However, it has been uncovered in recent years that the “death house” was actually adjacent to the North Wagon Gate building.
Back in the day, executions were open public events and usually well attended with a festival like atmosphere. Women, children, families of all ages would turn out to celebrate and witness a convict be brought to justice for their crimes. Symbolic of the 12 jurors and the judge that convicted a condemned man, the noose that would take their lives had exactly 13 knots and the condemned man would have to walk exactly 13 steps to the gallows and his death. It all sounds very macabre and grim today. These largely public events were no different at West Virginia State Penitentiary – that is until a condemned man’s hanging went horribly, graphically wrong.
Frank Hyer was convicted of murdering his wife and before his death he confessed fully and accepted his fate. In 1931, the “long-drop” method was being used when executing condemned men and it was largely accepted as being more humane. Unfortunately for bystanders who came out to watch this man’s execution, the drop proved to be a bit too long for Frank Hyer. Frank was decapitated in full view of all those in attendance.
After that, executions at this prison were by invite only.
In total, this sacred ground witnessed 84 executions from hanging. The final hanging execution took place on April 3, 1959 – Elmer David Bruner. He was convicted of breaking into an elderly woman’s home and upon being discovered, beating her to death with a claw hammer. After that, the State turned to the electric chair as a means to dole out its permanent punishment. In 1959, “Old Sparky” was built by an inmate of the prison and was the instrument of death for 9 men.
This prison housed the worst of the worst – violent and savage men convicted of the most heinous crimes including rape and murder. In fact, the State’s first known serial killer, who confessed to 5 murders, was executed here in 1908. Another notorious inmate was Henry Powers who was known as the “lonely hearts killer” because he used personal ads to lure women. He was convicted of killing two of these women, and three of their young children, after they discovered his lies. Henry left their bodies in his garage as he continued on with his life. He made the ultimate payment for his crimes in the Spring of 1932.
Old Sparky is still in residence and prominently on display at the prison. A few other gruesome items on display at the prison include a piece of the hangman’s noose and original letters handwritten by Charles Manson requesting a transfer to this notoriously violent prison (he was denied).
So much darkness in one location.
I point out this disturbing history because as you enter Moundsville Penitentiary, it is important to remember the types of violent and disturbed individuals that lived and died within its walls and the energy they left behind.
At it’s max, this prison housed over 2,000 inmates. The cells were small and these men were crammed together. Rapes and violent encounters were an everyday occurrence and considered an occupational hazard for workers. Gangs ran rampant and disease was prevalent. There was even a tuberculosis epidemic that over took the prison. West Virginia State Penitentiary was ranked as one of the “10 Most Violent Correction Facilities” and witnessed several riots and prison breaks. After the “1986 Riot” it was determined that the prison was severely understaffed and the supervision was lax. It was coined the “con” prison as the convicts had picked almost every lock in the building and were known to roam freely. Unfortunately, not much improved with this knowledge. In November 1992, an inmate was ferociously slaughtered in his cell.
William “Red” Snyder was a very violent individual throughout his life. He was convicted of murdering his own father and another man after holding a family, with children, hostage. By all accounts, although he was a cordial man and honest man, Red was the leader of the Aryan Brotherhood at the prison. He was housed in the North Hall – an area termed “The Alamo” by inmates because it housed the wildest, most violent criminals. On the night of November 16, 1992, Red was violently murdered in his cell by another inmate that wanted to lead the Aryan Brotherhood. Red was stabbed with a shiv over 30 times and choked to death on his own blood in cell #20.
An extremely violent end for an extremely violent individual. One of many in this prison that resides in the shadows of this ancient Native American burial ground. The prison was closed in 1995 after the State’s Supreme Court ruled that the extremely small cells were “cruel and unusual punishment”. The West Virginia State Penitentiary is now open for tours. And although the cells appear to be empty, as you tour the various buildings the energy is so strong, so palpable, that you can almost see and hear it.
So much darkness…
HAUNTED HISTORY TOUR:
Like most paranormal investigators, I absolutely love visiting historical places, especially ones that have credible claims for a haunting. As a psychic medium, I have found that the most draining, intimidating historical sites are the ones with violent pasts. While places like Trans Alleghany Lunatic Asylum (see my blogpost here:https://wp.me/paqIPF-4c ) have vast histories including violence, the underlying feeling behind the location is tragedy, sadness and betrayal. This is very different than the feeling behind a location like Moundsville Penitentiary.
How to put into words the emotions encompassed within a building that has witnessed such trauma, such darkness, such evil? Staggering, paralyzing, overwhelming…
The penitentiary is located in the middle of a neighborhood. Directly across the street is the Grave Creek Mound. As you drive through this small town, taking in block after block of small homes filled with children and families, these two very contrasting locations come into view. It makes for a very surreal site. Although I’ve watched several of the paranormal shows filmed in Moundsville, I was quite surprised by the Mound and by the vastly overwhelming shadow of energy it cast over the entire area. It hasn’t been discussed much in relation to the penitentiary.
Walking into the penitentiary, you can’t help but notice the instrument of death on display right inside the entrance. Old Sparky is there for everyone to see… the actual chair that was used to execute 9 convicted felons. The glass it is encased in does little to mute the vibe. Although it is inaccessible, there is a recreation of Old Sparky right next to it in case you want to take that ultimate selfie sitting in an electric chair. This first area is full of pictures and names of all the men executed within the walls of this massive building as well as various artifacts from its lifetime. These artifacts include a portion of the actual noose used in executions.
This haunted history jaunt was at the end of a weekend full of amazing places, included Bobby Mackay’s Music World (read about my visit here:https://wp.me/paqIPF-aG ) so I was already quite drained. What little energy I had remaining disappeared before we even began the tour.
The tour was extensive and our guide was abundantly knowledgeable. Although we were taken into a large portion of the penitentiary and each building was quite intense, there are a few key areas that had the biggest paranormal effect on me that I will mention here.
10 Min Run Hallway – after leaving the non-contact visitation area, the entire tour was shepherded into the hallway and told to stand up against the wall (just like an inmate when moving to and from). As we continued down this hallway, there is one section that was a blind corner and well-known by inmates as it couldn’t be seen by the CO or the sharpshooter that was in the gun cage. Witness to incredible amounts of violence and murder, it is little wonder that it was here – standing in this exact spot (completely by accident trust me) – that I was first overcome with incredible pain, fear, dread and anger – so much contrasting and overwhelming emotions… Thankfully I did not meet any intelligent spirits in this spot but the residual energy would probably lead to an interesting paranormal investigation.
Sugar Shack – this area of the penitentiary is one of the better-known spots for paranormal investigating with reported experiences including hair pulling and touching. Inmates were allowed to access this large, dungeon like room completely unsupervised – as many as 60 inmates at a time. Even though it was a bright sunny summer day, this room was pitch black and I could not see anything at all. Stepping into the room, it felt as if it was very crowded – like wherever I moved, I would be bumping into people. I was bombarded with voices and questions – “Where am I” “Who are you” “What is happening”. It felt like a dozen Spirits talking to me at once. I wandered further back into this dark abyss on my own. As I was approaching the back wall, I felt someone breathing down the back of my neck (I was very thankful right then for my flashlight). As I turned to see who was standing behind me (I was alone) I heard a distinct, clear male voice say, “Help Me”. Startled, I then felt someone grab my ankle (I was still alone). As I was heading back toward the door (and yes, I was walking fast….) I snapped a few pictures behind me. This one stood out to me, mainly because it immediately followed the interaction I had.
North Hall – also known as “punishment hall” and “The Alamo”, this area was by far the filthiest, most oppressive hall and was full of such anger that entering was intimidating and LOUD. When in operation, the hall was crammed with 350-400 men yelling, screaming, crying and fighting. Toilets would back up and there would be inches of sewage filling the cells. With little ventilation and no climate control, conditions were so atrocious in North Hall that CO’s could only be assigned to work here for 3 days before having a break. Cell #20 is one of the main stops on the tour – home to William “Red” Snyder of the Aryan Brotherhood (I gave more info on his brutal stabbing above). Chatty in life, Red is known to give Class A EVP’s and provide investigators with an abundance of disembodied voices. Although I clearly picked up on Red in his cell, I was actually drawn to a cell 2 down from #20. Although there were several symbols drawn on the wall that could be interpreted as negative, the real pull was the man I saw hanging in the cell. Was this one of the many documented deaths? The tour guide didn’t mention this history and I didn’t bring it up because as I entered this cell, I picked on a horrendously fowl odor that nobody else on our tour was able to smell. Visiting North Hall is not for the faint of heart.
There are many other spots on this tour, all complete with sordid, violent histories. Each location alone would be an incredible haunted history jaunt – including the North Yard, Shadow Man Hall, and the Bloody Bucket. However, there is one location that stood out above all the rest – no easy feat in this building. It was at this stop on the tour that I encountered something I have never witnessed before – something so dark and terrifying that it has taken me time to be able to document it. It is likely that I will not have words to do it justice. Oddly enough – this is one spot that isn’t discussed as a paranormal hotspot.
Dining Hall – the dining hall was known to be filthy – infested with rats, roaches and other vermin that would die and decompose on the floors and in the ceilings. Inmates would have maggots fall on them as they were sitting down to eat.
In 1986, there was a riot at the penitentiary which began in this filthy dining hall. The inmates held 2 CO’s hostage and tortured them for days. They also murdered 3 fellow inmates.
Although it is reported that the inhumane, filthy conditions at the penitentiary were the cause of the riot, I don’t think that’s completely to blame…
The dining hall was full of male spirits. They were everywhere you turned to look – except in the middle. In the middle of the dining hall, between two pillars there was an oval shaped, shadowy, portal. It was dark gray with very distinct outer “walls”. It was a dark “smoky” gray color. The energy this hole was giving off was terrifying. Inside this smoky shape I could make out various other shapes billowing around but it was the oddly shaped hands and arms sticking out that really gave me pause. It didn’t take me long to understand why all the male spirits were keeping their distance from this anomaly.
Moundsville Penitentiary left its traumatic mark on numerous people over its lifetime and continues to do so even now. There were areas of the penitentiary that we did not get to tour – the Warden’s Tower is one of them – but I am not sure I would ever be able to return.
Two questions haunt me:
Did this smoky, billowy portal come to be as a result of the violence or did the violence occur because of the smoky portal?
Is the pain, violence and suffering a result of desecrating what was held as sacred land?