West Virginia Penitentiary : A Haunted Visitor’s Guide

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

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TORTURE | RED | EXECUTIONS | GHOSTS

Two notable tourist attractions stand in Moundsville, West Virginia. Right across the street from each other.

On the west side is North America’s largest native burial mound. 65 feet high. On the east side the United States most haunted prison.

The Grave Creek Mound – –

The Grave Creek Mound (Moundsville gets its name) started rising around 250 BC.

Grave Creek Mound - - across from West Virginia Penitentiary
Grave Creek Mound – – across from West Virginia Penitentiary

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The Adena natives honored a burial with village leaders inside the mound.  When one level filled a new one added.   Rising to what you see today.

First discovered by settlers in 1770.  Joseph Tomlinson and his brother built a cabin near-by.  Would first see the mound when hunting.

West Virginia Penitentiary

It’s the 1860s.  The Civil War is over.  A little time has passed after West Virginia separated from Virginia.

Governor Arthur Boreman needed a prison.  Virginia, still angry, barred the new state from using Virginia’s.  A facility was crucial to the reputation to the newly formed West Virginia.

Denied federal money.  They held the worst criminals inside a small jail in Wheeling (the new capital of West Virginia).  It became overcrowded.

9 dangerous criminals escaped.  Boreman’s idea was brought back.  They approved a prison.

Building in Moundsville – –

10 acres secured in the small town of Moundsville, 20 minutes from Wheeling.

INTERESTING FACT :: The antithesis of Mansfield, they built West Virginia Pen on fear

A temporary wooden building put up in place of a final design.  Based on psychology like Mansfield Reformatory.  Mansfield was hope.  West Virginia Penitentiary would be fear.

Convey strength, darkness and hopelessness as inmates march into hell.  Gothic architecture was perfect!

Walking into West Virginia Penitentiary - - a hopeless sight
Walking into West Virginia Penitentiary – – a hopeless sight

Starting with the North Wagon Gate.  It was constructed from hand-cut sandstone in 1866.

The North and South cell blocks built around it.  And finally the iconic 4 floor Administration tower added last.  It included the Warden’s office in the crown of West Virginia Penitentiary.

All was completed in 1876.

Torture of Inmates

10 years later stories of inhumane punishment was told to newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer.

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

Interview about torture from the Cincinnati Enquirer – –

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”

Graphic from newspaper showing the "Kicking Jenny" torture
Graphic from newspaper showing the “Kicking Jenny” torture

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An inmate bent over a small table with his arms and legs stretched out and secured to large blocks on the floor. This skin tightened increasing the damage from every strike of a guard’s 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 to the floor and a hose turned on their faces.  Choking, close to death, then the water stops.  Repeated minutes later, again and again until the inmate went insane.

William “Red” Snyder

William “Red” Snyder was a very violent man.  Born in 1946.  His criminal life began in his 20’s with arson. Over time escalating.  He’d serve time in many prisons including West Virginia.

Released on parole from West Viriginia Penitentiary in 1967.  One day later he killed 2 men.

Why kill so quickly? – –

Paroled, Red returned home and found out his 15 year old sister in love with a neighbor boy from the Grogg family.

Unknown is why Red got angry.  We know he told his father, Emory Snyder, about his murderous plans.  Emory tried to talk him out of it.

The next morning Red walked into his father’s bedroom while his slept.  Took out a gun and shot him to death.

While his father lie cold in bed, Red walked Grogg house.  The father and mother were out.  He took their 8 kids, including his sister’s boyfriend, hostage.

When home, the father jumped Red and they wrestled for the gun.  It went off against the father’s chest and he fell dead to the floor.

Red ran but the police were waiting.  The chase ended with a bullet in his leg.  They sent Red back to West Virginia Penitentiary.

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Prison Life – –

Red’s insanity caused unease with inmates.  Feared by some, hunted by others.  He lived a tense existence.

For a time he led the Aryan Brotherhood.  Not about control or racism but to survive.  Eventually gaining the reputation of “straight shooter”.  They said, “you leave him alone and he’d return the favor”

The guards knew Red for his knit hat, love of chewing tobacco and watching the soap opera Days of Our Lives.

TURING POINT :: Back to violence for Red Snyder

Red’s calm reputation changed with a riot in 1986.  Some believe Red help start it.  This led to 3 dead inmates and a heavy lock down in the North Hall.

The End of Red – –

On Sunday November 15 1992 the guards finally felt comfortable letting inmates walk around.  Rusty Lassiter, a close friend, walked to Red’s cell.

They talked a little.  Rusty pulled a sharp metal piece fashioned from his bed and plunged it into Red fifteen times.  The guards found Red’s cell #20 covered in blood.  He was dead.

Red wasn’t buried in the prison cemetery.  Partly because how much the guards respected him.  They started a fundraising effort.  To buy a grave site in Moundsville’s Riverview Cemetery.  It’s where Red’s family was buried.  The locals fought it.

But the guards won.  Red was buried in Riverview.  Their compromise… no headstone.  He remains in an unmarked grave today.

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 in West Virginia.  No further information could be found.

Executions at West Virginia Penitentiary

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

Public hangings happened in West Virginia until 1931.  Officials saw it as win-win.  Entertainment for the masses and a show of punishment to decrease crime with fear.

Beliefs changed as the horror of executions were soon despised.  Left a black-mark on West Virginia and a dark reputation for the Penitentiary.

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The last public hanging at West Virginia Pen – –

June 19 1931, Frank Hyer was about to be hanged for killing his wife.  But seeing Hyer before his death would surprise you.  He was happy.

Surrounded by guards, officials and a priest.  Talking up a storm, turning to the priest to thank him for the “wonderful Christian experience”.  Confessing the murder again and again, saying “whiskey caused it”.

He wanted to commit suicide but the church brought him back. “It made me a good man!”

Then it’s time.  Frank dressed, walked out as he turns to the group,

“Meet me in heaven… and when you preach Father, tell young men to leave the whiskey alone.”

To the gallows, over the trap, noose placed around Frank Hyer’s neck as the Reverend said a prayer.  Asked for his final words, never at a loss he says,

(edited for space) “I’m 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 and Frank falls… but something wasn’t right.  The pressure was too much.  The rope squeezed Frank’s neck with a hard jerk ripping his head from his body.

Witnesses already soured on the idea of executions and this disgusting event sealed it.

This is how Frank Hyer’s death lead to the unofficial end of public executions in West Virginia.

Old Sparky, the electric chair still on display in West Virginia Penitentiary
Old Sparky, the electric chair still on display in West Virginia Penitentiary

Introducing Old Sparky – –

Hangings stopped in 1949 but killings didn’t.

Welcome “Old Sparky” the electric chair built by an inmate named Paul Glenn.  It successfully stopped the hearts of 9 men.

The last execution at West Virginia Penitentiary was Elmer Bruner in 1959.  Executed 2 years after breaking into the house of a 58 year old woman named Ruby Miller.  He killed her with a claw hammer.

In 1965 West Virginia abolished the death penalty.

The End of a Dark Era

For 110 years this prison stood as a criminal’s hell in West Virginia.  In 1986 it was deemed cruel.  Over 9 years all inmates were transferred out and West Virginia Penitentiary closed in 1995.

Many thought it was the end.  Nobody predicted it’d be infamous again.

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The Ghosts of West Virginia Penitentiary

It’s haunted!  Not a surprise with this history.  We believe more haunted than most in the United States.

The revolving door of justice – –

The front door of the prison revolves like entrances to fancy stores or hotels.  Made this way on purpose.  To ensure a prisoner couldn’t run back out after seeing true hopelessness.

Many times an officer would escort their prisoner to the door.  When allowed they pushed it.  It spun in, blocking out of the sunlight.  If the inmate tried to turn and push, the door jammed.  It only spun one way.

Today the lock is forever set to open.

As visitors walk through the administration building, many will hear a scraping.  Sounds like steel on steel.  If they quickly the door revolving door will slowly spin to a stop.

R.D. Wall – –

R.D. Wall was an inmate, maintenance clerk and popular inmate inside West Virginia Penitentiary.

Stairs into Basement of West Virginia Penitentiary - - RD Wall murdered just inside that door
Stairs into Basement of West Virginia Penitentiary – – RD Wall murdered just inside that door

Calmly serving his time, getting along with prisoners and guards.  As happy as an inmate could be… until some new transfers arrived.

These men believed guards and inmates should be separate.

They didn’t trust Wall, how he laughed with the guards like buddies.  They didn’t know he was doing small jobs for special treatment.  They thought he was a snitch.

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DARK HISTORY :: Most violent act at West Virginia

In 1929 those men hid inside a basement bathroom.  They clutched dull shivs as R.D. Wall walked by.  Simply going to the boiler room for cleaning supplies.

Made sure he was alone before jumping out.  Pushed the kindly man to the ground.  One man sliced off each of his finger-tips as the others cut into his neck with the dull metal.

When finding Wall it’s said the guards reeled in disgust.

The body shoved into a bathroom stall.  His mostly severed head propped on the neck against a dirty stone wall.

Many Ghost Hunters believe he’s still down there.  Reports from visitors,

  1. Women with long hair feel fingers running through it
  2. Some women feel pressure on their cheeks like from a stroking hand
  3. Others hear footsteps coming down the stairs, then a distant man’s voice

And R.D. Wall is seen walking down to the boiler room wearing his khaki uniform.  Sometimes without a head.

The Sugar Shack – –

The “Sugar Shack” is called this because it’s where prisoners went for “sugar”, so to speak… not candy.

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

Weaker inmates were fearful.  They were preyed upon, beaten and raped.  Today this fear is felt by some men in the “Sugar Shack”.  Most likely residual energy.

Some hear men arguing.  Yelling or terrifying whispers coming through walls from empty rooms.

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The North Wagon Gate – –

This is West Virginia Penitentiary’s oldest structure.  Held the gallows for public and private executions.  Now considered home to its most active ghost.

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

He was condemned for kidnapping a minister.  Left the holy man in a local mine for some local kids to find dead.  Later determined the minister died of pneumonia due to the cold of the mine.  Adkins swore he never meant to kill the man.

Karma or just bad luck followed Orville to the gallows.

On that day, Orville was over the trap as an executioner started putting the noose around his neck.  A nervous assistant panicked and pulled the handle too early.  Orville fell 20 feet to the stone walkway.  Found stunned and hurt but still alive.

The angry executioner grabbed Orville by the collar and dragged him back up.  Noose secured before the trap opened (at the correct time) and Orville Paul Adkins hanged.

Today footsteps are heard.  Above the Gate as if slowly pacing back and forth.  When happening witnesses feel watched and uneasy.

All the hot spots – –

On top of the above, ask your tour guide about,

  • The Shower Cages
  • Death Row – common for emotional experiences
  • The “Death House” – a wooden cabin, now gone, once off of the recreation yard.  Was home to “Old Sparky”.  Inmates requested it be torn down after the death penalty stopped in 1965.  Found it too disturbing.
  • The North Hall (called “Alamo”) where the most dangerous inmates were held, site of the riot and Red’s death

Inverted Pentagram in the Warden’s office

Ryan Buell in Paranormal State looking at the pentagram in the Warden's Office - - Still exists in West Virginia Penitentiary
Ryan Buell in Paranormal State looking at the pentagram in the Warden’s Office – – Still exists in West Virginia Penitentiary

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As featured on TV’s Paranormal State.  Many suggested the pentagram was satanic or evil and the reason why West Virginia Penitentiary is negative.

We disagree and are provide an alternate explanation.  It’s a symbol of Freemasonry.

The inverted pentagram derives from the order’s interest in the Golden Ratio.  This is a complex equation where objects are at visually appealing lengths.  The pentagram falls perfectly into the ratio.

Freemasonry is actively practiced by many Americans today.  Was much more popular in the 1800’s when West Virginia Penitentiary was built.

It’s very possible the Warden was a Freemason.

Charles Manson Was Never There

Some say the infamous murderer Charles Manson once stayed at West Virginia Penitentiary.  He didn’t, but there’s a connection… his mother Kathleen Maddox.

Charles Manson
Charles Manson

Manson wanted to be close to his mother.  She was doing time at the prison for armed robbery.  So he mailed a personal letter to the Warden in 1983.

Careful not to mention his mother, he said it was for nostalgia.

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

The letter continued (shown exactly as written),

“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, a serious man, simply wrote back,

“when Hell freezes over”

So ended any chance of the mass-murderer coming to West Virginia Penitentiary.  The letter was kept.  Now hangs in the museum beside “Old Sparky”.

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