West Virginia Penitentiary : Horror Movie History

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


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 the United States most haunted prison.

The Grave Creek Mound – –
The Grave Creek Mound, where Moundsville takes its name, started around 250 BC.

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

The Adena natives were honour to be buried with village leaders inside the mound. When one level filled, a new one 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 after being barred from Virginia state’s. He knew a facility was crucial to the reputation to the newly formed West Virginia.

But they were denied government money.  The worst criminals were held inside a small jail in Wheeling, the new capital of West Virginia.  It quickly became overcrowded.

Then 9 dangerous men escaped forcing the state to think twice about Boreman’s idea.  They approved the prison.

Building in Moundsville – – 
10 acres secured in the small town of Moundsville located 20 minutes from Wheeling.

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

Convey a feeling of strength, darkness and hopelessness as inmates are 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 constructed from hand-cut sandstone in 1866.  The North and South cellblocks built up around it.  And finally the iconic 4 floor Administration tower was added last, including the Warden’s office on an upper level in the crown of West Virginia Penitentiary.

Completed in 1876.

Torture of Inmates

Only 10 years later, in 1886, stories of inhumane punishment told to newspapers like the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Former Assistant Superintendent Wilkerson had seen enough and after leaving West Virginia Penitentiary he told stories of torture and violence done 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”.

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

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 stop.  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 life of crime began in his 20’s with arson. Escalating over the years, 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? – – 
Paroled, Red returned home and found out his 15 year old sister was seeing a neighbour boy, the son of Frank Grogg.

Why Red was angry is unknown.  But we do know he told his father Emory about plans.  Emory tried to talk him out of it and the next morning Red walked into his father’s room while his slept, took out a gun and shot him to death.

While his father lie cold in the house, Red walked down to visit the Grogg family.  Frank and his wife were out.  He took the 8 kids, including that son, hostage.

When home, Frank jumped Red and they wrestled for the gun.  It went off as Grogg fell dead to the floor.  He was shot through the chest.

Red ran but the police were waiting and the chase ended with a bullet in Red’s leg.

He was sent back to West Virginia Penitentiary.

Prison Life – –
Red’s insanity caused unease with inmates.  Feared but hunted and living a tense existence.

He led the Aryan Brotherhood not for control or ego but to survive.  Eventually gaining a reputation with inmates as a straight shooter.  They said, “you leave him alone and he’d return the favor”

The guards knew him for his knit hat, love of chewing tobacco and watching Days of Our Lives.

Red’s calm reputation changed with a riot in 1986.  Some believe Red help start what 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 felt comfortable in letting the North Hall inmates walk around.  Rusty, his close friend, walked over to Red’s cell.

They talked for a bit before Rusty pulled out a sharp metal piece fashioned from his bed.  He 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 because of how much guards respected him.  They started a fundraising effort to buy a grave site in Moundsville’s Riverview Cemetery, location of Red’s family.  The locals were against it.

But the guards were successful and Red was buried in Riverview.  The compromise… 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 Penitentiary

Over a 60 year period (1899 to 1959) 94 men were put to death.  85 were hanged till 1949 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.

But their beliefs changed as the horror of public executions were soon despised by the people.  This left a black-mark on West Virginia and get a dark reputation to the jail.

The last public hanging at West Virginia Pen – –
June 19 1931, Frank Hyer was about to be hanged for killing his wife.  Seeing Hyer before his death would have given you pause.  He was the happiest in the room.

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

He told them about wanted to commit suicide and how 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 door, noose placed around Frank Hyer’s neck as the Reverend says 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 opens and Frank falls but something wasn’t right.  The pressure was too much as the rope squeezed Frank’s neck with a hard jerk.  His head ripped off his body.

Witnesses were already soured on the idea of these violent scenes and this disgusting event sealed it.  It’s how Frank Hyer 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, with the last execution at West Virginia Penitentiary being Elmer Bruner in 1959.

Elmer was executed 2 years after breaking into the house of a 58 year old woman named Ruby Miller and killing 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 until 1986 when it was deemed cruel.  In the next 9 years all inmates were transferred out and West Virginia Penitentiary closed in 1995

Many thought it was the end for this dark place.  Nobody could have predicted it’d be infamous again.

The Ghosts of West Virginia Penitentiary

It’s haunted!  Not a surprise with it’s history of horror and dark energy.  We believe more haunted than most in the United States.

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

Many times an officer would escort their prisoner to the door.  When allowed they pushed it, the door spins and sunlight disappears.  If the criminal tried to turn and push back, the door jammed.  It only spun inwards.

Today the lock forever set to open as visitors walk through the administration building.  Many hear a scrap like steel rubbing on steel.  If looking quickly they’d see the door slowly spin inwards 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 out his time, getting along with all prisoners and guards and happy as an inmate could be… until new transfers arrived.  These men believed guards and inmates should be separate.

They didn’t trust R.D., how he laughed with the guards like buddies.  The new men didn’t know he was just doing small jobs in exchange for special treatment.  They thought he was a snitch

In 1929 those men hid inside a basement bathroom quietly clutching dull shivs.  R.D. passed by, going to the boiler room for cleaning supplies.

They made sure he was alone, jumped out and pushed R.D. to the ground.  One man slicing off each of his finger-tips as the others cut into his neck with dull metal.

When they found him the guards reeled back in disgust.

R.D. Wall was shoved into a bathroom stall, his severed head barely holding to his neck against the dirty stone wall.

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

  1. Women with long hair will feel fingers running through it
  2. Some feel pressure on their cheeks as if a hand stroking
  3. Other people hear footsteps coming down the stairs before a man’s voice

And R.D. Wall is seen walking down to the boiler room wearing his regular khaki uniform, sometimes without his 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 among inmates.  Scores were settled, fights broke out and men died.

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

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

The North Wagon Gate – –
West Virginia Penitentiary’s first structure which held the hanging 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 in a local mine, the holy man was found dead by local kids.  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, standing over the trap door as an executioner put a noose around his neck.

A nervous assistant in charge of the trapdoor panicked, then pulled the handle too early.  Orville fell 20 feet to the stone walkway.  Found stunned and hurt, but still alive.  An angry executioner grabbed Orville by the collar and dragged him back up the stairs.

Noose secured before the trap door 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 steps are heard the witness always feels 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 once off of the recreation yard.  Once home to “Old Sparky”, inmate requested it be torn down after the death penalty was outlawed in 1965.  They found it too disturbing.
  • The North Hall (called “Alamo”) where the most dangerous inmates were held

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

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

We disagree and are happy to provide an alternate explanation.  It was a symbol of Freemasonry.

The inverted pentagram derives from the order’s interest in the Golden Ratio (a complex equation about parts of an object at visually appealing lengths).  It falls perfectly into the ratio.

Freemasonry is actively practiced by many Americans today, but 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,

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