Two notable dark tourism attractions stand across the street from each other in Moundsville, West Virginia.
On the west side is North America’s largest native burial mound at 65 feet high. On the east side, the United States most haunted prison, West Virginia Penitentiary.
First, the Grave Creek Mound – –
The Grave Creek Mound (where Moundsville gets its name) started rising around 250 BC.
The Adena natives felt honored to be buried along side their village leaders. Each level filled with their bones, rising to the next, and the next. Up to the massive height today.
First discovered in 1772 by frontiersman Joseph Tomlinson and his brother. They built a cabin near-by and came upon the Mound while hunting.
Second, West Virginia Penitentiary
It’s the 1860s, Civil War is over, and West Virginia separated from Virginia. And governor Arthur Boreman needs a prison. Virginia was still angry about separation. They barred the new created state from using their buildings. And a strong prison is crucial to reputation.
Boreman was denied federal money. His only choice was a small jail structure in Wheeling, WV (the capital). Quickly it was overcrowded. Then 9 dangerous criminals escaped.
Boreman’s idea resurrected and a new prison was finally approved.
Building in Moundsville – –
10 acres secured in the small town of Moundsville, just 20 minutes from Wheeling.
A temporary wooden building put up in place. A final design was created to convey strength, darkness and hopelessness. Inmates were to march into hell.
INTERESTING FACT :: This was the opposite of the hope of Mansfield Reformatory. West Virginia Penitentiary was built on fear.
Starting with the North Wagon Gate constructed of hand-cut sandstone in 1866. The North and South Blocks built around it. And lastly, the iconic Administration tower in the middle. This was the administration area and Warden’s office. The crown of West Virginia Penitentiary.
Everything was done 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 he exposed accounts 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”
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. Then starting with arson in his 20’s. Over time escalating. He’d serve time in many prisons.
Released on parole from West Viriginia Penitentiary in 1967. One day later he killed 2 men.
Why’d Red Kill? – –
Paroled, Red returned home and found out his 15 year old sister in love with a neighbor boy from the Grogg family. It’s unknown is why this angered Red. We know he told his father, Emory Snyder, about wanting to kill the boy. Emory wanted to stop him.
The next morning Red walked into Emory’s bedroom, looked down at his sleeping father, took out a gun and shot him to death.
While his father lie cold in bed, Red walked Grogg house. The father and mother out, he took all 8 kids including the boyfriend hostage.
When home the father jumped Red and they wrestled for the gun. It went off. That day both the Snyder and Grogg family lost their fathers thanks to Red.
He ran but the police were waiting. The chase ended with a bullet to Red’s leg. He was returned to West Virginia Penitentiary.
Prison Life – –
Red’s insanity caused unease with inmates. Feared by some, hunted by others. He lived a tense life.
For a time Red led the Aryan Brotherhood. Not for control or racism, but to survive. Eventually gaining the good reputation as a “straight shooter”. Everyone said, “you leave Red alone and he’d return the favor”
The guards remembered Red for his knit hat, love of chewing tobacco and watching Days of Our Lives.
TURING POINT :: Back to violence for Red Snyder
His calm changed with a riot in 1986. Some say Red help start what led to 3 dead inmates and a heavy lock down in North Hall.
The End of Red – –
On Sunday November 15 1992 the guards finally felt comfortable letting inmates walk around. A good friend named Rusty Lassiter walked to Red’s cell.
They talked a little. Laughing and joking as Rusty pulled a sharp metal piece from a jail bed and plunged it into Red fifteen times. When the guards arrived, Red’s cell #20 was drenched in his blood. Red was dead.
They didn’t bury him in the prison cemetery. Mostly because the guards respected him, so they started a fundraising effort to buy a grave in Moundsville’s Riverview Cemetery. So Red could be with his family. Locals fought it but the guards won. Red was buried in Riverview with a compromise… no headstone. He remains in that 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 inside Huttonsville Correctional in West Virginia.
Executions at West Virginia Penitentiary
Over a 60 year period (1899 to 1959) 94 men were put to death. 85 hanged by the neck until ending in 1949. That’s when they switched to “Old Sparky”.
Public hangings happened in West Virginia until 1931. Officials saw it as win-win, entertainment and a show of punishment to scare off future crime.
Public support changed with the increased value of life. The horror of executions were soon despised, leaving a black-mark on West Virginia and a dark reputation for this prison. A perfect example was the last one…
The last public hanging at West Virginia Pen – –
June 19 1931, Frank Hyer was about to be hanged for killing his wife. Seeing the condemned before his execution surprised officials… he was happy.
Surrounded by guards and a priest. Talking up a storm, he turned to the priest and thanked him for the “wonderful Christian experience”. Confessing to the murder over and over, saying “whiskey caused it”. Frank 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 his neck as the Reverend said a prayer. Asking for his final words, Frank was never at a loss,
(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. The rope squeezed Frank’s neck with a hard jerk slicing completely though, ripping the head from his body.
Witnesses were already soured on the idea of public hangings. This sealed it.
That’s how Frank Hyer’s death lead to the unofficial end of public executions in West Virginia.
Introducing Old Sparky – –
Hangings stopped in 1949 but executions didn’t. Welcome “Old Sparky” the electric chair built by an inmate named Paul Glenn. It successfully stopped the hearts of nine men.
The very last execution at West Virginia Penitentiary was that of Elmer Bruner in 1959. Executed two years after breaking into the house of a 58 year old 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 personal hell. Then in 1986 it was deemed cruel and unusual. Over the next nine years inmates were transferred out and West Virginia Penitentiary was closed in 1995.
Many thought it was heading for the wrecking ball. Nobody predicted it’d be infamous again.
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 revolves like entrances to luxury stores or hotels. Made this way on purpose. To ensure a prisoner couldn’t go back after seeing true hopelessness.
Officers escorted their prisoners to the door. It spun when being pushed in. The sunlight soon replaced with steel walls and uniformed guards. If the inmate tried to go back, the door would jam. It only spun one way.
Today the lock is forever set to open.
Visitors walking through the administration building may hear a scraping, like steel on steel. Look quickly enough and they see the revolving door will slowly spin to a stop.
R.D. Wall – –
R.D. Wall was a prisoner, maintenance clerk and popular inmate inside West Virginia Penitentiary.
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 never talk.
They didn’t trust Wall. Seeing him laugh with the guards like buddies. They didn’t know he was doing small jobs for special treatment. They thought he was a snitch.
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 dull metal.
When finding Wall the guards reeled in disgust. His body shoved into a bathroom stall. His mostly almost severed head was resting on the neck propped against the stone wall.
Many Ghost Hunters believe R.D. is down there. Reports from visitors include,
- Women with long hair feel fingers running through it
- Some women feel pressure on their cheeks like from a stroking hand
- Others hear footsteps coming down the stairs, then a man’s voice in the distance
And R.D. Wall is seen walking down to the boiler room wearing his iconic 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 space was known for rape and violence. Scores settled, fights broke out and men died.
Weaker inmates were fearful. Constantly preyed upon, beaten and raped. Today this fear is felt by some men in the “Sugar Shack”. Most likely left over residual energy.
Some hear men arguing. Yelling or terrifying whispers coming from empty rooms.
The North Wagon Gate – –
This is West Virginia Penitentiary’s oldest structure. Held the gallows for public and private executions, including the violent end of Frank Hyer (see above).
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 mine. Kids later found him dead of pneumonia due to the cold. Adkins swore he never meant to kill.
Karma or just bad luck followed Orville to the gallows. On that dark day, Orville was over the trap as an executioner started putting the noose around his neck. A nervous assistant pulled the handle too early and 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 door opened and Orville Paul Adkins hanged correctly.
Today footsteps are heard. Above the Gate as if slowly pacing back and forth. It’s then that witnesses feel uneasy, as if being watched.
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
As featured on TV’s Paranormal State. Many suggested the pentagram was satanic or evil and the reason why the prison is so negative.
We disagree and 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 visually appealing. The pentagram falls perfectly into the ratio.
Freemasonry was actively practiced by many Americans and was extremely popular in the 1800’s when West Virginia Penitentiary was built.
It’s very possible the first Warden named George S. McFadden 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.
Manson tried. When wanting to be close to his mother while doing time there for armed robbery. He mailed a personal letter to Warden Manfred G. Holland in 1983.
Careful not to mention his mother, he talked about living with his aunt and uncle in McMechen, West Virginia in 1939. 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.”
Warden Holland, a serious man, simply wrote back,
“when Hell freezes over”
So ended any chance of coming to West Virginia Penitentiary for this mass-murderer. But the letter was kept. Now hanging in the museum beside “Old Sparky”.