West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville, conducts tours April through November, Tuesday through Sunday (closed all holidays).
Construction of the Gothic style prison – the second public building built in the new State of West Virginia – commenced shortly after the Civil War.
Our tour guide (who referred to me as “Red” – never underestimate the power of a new shade of hair color) worked as a guard from the mid 1980s until the penitentiary closed in 1995. The stories he told were blood curdling, and this wasn’t the Ghost Quest and we didn’t visit The Dungeon of Horrors (the special October event). This was the normal, every day tour.
We toured the gallows, complete with recreation of a hanging . From 1899 until 1959 eighty-five prisoners swung by a rope. Beginning in 1951, nine prisoners rode the Lightnin’ Bolt to their death, courtesy of Ol’ Sparky, made by an inmate.
We learned about prisoners murdering prisoners.
One man had been incarcerated nearly all his adult life (murder) and upon his release at the tender age of seventy-eight, he came right back – after murdering his probation officer. He died in The Big House while in his nineties.
During the days when inmates worked 16 hours a day, three inmates shared 5 x 7 cells, two sleeping on bunks, and one on the floor.
Charles Manson’s mother Kathleen Maddox was an inmate while the penitentiary grounds still housed women. She and her brother were convicted of robbing a gas station and received five years. Apparently wanting to go back to his roots (Manson was born in Cincinnati, however), “Charlie” wrote the WV warden requesting a transfer. It was denied.
When I asked if the wire was electrified, I was told the barbs were enough to hold in anyone.
Some of the jail cell graffiti remains, but most of it is not fit to print in a family newspaper.
Next time we visit Whitegate Cemetery, final resting place of unclaimed bodies of inmates.
P.S. Depending on which source you choose to believe, WV Penitentiary was either “the bloodiest institution” in the United States or second only to Alcatraz in violence.