West Virginia Penitentiary

West Virginia Penitentiary Former maximum security prison in Moundsville, West Virginia, which has numerous haunting phenomena.


The West Virginia Penitentiary opened in 1876, modeled after the Gothic-style prison in Joliet, Illinois. The location in Moundsville was chosen for its proximity to Wheeling, which was the state capital at the time. It was built by inmates out of hand-cut quarried sandstone. When completed, it was about half the size of the Joliet facility and could hold 480 inmates. By the early 20th century, the penitentiary was successful and self-supporting, thanks to prison industries and labor. In addition, education was provided to the inmates, making Moundsville a model correctional facility.

There were abuses by guards, however. Prisoners were whipped and tortured. Two favored instruments of torture were the “kicking Jenny” and the “shoo-fly.” The kicking Jenny was a rounded piece of wood over which a prisoner would be bent and tightly fastened down so that he could not move. His back was severely whipped. The shoo-fly was a stockade device that also prevented a prisoner from moving. He would be sprayed in the face at close range with high-pressure icy water. Prisoners struggled not to be choked to death.

The prison population swelled to about 2,400 inmates in the 1930s forcing up to three prisoners to be housed in cramped cells that measured five by seven feet. A project to double the size of the prison was begun in 1926, but was not completed until 1959, due to a steel shortage during World War II.

Executions by hanging and electrocution took place at the prison. The state assumed control of executions in 1899, and between that year and 1949, 85 men were hung at Moundsville. In 1951, hanging was replaced by the electric chair; nine men were electrocuted between 1951 and 1959, when the state abolished the death penalty. There were other deaths at the prison: inmates killed each other. The exact number of murders is not known, but is believed to be in the hundreds.

In 1973, a riot erupted when 35 prisoners jumped a guard, took his keys, took five guards hostage, and barricaded themselves in the maximum security basement. They set a fire, which raged out of control for a while and then was put out by other inmates. The riot was subdued; two inmates were hospitalized. Another riot occurred in 1986, centered in the cafeteria. A new cafeteria was constructed as a result.

In 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the small cells of the prison constituted cruel and unusual punishment. The prison closed in 1995, and prisoners went to a smaller facility in Mt. Olive. It is now the National Corrections and Law Enforcement Training and Technology Center. It is open to the public for tours and for private paranormal investigations. The facility runs its own ghost tours.

Haunting Activity

Legend holds that the prison is built on top of Native American burial grounds. Whether this is true is not known, but Moundsville was named after the mounds left behind by the early Adena people. Indian burial grounds that have been violated are often associated with haunting phenomena.

There are five areas that have been identified as “most haunted” in the facility: Death Row, the Sugar Shack, a recreational area, the chapel, the shower cages, and the North Wagon Gate, where inmates were hung prior to the use of the electric chair.

Activity includes Shadow People, Electronic Voice Phenomena, phantom sounds, and Apparitions. Ghostly faces and figures and ORBS have been captured on camera. Sounds of heavy objects being dragged about have been heard.

Further Reading:

  • “Haunting Ghost Stories of West Virginia Penitentiary.” Available online. URL: https://crime.about.com/od/prison/ a/moundsvills.htm. Downloaded October 6, 2006.
  • “Moundsville Penitentiary.” Available online. URL: https://www. ohiotrespassers.com/mound.html. Downloaded October 4, 2006.

The Encyclopedia of Ghosts and Spirits– Written by Rosemary Ellen Guiley – September 1, 2007
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