Photograph by Tim Kiser.
The West Virginia State Penitentiary is an imposing place. The building is on the historic register, and the prison itself, closed for years, is on every ghost hunter's list as one of the most haunted places in America.
The West Virginia State Penitentiary was founded in 1866, when land was purchased in Moundsville, and a temporary wooden prison was built. The main stone buildings were completed in 1876. It held 251 inmates then, and conditions were considered good. As time went on, the prison became more crowded, and by 1929, they were putting three men in the 5x7-foot cells. An expansion project took 30 years to complete, and barely eased the overcrowding. The prison population was up to 2,000 in the 1960s. Conditions deteriorated until the inmates ran the institution, and disease was rampant. The institution made the Department of Justice’s top ten list of the most violent prisons.
On New Years Day in 1986, the prison saw a riot that lasted two days and left three inmates dead (this was the second riot; the first was in 1973). Later that year, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that the tiny cells constituted cruel and unusual punishment, and the prison began to transfer inmates to more modern facilities, but not before several notorious escapes took place. The penitentiary closed for good in 1995.
The Prison Dead
Ninety-four men were executed for their crimes at West Virginia State. Eighty-five were hung, including Frank Hyer, who was convicted of murdering his wife, in 1931. He fell so hard that he was decapitated, and that was the last execution that was open to the general public. Nine more men were executed in "Old Sparky," the electric chair that was built by a prison inmate. The chair is still on display at the prison.
One of the ghosts that supposedly haunt the prison is that of Avril Adkins, who was hanged twice. The first time, there was an error that caused him to fall on his head and sustain injuries. The second time, he was hanged properly until dead.
Thirty-six murders occurred inside the prison walls. And that figure pales beside the number of prisoners who died of natural causes. There is a small cemetery outside the prison walls where inmates whose bodies were not claimed by family members were buried. But even closer are ancient Indian burial grounds. After all, that's how Moundsville got its name. Tales of those restless souls still walking the floors of the prison abound and draw ghost hunters, both professional (from TV) and amateur, to the prison.
The Greenbrier Ghost
Zona Heaster Shue was found dead in 1897. Her husband, Erasmus Trout Shue, dressed her for burial before the doctor arrived to determine the cause of death. Shue wailed and moaned and would not leave his wife's corpse until she was buried. He even provided her favorite shawl to wrap around her neck. The doctor gave her a cursory look, and wrote down that she fainted dead by childbirth. But Zona's mother, Mary Jane Heaster, had her suspicions. She testified that Zona's ghost visited her over a period of four nights and described how Shue had killed her. Heaster took her story to local prosecutor John Alfred Preston and convinced him to reopen the case. Based on the visitation, the body was exhumed, and Zona's neck was found to be broken. She also had bruising, indicating she had been manhandled. It was enough for a jury to convict Shue of killing Zona. Shue spent the next three years at the prison in Moundsville, where he died in 1900.
The Moundsville Economic Development Council leased the property and set up a law enforcement training center. The prison is also open for tourists. You can see the prison Tuesday through Sunday through November. You can also book a private ghost hunting tour between midnight and 6AM by reservation. During the Halloween season, there is also the Dungeon of Horrors tour, which is a haunted house-type tour in the evening, on weekends through November 2nd.