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Local Legends: The Penitentiary

Photo+courtesy+of+West+Virginia+Penitentiary+Tours+
Photo courtesy of West Virginia Penitentiary Tours

The West Virginia Penitentiary: one of the eeriest, most haunted, and historically rich places in West Virginia, and it is located nearby in Moundsville. The Penitentiary was fully operational from 1876 until 1995 when the court ruled the conditions and cell sizes cruel and unusual punishment. It has now turned into a major tourist attraction including a haunted house, escape rooms, tours, paranormal investigations, and various other events, but many believe it’s dark history was never fully erased.

Before the Penitentiary was open to the public, it had a peak prison population of 2,000 inmates, including many high-security prisoners. One of their most dangerous inmates was Ronald Turney Williams, who was known for being a serial killer, arsonist, kidnapper, burglar, and more. He was even on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted List in 1980 after escaping from the Penitentiary in 1979 along with 15 other inmates.

William Glessner was an inmate at the Penitentiary who previously served time there at age 17 and 25 in the mid 80s and 90s. He explained how the high-security inmates were used as a scare tactic on the newer inmates. “They put receiving right beside North Hall, and North Hall was where all the bad***** were, the killers, the murderers, the rapists, the lifers, and stuff like that. And inside the hall itself they had a separate bull pin for them, that was fenced in with razor wire, and you would look out the window and you’d see them…believe me, it scared a lot of men,” said Glessner.

In addition to the hundreds of high-security criminals held at the Penitentiary, one of the most stomach-churning artifacts in the building was, and is, the electric chair, which is currently displayed inside of the building. Shockingly, it is the same chair that was used on prisoners in the 1950s, known as “Old Sparky.”

According to Amanda Wolverton, the West Virginia Penitentiary General Manager, “We did use an electric chair here from 1951 to 1959. Only about nine years in operation until the death penalty was abolished in 1965. In the time that we used the electric chair, we did electrocute nine inmates in the chair.”

Glessner shared how the display of the chair affected the inmates mentally, “There were things that were kind of spooky. One was that I had to go past the electric chair three times a doggone day just to go to the chow hall. So a lot of things go through your head, you know, how many people fried in that?”

A total of 998 deaths occurred in the Penitentiary, and many believe that because of the electrocutions and other deaths, the spirits of those prisoners now haunt the building. It is commonly believed that there is active paranormal activity, which even the employees believe is real. “We’ve all had our own kind of experiences here that sometimes you just can’t explain. So absolutely, I definitely believe in that,” said Wolverton.

“I guess my most noted paranormal experience is I’ve actually had a spirit call out my name, and it was so clear and so, so very clear that I thought it was actually somebody that I was working with. I thought it was one of our radios, so I radioed them and asked them what they needed. And nobody said anything. So I’m assuming that’s paranormal. That was a ghost,” said Wolverton.

The Penitentiary didn’t just become haunted after shutting down, many previous inmates have come back and shared how they had unexplainable or paranormal experiences there as prisoners decades ago. Wolverton elaborated, “They have come back to take a tour and they’ve mentioned that, you know, they’ve seen some weird things in the yard that couldn’t be explained, and they’ve heard things as well.”

The basement of the Penitentiary, often referred to as the “Sugar Shack,” is accessed through a small, dark doorway at the bottom of a steep staircase, and it is considered the most haunted room in the whole building. It is unclear what truly happened in the Sugar Shack, but it is believed to be a place where guards turned the other way to violent acts, gambling, gang activity, fighting, and more.

“The sugar shack…Oh hell no. No, no, no, no, I can’t tell you nothing about that. I was lucky. I didn’t go down there for nothing. For anything. No, I’m sorry. I don’t know if I was a wuss or a chicken-****, but I had no desire to go down there. I got as far as going part way down the ramp, and I don’t know, the eerie feeling that I got was just not something I wanted to deal with. Especially being young, being in a place like that,” said Glessner. 

Rather than seeing ghost or a floating object, the creepiness in the Penitentiary comes from the unexplainable experiences that people have had over the years.

Glessner described the unknown eeriness, “There’s just too many unexplainable things that happened there for there not to be something…No way that somebody was trying to pull a trick or something like that. There’s things that went on in there that I know damn well that it was something else. I don’t know if it was an entity, I don’t know if it was a ghost, I don’t know what it was,” said Glessner.

Whether the eerie feeling of the Penitentiary is because of its gothic architecture or it’s haunted history, it is certainly not like any other old building.

It’s an unexplainable experience when you’re really in there. You go to see it or you go to visit it for a little bit, but when you’re in there for a while, a lot of different things kind of mess with you,” said Glessner.

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Lucy Aderholt
Lucy Aderholt, Editor-in-Chief
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