If you’ve known me for awhile, you know I’m a slight bit obsessed with old buildings. If you’ve known me long enough to have that conversation, you’ve also known me long enough to have heard about my love of the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, West Virginia.
It all started on my 16h birthday. My mom took me and my friends on a tour there because why not? I was a weird kid. I’ve been enamored by the place ever since. So, let’s talk a bit about my favorite weird old thing!
- Construction began in 1866, with prisoners providing the labor.
- Was the scene of one of the most infamous prison riots in US history.
- “The Sugar Shack”, a recreational area, was the most violent area in the prison.
- At least 36 homicides took place in the prison.
- Charles Mason requested to be moved to this location because it was closer to his family. He was denied.
- It was closed in 1995 because holding 2+ people each in the 5×7 cells was deemed inhumane.
- Inmates were transferred to Mt. Olive Correctional Complex.
If I tried to write everything about the place, I’d need a whole website. And I’d spend days reading about it and never go to work, then I’d lose my job, then I’d be homeless, then I couldn’t blog. It’s like “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” but more like “If You Let Sierra Research.” So, since we don’t want me to be homeless, I’ll just touch on the things I find most fascinating and talk a little about my experiences there. Cool? Cool.
During my first tour of the prison, I had a tour guide who was a former correctional officer there. This was in 2001, so not too far from the prison closing. This was also right after MTV’s “Fear” filmed there. Our group was pretty small, consisting of me, my parents, two of my friends, my sister, and one of my cousins, plus maybe five or six other people, and since we were all really enthusiastic about seeing everything, we got a little special treatment, including a trip to the Sugar Shack, which wasn’t a part of the regular tours.
As mentioned before, the Sugar Shack was an indoor recreational area in the basement of the prison that’s known for being the spookiest, most haunted place in the prison. According to our tour guide that day, since most prisoners were lifers, it wasn’t too out of the ordinary to find someone murdered for losing at a game of pool. Yikes.
Our tour guide turned the lights out for us to show just how dark it got in the windowless, concrete room, and that was the first time in my life I ever thought ghosts might exist. It felt like being surrounded and suffocated by hundreds of people, even though there were only a handful of us in there. Double yikes.
My mom had a bad time there. While we were walking in, she swears she lost my cousin, who was about 8 at the time. She says one second she could see her, the next second she was absolutely gone, then she came back. She grabbed the hands of both my cousin and my sister and wouldn’t let them go until we were back outside. She also has this memory of coming outside and seeing the tough biker guy in our group shaking, trying to light up a cigarette. He was petrified. I was too busy snapping pictures of everything on my Kodak disposable camera.
We went back last summer for their Elizabethtown Festival, which has a lot of food and crafty things outside in the prison yard. Weird, right? It’s just a normal little fall festival, but it just so happens to also have prison tours.
Unfortunately this time around, while we did have a pretty fantastic tour guide, who was also a former correctional officer at the facility (and now a correctional officer at Mt. Olive, where they transferred the inmates in 1995), she couldn’t give us too many details about the more macabre aspects of the prison or let us into the Sugar Shack, because some woman thought it would be a good idea to bring her small children along for the tour and they were terrified.
No matter. I “accidentally” took a different turn than the rest of the group at one point and got slightly lost, but not after finding the room pictured on the right. I don’t think anyone’s been in there for a very long time.
So, there’s that. I’d love to go back and go on what they call a photo tour, where you get free reign of the place to take whatever pictures you want. From what I understand, they also take you to the Sugar Shack and psych ward (where I’ve never been) on the regular daytime tours.
- West Virginia Penitentiary Official History
- Atlas Obscura
- Travel Channel
- Roadside America
- Haunted History
- A presentation on The Haunted History of the West Virginia Penitentiary