West Virginia State Penitentiary has been called one of America's most deadly prisons in history

Sara B

Photo byBy Rhonda Humphreys - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=629006

The West Virginia State Penitentiary was also called Bloody Alley and, at one point, was on the Department of Justice's Top Ten Most Violent Correctional Facilities list.

The state had just seceded from Virginia and had a shortage of public institutions, including prisons. The prison was only built after existing county jails were deemed inadequate after nine inmate escapes.

Governor Arthur I. Boreman, who lobbied from 1863-1866, finally got his legislation approved to build a state prison. A story of riots, violence, death, and escapes was only the beginning of what happened behind those walls.


After Governor Boreman received permission to build a prison, they decided on a location, the Moundsville area, and purchased 10 acres of land. At the time, this location was outside the city limits; however, now, it is directly in the middle of the town's residential neighborhoods.

The prison was modeled after the Joliet prison in Joliet, Illinois, which was featured in The Blues Brothers. The Gothic stone structure has turrets and battlements containing a parallelogram-shaped prison yard. The stone walls were 5 feet thick at the base, tapering to 2.5 feet at the top, with foundations 5 feet deep.

Prison labor was used during the facility's construction, and work continued until the prison opened its first cell block in 1876. When the prison opened, there were 840 cells for men and 32 for women.

That year, the prison had a population of 251 male inmates, most of whom helped build the facility. After the construction, they were put to work in prison workshops and other facilities.

Or they were hanging out in the infamous Sugar Shack.

The Operation of the Prison

During the inmate's time at the facility they were put to work, the facility had the following trades within its walls:

  • Carpentry
  • Painters
  • Wagon Shop
  • Stone Yard
  • Brickyard
  • Blacksmith
  • Tailor
  • Bakery
  • Hospital

The revenue from the men went to support the prison financially, as did the income from its onsite farm. In the 1870s, steam heat was added, and bricks were used for roads and walkways.

An elevator and an exterior porch were installed in the Administration building in 1894, helping the facility look less scary. In the early 1900s, there was a 200-acre prison farm, and inmates worked in the stable, wash house, and kitchen.

The conditions inside the walls were good until the turn of the 20th century. The Wardens stated:

"Both the quantity and the quality of all the purchases of material, food and clothing have been very gradually, but steadily, improved, while the discipline has become more nearly perfect and the exaction of labor less stringent."

Education was a priority, and most inmates attended classes regularly. The construction of a school and library to educate inmates was completed in 1900. The library grew to over 5,000 books and those who could not read attended night school.

In 1920, the female inmates were moved from the Administration building into a separate two-story building; they had their own dining room and kitchen. Approximately 50 women were employed in the shirt shop, making collars and cuffs for shirts made by the male prisoners.

Creating a self-sufficient institution, there was even a prison coal mine within a mile of the prison that opened in 1921. In 1925, two new water wells were drilled to supply the prison when needed.

However, the good days did not last long, and it soon became one of the most violent facilities in the United States.

Overcrowding and violence

In 1929, three inmates shared a 5 x 7-foot cell and a bunk bed, and the third slept on a mattress on the floor. At this time, they knew they had to expand and planned on doubling the size of the prison.

Prison labor was used, and the expansion was completed in 1959; there were delays due to WW2 and equipment shortages. The prison housed 80 women until 1947 when a new facility opened at Pence Springs, WV, and the women were transferred.

At the peak of overcrowding, a facility designed to house 872 inmates was now housing an estimated 2000. It was during this time that the violence began.

The Sugar Shack became an infamous area where ¨anything goes¨, a downstairs recreation room where the guards looked the other direction while inmates gambled, fought, and murder took place. During the lifetime of the prison, over 1,000 inmates were killed, either at the hands of old Sparky or by another inmate.

During this time, 36 homicides occurred; the most famous was the butchering of R.D. Wall. On October 8, 1929, after informing his fellow inmates, three prisoners with dull shivs attacked him while heading to the boiler room.

At one point, Charles Manson requested to be moved to this facility to be closer to his family, but his request was denied.

Prison Break

November 7, 1979, fifteen inmates escaped. During the escape, inmate Ronald T. Williams stole a prison guard service weapon, and when he came in contact with an off-duty West Virginia State Trooper Philip S. Kesner, he shot and killed him. Williams remained at large for 18 months, even killing another man in Arizona during a robbery.

He made the FBI's most wanted list and was involved in a shootout with federal agents at the George Washington Hotel in NYC in 1981 and was finally captured. He returned to West Virginia and remains imprisoned at Mount Olive Correctional Complex.

The Riot of 1986

During this time, the prison was changing, and there were a lot of problems: loose security, plumbing issues, insect infestations, and overcrowding. Many even described it as a ¨cons¨ prison due to lack of security, locks on the cells were picked, and inmates roamed the halls freely.

January 1, 1986, the prison was short-staffed, and the inmates had a riot. Twenty inmates from the Avengers group stormed the mess hall and attacked Captain Glassock, five other officers, and a food service worker. They were taken hostage, which lasted for two days. During the riots, three inmates were killed.

The group negotiated with Governor Archer A. Moore, Jr., and a new set of rules and standards were set for the prison. None of the hostages were injured.

Also, in 1986, the West Virginia Supreme Court ruled the confinement to the 5 x 7-foot ells was cruel and unusual punishment. Over the decade, the population was reduced due to the building of other prisons in the area.


From 1899-1959, 94 men were executed at the prison, 85 were by hanging, and the executions were open to the public until June 19, 1931. Frank Hyer was hanged for murdering his wife; unfortunately, when the trap door was opened and he fell, he was decapitated.

That was the last uninvited execution. The last man hanged at the prison was Bud Peterson, and he was buried in the prison cemetery because his family refused to claim his body.

In 1949, the state declared electrocution more humane, and nine men were killed in the electric chair, ¨Old Sparky ¨. Built by inmate Paul Glenn, the last execution in Old Sparky was Elmer Bruner on April 3, 1959. However, the chair remains on display for tourists.

In 1965, the state prohibited capital punishment. During the 119 years the prison was opened, 998 men died.


The facility was closed in 1995; however, during its time, the prison housed the worst of the worst, murderers, rapists, child molesters, and even, at one time, the leader of the Arian Brotherhood. Now, it is opened as a tourist attraction, and many have said the location is haunted, and spirits are said to haunt the prison and the grounds.

The Hauntings of WVSP

This site is rumored to be haunted because it is said to be built on an ancient Native American burial ground. As well as the prison was built directly across from Grave Creek Mount, one of the largest conical burial mounds in the U.S., and members of the Adena culture, even some inmates, believed the prison was haunted.

Many visitors report hearing disembodied arguing in the Sugar Shack and hushed and ghostly whisperings. Others hear unexplained noises and cold spots within the room. The basement is rumored to be haunted by an old maintenance man who once worked there.

It was reported that he spied on the inmates and said what he found out to the guards, and when the inmates found out, they stabbed and killed him. Now, he haunts the halls.

The North Hall is also said to be haunted, where the worst offenders were placed, not for their crimes, but due to their violent behavior inside the prison. They were locked in their cells for 23 hours daily, and two murders happened there.

One, a biker named Danny, was stabbed in the eye by another inmate and died. The other, William ¨Red¨ Snyder, was convicted of murdering his parents and dismembering their bodies. He was disliked and always involved in fights. However, he lost when he was stabbed 37 times.

This hall is said to have many strange events, doors slamming, reports of feeling uncomfortable, and equipment malfunctions. The West Virginia State Penitentiary is now considered the most haunted prison in the USA.

How to Visit

The facility offers day tours, paranormal investigations, escape rooms, and a haunted house in October. It is open from April through December.


818 Jefferson Avenue, Moundsville, WV 26041

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