Our visit to Moundsville was...interesting. The penitentiary at Moundsville was West Virginia's primary penal institution from 1866 until it closed in 1995. I admit the prison has never been on my list of places to visit--I just could not see the point in visiting the site of such brutality and pain. My visiting grandchildren, however, had seen television shows about the prison and the fact that it was one of the "most haunted places in America." They begged to go, so I added it to our itinerary.
The penitentiary offers daily tours and even overnight stays for those so inclined. In October special ghost tours are conducted that are extremely popular. The tours aren't too expensive ($5 for kids and under, $8 for seniors, and $10 for adults) and last about an hour, ending in a memorabilia room and the gift shop.
The building itself is stupendous. It's built of cut stone, 5 feet thick at the bottom and 30" thick at the top. Prisoners cut the stone and built the place, an irony that I doubt few of them missed. Guard turrets dot the walls--in the beginning guards also walked along the top of the walls, but when two guards fell during one bad winter, that practice ceased. A small section, labeled the Wagon Gate, was built prior to the Civil War and actually held prisoners on the second and third levels.
Looking up into a cell block--4 tiers of narrow cells piled on top of each other.
Our tour guide told the stories of prisoners who painted, murdered, created gangs, read, cooked, gardened, were isolated from the other inmates. Over and through all his stories ran a strong theme--how cruel one human can be to others. To see those tiny cells and realize that live beings were trapped in there for hours, days and years. To note the poor, barren conditions, the unforgiving surfaces, the ancient machinery and amenities. To hear about the things that were done--the weapons made, the murderous attacks, the escapes, the danger these men posed to each other. Most of us have seen TV shows about prisons and inmates. I think those shows cannot possibly mirror the reality of life in a 100-year-old-plus prison.
Survival at all costs seemed to be the dominant, driving force behind the men imprisoned in those tiny cells. But why? What did they have to live for? Many of them had no hope of parole. Many who did get out returned a short time later. Many had nothing waiting for them on the other side of the bars--except freedom. Was that enough? Evidently so, but I left wondering if I could have survived in such a place. I doubt it, but then my survival instinct has never been put to such a test.
The inside of a typical cell. Prisoners were allowed to choose their own paint, but could not use solid black or dark brown walls because it limited the guards' visibility into the cell.
The white area below the guard tower is the site of a famous escape attempt. Four prisoners who worked in the greenhouse located on the spot dug a 4-four high tunnel under the prison. It was to be a major escape, but they got frightened and escaped alone. All four were soon captured and returned to the prison, and I'm sure faced the wrath of fellow prisoners who were to have escaped with them.
The prison was an official US Post Office address, complete with its own post office. This is the postal window.
The final end for some prisoners.