History

Prison History

The prison at Joliet provided the prototype for the West Virginia Penitentiary. It was an imposing stone structure fashioned in the castellated Gothic architectural style (adorned with turrets and battlements, like a castle). Only the dimensions of West Virginia’s facility would differ; it would be approximately one-half the size of Joliet.

No architectural drawings of the West Virginia Penitentiary have been discovered, so an understanding of the plan developed by the Board of Directors must be obtained through their 1867 report, which details the procurement of a title for ten acres of land and a proposal to enclose about seven acres. On the north side would be a street 60 feet in width, and on the west 140 feet for street and yard to the front buildings.

The prison yard would be a parallelogram 682 1/2 feet in length, by 352 1/2 feet in width, enclosed by a stone wall 5 feet in thickness at the bottom, 2 1/2 feet at the top, with foundation 5 feet below the surface, and wall 25 inches thick. At each of the corners of this wall would be large turrets, for the use of the guards, with inside staircases. Guardrooms would be above on a level with the top of the main. The superintendent’s house and cell buildings would be so placed that the rear wall of each would form part of the west wall.

TIME Magazine Feature

“Unlike most of the people who’ve previously walked through the gates of the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, you can be fairly certain you’ll be walking out again a few hours later. The imposing Gothic structure was first opened in 1876, but closed in 1995. It’s seen riots, fires and the execution of nearly 100 prisoners through either hanging or electrocution. These days, the only things it sees are much better behaved visitors. You can take a tour of the grounds and see the rows of cramped 5 ft.-by-7 ft. cells during the day; for braver souls, the penitentiary also offers midnight tours, followed by the chance to kick around inside the prison on your own until 6 a.m. Overnight visitors are allowed to bring their own food, so there’s no need to trade your boyfriend for a Snickers bar.”

Read Full TIME Article

Frequently Asked History Questions

When touring with school groups or adults, there are some similar questions that come up about the history of the penitentiary. We love to tell the stories about the prison and inmates, but you might want to read some as well.

Frequently Asked Questions

Additional Articles

The history of the West Virginia Penitentiary spans over a century and continues to build and evolve with every passing year. Often we look at the past, but even current events and tours help build additional information about the penitentiary. Thankfully, people have documented some of the events over the years for us to use for research.

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