Frequently Asked Questions

History Questions Answered

With over 100 years in operation, there is plenty of history involved in the West Virginia Penitentiary. Whether you are curious about the history or working on a paper for school, we receive some commonly asked questions and we want to give you the answers.

Where did the hangings and electrocutions take place?

The executions by hanging were held in the Northern area of the facility. The first execution took place in 1899 when the state assumed the responsibility of capital punishment from the counties. Hangings continued until 1949, with a total of 85 men executed by this means. From 1951 to 1959 nine men were electrocuted in the chair known as “Old Sparky”. The State of West Virginia abolished capital punishment in 1965.

Is the prison really haunted?

Many, many people have discovered paranormal activity at the West Virginia Penitentiary. We believe this is a result of the multitude of unfortunate deaths that occurred on this site and the inmate mentality of kill or be killed. The heinous activity was also responsible for putting the prison on the Department of Justice’s Top Ten list of most violent correctional facilities in the nation.

How did people escape?

Inmates devised many ways to escape incarceration, such as, climbing over the walls, exiting through the North Wagon Gate in vehicles, digging tunnels under the walls, or by overpowering security and escaping out the front door. Most of the escapees were apprehended within a few days. Inmates had a lot of idle time to plan their escapes, many were homesick and wanted to return to their families and friends.

What movies were filmed here?

The two major movies that were produced at the prison were The Night of the Hunter in 1955 and Fools Parade in 1971. Most recently parts of Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Zoe Saldana and Woody Harrelson was filmed at the Penitentiary. Once you see the film, you will know which parts were filmed here!

Many other television shows and documentaries were filmed here: Scooby Doo from California; Turner South, Blue Ribbon Services, Best Places to Visit; CNN; Allegheny Ghost Hunters; Anderson Group 360º News Show; Proof Positive from California; Office Kei, Film Production for Japan; Globe Trekker, Southeast USA; Local Secrets – Big Finds; Ghost Adventures; Paranormal Investigations. We have also received the Travelocity Award (from 30,000 entries) the West Virginia Penitentiary was selected as a Top Inside Spot to visit in the United States.

What year did it open and close?

West Virginia became a state June 20, 1863. The prison construction began in 1866, with inmates providing much of the labor. The prison was closed by court order on March 27, 1995 after it was determined by the court that the small 5×7 cells were too small and the living conditions were inhumane. The facility was replaced by the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex in Fayette County at a cost of $85 million dollars.

What will we see on the tour?

We will be walking through the major living and working areas of the prison, including the North Hall lockup areas, both the North and South yards, plus “New Wall”. We will also be seeing the electric chair, and numerous paintings and works of art produced by the inmates. The tour takes approximately 90 minutes and we encourage you to ask any questions.

Where do I get more information on past inmates?

Upon the closing of the prison, inmate records were transferred to the Mt. Olive Correctional Complex. Information can be obtained by calling: 304-442-7213.

Who owns the building and where do the profits go?

By statute, State of West Virginia is responsible for the facility. However, in 1998 the Moundsville Economic Development Council obtained a twenty-five year lease for the property. This non-profit organization utilizes funds from the many activities that take at the facility to maintain and work towards the refurbishment of the structure.

How do I get to White Gate Cemetery?

To access the cemetery, you must travel about five miles outside of Moundsville on Fourth St., turning left onto Toms Run Road and proceeding one mile where the cemetery will be located on the right. The graves are designated with license plate type marker. Deceased inmates who were not claimed by family members were buried at this cemetery.

What is that across the street?

The 2000 year-old Adena Indian burial ground, known as the Grave Creek Mound and is the largest in the world. Adjacent to the mound is the Delf Norona Museum built in 1978 and housing all state artifacts.

How many inmates were housed here?

Records indicate the prison population rose to more than 1000 several times in the 1960’s. When the prison closed in March of 1995 there were 675 inmates incarcerated within the walls.

What type of food did they eat?

Inmates preferred to have basic country meals – meat, potatoes and beans with biscuits and bacon whenever possible.

Did those people really live across the street?

Yes, homes were built across the street about the same time the prison was being constructed and some families have lived there for many, many years.