Visitors Tales» My Trip to the WV State Pen » Chilling Experience » Dungeon Of Happiness » Ghost Hunt April 4, 2009 » Prison Tour Tale » April 2009 Ghost Hunt » Visit July 24, 2009 » Looking Forward to Another Exciting Visit
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Moundsville Economic Development Council
818 Jefferson Ave
Moundsville, WV 26041
My Trip to the WV State Pen
(Detailed Information on the Death House)
Written By Frank Blake
Hedgesville, WV November 2005
My Trip to Moundsville happened while the penitentiary was still functioning. I can't remember the exact date but it was after the electric chair had been installed but before the first execution using it. This would place it in the early 1950's. I was somewhere around the age of 13 to 15. The tour had been arranged by an uncle of mine and my dad was also there. I recall our tour guide was an assistant warden.
Even though this visit happened over 50 years ago I still remember it well; you just don't forget these things. We entered the facility through the revolving steel gate & that is spooky all by itself. We then toured cellblocks and work areas and were allowed to speak to some of the inmates. I recall that one inmate had made a miniature "circus" out of wood (I think it was matchsticks or toothpicks). He had small tents & some animals; guess that is what one does when you have "years" to do it.
I do think I asked about seeing the solitary confinement cells but for some reason that was never a part of our tour.
By far, the thing I remember most was the "death house". Obviously, a teenager would be excited about that & I eagerly inquired of our guide if we could visit it. Imagine my surprise when he replied that he would check but he thought there was an inmate in there and wasn't sure if we could go. It turned out the inmate was placed there because he had the measles and so, was quarantined; he had been returned to the general prison population the day before.
I recall the "death house" was a separate stone building in the yard of the overall facility. As you entered the door you was confronted by a set of holding cells (I seem to think there were about 4 to 6 cells and they were arranged in a circular pattern). This is where the condemned would spend his last day before execution. To the right of these cells where 2 more rooms, one located directly beside the other and both had entrances from the holding cell area.
The first of these rooms (closest to the front of the building) held the electric chair. On the wall adjacent to the door to this room was a set of photos; these were photos of those who have been executed and I think the date of each execution was there. As you entered the room you approached the electric chair from the right hand side. As I stated earlier, the chair was a new form of execution in West Virginia and there were still remnants of the gallows present. The chair was actually positioned on a raised platform that was located below the trap door in the floor of the gallows (the steps to the floor have been removed). I believe that we were told that the "platform" was actually a covering to a space that would be opened during a hanging to that the feet of the condemned convict had a place to go after he was dropped through the trapdoor. In front of the chair was nothing but empty space; chairs would be setup in this space for the witnesses on the days of execution. Then came the thing I shall never forget.
I was "strapped" into the chair as a condemned man would be. I remember the "clamps" that were part of the chair and held my wrists in place on the arms of the chair. I remember my feet being immobilized and it was explained that a water soaked sponge would be placed on one leg behind an electrode to enhance current flow. Likewise there was a sponge placed between the condemned's head and an electrode that was housed in a rubber headpiece; this headpiece had a chinstrap to secure it to the condemned man.
Behind the chair was a wall that separated this room from the second room I mentioned. On this wall was a small opening (maybe 8 inches square) about eye level. This opening had a door over it.
The second room is where the executioner was stationed. There was more than one executioner. On the day of execution, three people (guards?) were selected to be in this room. On a different wall from the opening there were 3 switches (push buttons) and when the appropriate signal was given each of the guards would simultaneously push his button; only one of the buttons actually completed the circuit that would deliver the fatal jolt. Each of the buttons could be the one but only the electrician that came in earlier that day and wired them knew for sure which it was.
Once the buttons were pushed everything else was automatic; I think it was explained that the entire cycle was about one minute (High Voltage for about 15 seconds to render unconsciousness, High Current for about 30 seconds and then High Voltage again for about 15 more seconds).
We were told that stories about the prison lights dimming during an electrocution were false since the electric chair had its own generator.
That's my story
Our tour was now over and we were escorted back outside via the revolving cage. As you can tell, even 50+ years later this memory is still with me. I cannot say for sure what, if any, impact this trip had on my future, but I did eventually attend and graduate from West Virginia University ( WVU ) becoming an electrical engineer.