Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Theresa Travels to the WV State Penitentiary at Moundsville

It's time for Part 2 of Theresa's Saturday travel journey!  If you read yesterday's blog, you'll remember that we had planned a day trip to Benwood, WV to see the country's only museum of its kind, Castle Halloween Museum.  When we originally planned the trip, I only had the vaguest of ideas where Benwood was and had associated it with being near Wheeling.  Therefore, the itinerary was to visit the museum, and then possibly get lunch and browse around some of the historic sites in downtown Wheeling.

Well, the museum IS close to Wheeling, but we ended up with slightly different plans that didn't involve Wheeling at all.  We didn't truly make the connection until we were almost at the museum that we were only about 5-10 minutes away from Moundsville...and we all know what's at Moundsville, right!?

Leaving the museum, we decided that we just HAD to drive past the prison and check it out.  We easily found the massive stone structure, and pulled into the parking lot at 10:54 am.  Daily historical tours of the prison are given each hour on the hour, beginning at 11 am, so marveling at our luck, we ran inside, purchased tickets, and eagerly awaited what was in store.

The daily historical tours (closed Mondays) run seasonally April through November 11 am to 4 pm and at $12 for an adult ticket, it is a wonderful bargain.  The tour lasts about 90 minutes and covers actually just a fairly small part of the first floor of the prison, but you still get to see some fascinating sites and hear a wealth of information.  I remember reading somewhere that all the historical guides were once employees of the prison, and that was definitely true in our case.  At 11 am, Maggie, a former prison guard who worked for ten years at Moundsville before it closed in 1995, took us into the non-contact visiting room to brief us on our 'stay' and to give an overview of the history of the prison.

I know most people reading this blog will already know quite a bit about the prison's history, and there is absolutely no way I can provide a comprehensive historical profile in this small space, but briefly, construction began on the prison in 1866 and it was built by inmate labor.  It was finally forced to shut down in 1995 as overcrowding and numerous complaints of inhumane conditions called for a new facility, Mount Olive, to be built in Fayette County.  WV State Penitentiary was built primarily from inmate labor, and between 1929 and the early 1955s, a south wing was added to help alleviate overcrowding.

Approximately 1000 people died while imprisoned within Moundsville's walls and over the years, this maximum security facility gained the reputation of being the country's most violent prison.  Over 200 escapes or escape attempts and two major riots are also a part of the prison's history.

In addition to being known as the country's most violent prison, many also believe it to be the most haunted as well.  Numerous television shows have featured the hauntings, and the prison and its permanent inmates have been featured in countless books and articles.  However, our historical tour really focused on the HISTORY, and shied away from the hauntings for the most part...saving that information for specialized ghost hunts and tours, also offered by the prison!

While we didn't get to go on the ghost tour THIS time around (we are planning on going in November) I'm not disappointed.  In order to really understand why a place might be haunted and to maximize your investigation opportunity, its vital to understand the conditions and what went on at a location.  I strongly encourage anyone planning an investigation of Moundsville, whether public or private, to first go on the historical tour and gain that additional insight and perspective.  We were even given the opportunity to be locked into one of the tiny 5 by 7 cells, that sometimes housed up to THREE inmates!

Our tour guide, Maggie, was wonderful at fulfilling those requirements.  By actually being there, she was able to recount to us first-hand perspective on what it was like in the prison, both for guards and for inmates.  She was blunt, and told it like it was, holding nothing back. There are a lot of misconceptions about life in the lock-up, and there is also a human element that sometimes gets lost in the sea of violence and the prison's haunted reputation.  It's all part of the history of our state, and our social history as well and I think its wonderful that it's being preserved and taught to new generations.  I'm really looking forward to our return!

Some things to take into consideration if touring:

*WV Pen Tours is the official website for all tours/hunts/events. Check out their site for a wide variety of different tours, tour prices, and availability.  In addition to the history tours, they offer private and public ghost hunts, night tours, photo tours, and a special Halloween haunted house attraction.

*Dress seasonably and wear comfy shoes.  Like the Halloween museum, it was fairly hot inside the prison during our late summer visit.  Bottled water was stationed at two different locations, available free to anyone who needed it.  There are some uneven spots in the floor, and some minor steps, but nothing too severe.  The actual walking was kept to a minimum with plenty of breaks and even a few places to sit while on the tour.

*Moundsville has a wonderful gift shop, and items are very fairly priced.  It is free to browse the gift shop and the small displays in the lobby, including a wide selection of shanks and Ol' Sparky the electric chair!

*Need a quick snack or ice cream break before or after your tour?  Across from the main entrance is an awesome little ice cream diner called Johnny Shar's Big Dipper Ice Cream Parlor and Circus Carnival Museum.  Food choices are limited, but it has the biggest selection of ice cream flavors I've seen under one roof!  As an added bonus, for $3, you can take a tour of the upstairs circus and carnival museum.  But, there's plenty of awesome memorabilia to see for free downstairs, as well!

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