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Moundsville prison in West Virgiania

Sometimes you stumble on to an interesting place without even planning on it.  Moundsville, just south of Wheeling in West Virginia’s panhandle, between Pennsylvania and Ohio, is one of those places. The name comes from the many Native American mounds in the area and largest and most prominent one, the Grave Creek Mound, is in the center of town on the main thoroughfare. A state historical marker gives the details of the original dimensions, the moat, and an early tunnel into the mound’s interior.
Historical marker gives the details.


 

The Native American tribes built the mounds as ceremonial centers, burial sites, and elite residences.  Mound building in North America occurred over 5,000 years, from 3500 B.C. to 100 B.C. and was centered on the Mississippi River Valley, the Great Lakes, and Ohio River Valley.  The Grave Creek Mound is from the Adena Mound Building Culture that existed from 1000 B.C. to 100 B.C. They built mounds throughout the Ohio River Valley.

The mound, with two climbers on the side to show scale.

This is the largest conical mound in the United States. It is a burial mound that began with the death of a very important person, likely a respected leader or a powerful shaman (priest).  Burial would involve an elaborate ceremony and a log tomb. Tombs included two people and perhaps the second one was a sacrificial victim. A small mound was built over the tomb and continuously over the next 20 to 30 years it grew to a height of 27 feet. Then a second high-ranking individual died and a second tomb was created on top of the first tomb, with mound building continuing. The process was repeated until the mound reached a height of nearly 70 feet.

The logistics of mound building.

The ditch or moat around the mound was due to earth being removed to build the mound. It was 40 feet wide and five feet deep. Today the moat is gone. Locals excavated the mound in 1838, digging two horizontal tunnels and a vertical shaft. They located the burial chambers.  The center chamber was opened to the public for 25 cents admission. The flat top has served as a saloon, dance platform, and even held artillery during the Civil War. Next to the mound is a museum that describes the Adena Culture and the mound building process.  We’ve visited many Native American mounds. This is one of the most accessible and the museum is full of displays that illustrate exactly how this monumental task was accomplished.

The front of the prison complex, from the museum.

The title says “more than mounds.” The original intent for this stop was the mound. Surprisingly, something more interesting and equally monumental, at least to the author, was the old West Virginia State Penitentiary right across the street. It is something out of the movies, literally (Night of the Hunter in 1955, Fools’ Parade in 1971, and Out of the Furnace in 2013). It is a commanding stone structure, fashioned in a gothic architectural style, including castle-like battlements and turrets. Joliet prison in Illinois served as its model. Think The Shawshank Redemption, walls five thick at the bottom, two and a half feet thick at the top, with a foundation five feet below ground, and turrets at each corner for guards.

There are many of the arms and other equipment used by the guards still in the prison.
This machine gun discouraged escapes and undesirable behavior.

 

The prison opened in 1876 and was one of West Virginia’s first public buildings.  Cells were small, five by seven feet, but at times held two, or even three prisoners.  In the mid-1980s the state Supreme Court ruled this was cruel and unusual punishment.  It took until 1995 to close the prison. Its history includes many murders, brutal beatings, prison riots, hangings, and electrocutions.  These even form the basis of a ghost tour business.  The standard guided tour is during the day and takes about 90 minutes.  The tour starts in the museum/gift shop and displays provide interesting background on the prison.  There are photographs of executed inmates, equipment displays, and even a letter from Charles Manson requesting to be relocated to the former prison (to be near his family).  The museum has an electric chair on display (“Old Sparky”) that was used at the prison.

“Old Sparky,” the electric chair built in the prison, responsible for nine electrocutions.

The tour starts in the original visitor’s area, where visitors sat on one side and prisoners on the other.  The guide introduces the artwork on the walls that will be in many areas of the prison. The men had a lot of time on their hands; some of the artists were quite good, some were not. Not surprisingly, there many nature scenes, something the men likely missed.  But the variety of expression goes way beyond nature, especially in some of the prison cells. The prison has four sections: “The Alamo”, for the meanest and most dangerous prisoners; “New Wall” for the common not-likely-to-murder-a-guard inmates; “Rat Roll” for the rats and snitches, those inmates who might have testified against other inmates or passed information on to the guards, and who needed special protection; and “Honor Hall” for the trustees who needed less security and were allowed special privileges.  Exercise yards were also segregated for obvious reasons (or the rats and snitches would not last long).  

Notice the protected guard station, where prisoners were watched from above by armed guards.

Probably the most interesting part is simply seeing the cells.  The artwork inside is fascinating and the size (or lack of size) is hard to imagine without being in a cell. The feel of the cell block comes right out of a 1930s movie. Visitors are invited into the cells before the doors are locked in one huge hydraulic moment.  The door is left locked for a brief moment, but long enough for some of the visitors to complain they’ve had enough. It’s an experience I’d only want via a guided tour.

Prisoners sat  on one side and visitors on the other.

The tour includes most parts of the prison, including the cafeteria, yards, and administrative and warden’s building.  There is even a small chapel. The guide often adds stories; there were prison breaks, riots, shankings, and all aspects of prison life. 

Cells, with tourist “prisoners.”

As the tour progresses, you start to realize how many guards towers were scattered around the compound, many inside the buildings.  The warden and his family had to live at the prison; an iron bar revolving door separated them from the prisoners.  One stop is the “Wagon Gate” or main entrance for vehicles.  In the center of the gate is a trapdoor that was used for hangings. This was one once of the most violent prisons in the country and the tour does nothing to help its reputation. 

How would you like to spend a day in here? “Stone wall do not a prison make, nor iron bars
a cage,” but they can be very intimidating.

For a different type of roadside attractions, Moundsville is worth the stop. The mound and museum offers history and Native American culture.  The prison tour will change your whole perspective on prison movies and will even help to reduce any criminal motivations you might have.

 
Prison yard.

Author and Photographer: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in South Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in roadside history.

 

 

For more information:

Grave Creek Mound Archaeological Complex and Museum:

http://www.wvculture.org/museum/GraveCreekmod.html

Indians of the Midwest: Moundbuilders:

http://publications.newberry.org/indiansofthemidwest/people-places-time/eras/moundbuilders

West Virginia Penitentiary: Where History Meets Mystery:

http://www.wvpentours.com

Haunting Ghost Stores of West Virginia Penitentiary:

http://crime.about.com/od/prison/a/moundsvills.htm

 

 

 

 


 

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