West Virginia Penitentiary
The West Virginia Penitentiary was built with convict labor from 1867-1876 at a cost of $363,061. Modeled after the Northern Illinois Penitentiary at Joliet, the prison's Gothic architecture reflects the predominant prison architectural style in England and America at the time. Over the next 120 years, a total of 94 men were executed. Between 1899-1949, eighty-five men were hung. In 1951 the State began using an electric chair. The State of West Virginia abolished the death penalty in 1959 but not before "Ole Sparky" could take out 9 more convicts.
The West Virginia State Penitentiary is well known for its violent history. During its 120 year history there were two full blown riots, 94 executions and unimaginably deplorable conditions. For most of the years in operation Moundsville maintained a position on the Department of Justice's top ten most violent correctional facilities list. The prisoners had a common mentality of kill or be killed, which made the prison a "hot-bed" of violent behavior. Housed in Moundsville walls were the worst of the worst of criminals, which included many
"lifers" who had nothing left to lose when it came to killing.
Nearly 120 after the prison opened, in 1982, Judge Arthur Recht ruled that the Moundsville facility was in violation of the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. He also
ruled that the prison violated an inmate's right to rehabilitation. In 1986, after the worst riot in the prison's history, the West Virginia Supreme Court ordered the penitentiary to be closed. This process took until 1995, when the state's oldest and largest prison finally shut its doors.
The following year, in an effort to preserve this historic landmark and to stem the town's economic loss due to its closing, the Moundsville Economic Development Council opened the prison to the public, offering guided tours. Since that time, visitors have flocked by the thousands to the...