On February 7, 1866 the West Virginia State Legislature approved funding for buying 10 acres of land near Moundsville, West Virginia for the subsequent construction of a prison for the new state. At that time the land was not within the city limits of Moundsville but its location was considered ideal since it was near the (then) State Capital of Wheeling.  The construction began in 1867 and was completed in 1876 and the pen became fully operational.


Yes my Grandpa Whitworth did hard time in the Moundsville pen. It was a nightmare he told my Dad. The whole family moved to Moundsville because of Grandpa’s doing time starting in 1915 at the pen. My Dad was 6 years old at the time and he had been born in Clarksburg. Dad told me about Grandpa Whitworth’s most harrowing time on death row in the Moundsville prison. I prayed about disclosing this family secret, but the time has come to air this family secret. The shame of the Whitworth family is that a lifelong Republican my Grandpa Whitworth took a GOVERNMENT JOB as a guard in 1915. His most harrowing ordeal in the pen occurred two years later in 1917.


I don’t know a lot of our family history but I know Grandpa had lived in Bluefield on the border with Virginia. I don’t know when or where he met Cora Enid Burton who would later be my Grandma Whitworth. I’m not sure when they moved to Clarksburg, but I know my Dad was born there and he was the third child out of four. I got my middle name from Grandpa Whitworth, but Dad had wanted to honor his father by naming his last son after his father who had died while Dad was gone during WWII. Mom could be stubborn and she put her foot down and relented on the middle name only. I don’t think even Grandpa liked his name because I was always told he went by H. O. instead of Hiram Oakley.

Back to Grandpa his hard time in the prison was a harrowing ordeal. Grandpa worked on death row in the prison and he hated the job. After just working for two years Grandpa was taken hostage by the inmates in an uprising on death row. He told the family an inmate held a shiv to his neck. He was saved by a large black inmate who Grandpa described as being 6 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 265 pounds who had been saved by Jesus. “He grabbed the assailant and shook him like a rag doll.” Grandpa said. It was shortly after this incident that Grandpa decided to go into the grocery store business.



As long as I can remember I have had a relationship with the Moundsville Prison. My Dad’s store the B & K Market was located ½ block east of the northeast corner of the Moundsville Prison. Grandma Whitworth lived 1 block further east of the prison. When I was a little boy in the early 1950’s I would go to the store to help my dad at the B & K Market. On the warm summer nights inmate trustees were regular customers at the B & K Market. They were wearing their prison uniforms with a big T on the back of the shirt. The inmates purchased Coke, chips, ice cream cones, Hostess Cup Cakes and various merchandise. I never had any fear of these inmates because they were always joyous in their free time. They loved to joke around with Dad and his little boy.

Growing up in Moundsville was a joyous time. The old gang would often go fishing in a pond at the prison farm. The farm was located about 1-1/2 miles east out 11th Street in Moundsville. The pond was well stocked with bass, bluegill and catfish. Inmates worked the farm and grew vegetables for the institution. They were even quartered at the farm, as they were all trustees. In the late 1950’s the farm was discontinued because the walk away rate grew to about 30% per month.

Then in June 1959 my sister Barbette had got married and moved into a little apartment at the side of the B & K Market. Barbette got pregnant in late 1959 and she was walking on the sidewalk on the north side of the Moundsville Prison. She had just passed west of the wagon gate when she heard two large thuds. She turned around and there were two large escapees who had jumped off the wall getting up off of the ground and running. She almost had my nephew early right then. She called the Moundsville Police Department of which my brother Kimmie was a member immediately. The escapees were captured within ½ hour and she got $100 for each escapee.


I grew up in Moundsville and I always heard a story that Moundsville had first choice of whether to have the Moundsville Prison or West Virginia University located in Moundsville. The State Legislature approved both institutions on February 7, 1866. Back in those days prison labor was a major economic incentive because industries could be set up within the prison using prison labor. These economic incentives along with the undesirable element of having a group of teenage college students around caused Moundsville to select the prison. I can’t vouch for the truth of these stories but these are the stories I always heard. The prison industries part is absolutely true but I can’t vouch for the choice part.

The Moundsville Penitentiary is said to be the most haunted institution in the country.

Since 1995 when inmates were transferred to the new prison there are tours available for the prison.

Every Halloween there is a haunted Halloween exposition within the Moundsville prison is named “Dungeon of Horrors”.

One week ago today on January 17, 2010 my daughter Jen was visiting with me and we got talking about the pen. Jen had seen the TV show “Paranormal States” which featured the pen. There is said to be a lot of paranormal activity at the pen. I remarked to Jen how similar the pen was to the prison in the movie “The Blues Brothers”. Imagine my surprise when doing research for this hub when I found out from Wikipedia that the architecture of the pen is a direct copy of the Illinois facility in Joliet, Illinois only smaller. Jen said they had shown a wall in a tower above the original warden’s quarters that they took down. Once down the wall revealed a colored glass inverted pentagram. Since all original plans have been lost no one knows when this was installed.

I want to thank fellow hubber Robert “Putz” Ballard for being my inspiration for writing this hub by a comment he made on his hub about the pen answering my comment about a lost child.


Comments 36 comments

Robert Elias Ballard 7 years ago

Great hub Tom and if you get a chance to hear III Tyme Out sing the song, I think you'll like it.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

A nice bit of social history.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Is the song on the web? I would love to hear it. Thanks for the inspriation!!!!!!!

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Most of it is my life's or family's history.

Putz Ballard profile image

Putz Ballard 7 years ago

Tom here is a link you will be able to listen to the song.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author

Thanks Robert I've been searching. I'ts hard to believe these guys are Italian.

dahoglund profile image

dahoglund 7 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

I realize it is your family history but our families are part of social history.

eovery profile image

eovery 7 years ago from MIddle of the Boondocks of Iowa

Interesting time.

Keep on hubbing!

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


I see the point you are making.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Thanks for stopping by.

Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 7 years ago from United States

Tom, This is a very interesting hub. I didn't know

anyting about that pen but it is a shame the whole family had shame over your grandfather doing what he had to do at the time. I remember the Blues Brother movie very well. I'm going to check out the music also. I wrote about not keeping secrets today because they only make you feel bad anyway. Excellent hub.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 7 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


I'm sorry about the misunderstanding. My reference about being ashamed about Grandpa Whitworth was my clumsy attempt at using irony. The irony of a life long Republican being a government employee.

breakfastpop profile image

breakfastpop 6 years ago

Wonderful hub. You are broadening my horizons, that's for sure!

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Thanks for your kind comment. The Moundsville Prison played a good part in my upbringing. My mother was convinced I would eventually end up there. I decided I would be better served by going to WVU.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

This is a fabulous story, Tom. You really had me going at the start, wondering what the crime was. I enjoyed this very much. One of if not the best you've done.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Thanks for your compliment. Coming from one of the best writers I've ever read it's very satisfying. I tried to use irony in the telling of Granpas time in the Moundsville pen.

James A Watkins profile image

James A Watkins 6 years ago from Chicago

And you did. :D

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author

Thanks James.

Jim Coster 6 years ago


I ran across this posting after a bit of google searching on the W.Va. Penitentiary. I thought I might share some thoughts with you.

My father, Ed Coster, Sr. worked at the Pen for over 20 years. He started as a Records Clerk in 1959, worked for a few years, got a job with Boury's Incorporated in Wheeling then came back to the Pen around 1968 as a guard. He ended up becoming the Chief of Maintenance and was there to close the place down in 1995. We lived on a farm on Fork Ridge (down Aston Road). After classes at Central Elementary grade school, I was often with my father when we would stop at Bill and Kenny's ("B&K Market")to get some groceries to take home to the farm. Both Bill and Kenny were very nice guys and would often give me a handful of candy. I remember how small the store was but that we always seemed to get everything we needed there. I found out later in life that the B&K Market sold food to many customers on credit and kept running tabs for folks. I think my father paid off our bill monthly. At the time, it often confused me how we would just go in and pick up items and Kenny would just say "I'll put it on your bill Ed" and out the door we would go. During high school at John Marshall, I knew Kimmie Whitworth very well as I was living in Glen Dale at the time with my grandmother and Kimmie was a Glen Dale cop. I had fast cars and motorcycles at the time and Kimmie often was stopping me for squealling tires or racing down Wheeling Ave. I think he only gave me one ticket for all the times I was stopped. Kimmie would often come into Reilly's Bowling Alley late for a kielbossi sandwich and a coffee while on duty. I worked there all through high school as my aunt, Evelyn Millhouse was the assistant manager there.

I actually worked at the Pen as a guard for a brief period before going away to college. I attended a number of colleges around W.Va. before finally settling down and getting serious. I ended up graduating from Harvard College and then going to law school. My older brother Ed also worked at the Pen is about to retire from the Northern Regional Jail after some 30 years of service.

I have many fond and interesting memories of Moundsville, B&K Market and the Penitentiary. When the Pen was almost closed, my father was asked to disconnect the electric chair so it could be saved. It was a pretty unceremonial procedure with the chair being taken to a storage building behind the Pen. Upon visiting my father one day while home from Harvard, he opened up the building and took a picture of me sitting in the chair. It was probably not a very appropriate thing to do given the history of that item, however, that was sort of the way things wound down with the Pen.

Thank you for the posting about your memories.

Jim Coster, Esq.

Pittsburgh, Pa

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


I was a good friend of your brother Ed. I was at your farm several times. Ed was the Moundsville Trojan. We graduated together in 1964. I remember you too. I also remember your family had a feud with one of your neighbors, but I can't remember their names.

Bill and Dad did give credit. I can remember when Bank Americard first came out and tried to sell them on the idea of utilizing their product but they wanted 2% of all gross sales whether or not it was on credit. I think Dad would have shot the guy if he had a gun. The only thing about the credit that ever made him mad was when someone owed them and stopped coming in to the store. I can remember Dad saying, "I know they're still eating so they're spending my money somewhere else.".

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


I re-read your comment. Kimmie was a cop in Glen Dale after being a cop in Moundsville. He left Moundsville because of the politics involved with the job. We knew everyone in town and Kimmie always believed his main job was to keep the peace. If he saw someone he knew leaving a bar drunk he would offer them a ride home. The Moundsville City Council wanted him to make arrests for the revenue.

It was good hearing from someone from the old days. I sure miss Kimmie and Barbette. Sometimes it really sucks being the last one left.

oliversmum profile image

oliversmum 6 years ago from australia

Tom Whitworth. Hi Wow what an absolutely facinating and very interesting story on some of your family history.

Your sister must have been almost frightened out of her shoes, with 2 large guys right there near by.

I am a person who is not fond of secrets, sometimes they just might come out and bite you on your rear end.

This is a wonderful read. Thank you for sharing it with us. :) :)

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Welcome to my hub and thank you for reading and leaving your kind comments.

Ms Chievous profile image

Ms Chievous 6 years ago from Wv

Hi Tom,

I reallly enjoyed this read as well as the comments about the past. All I know of the pen now is that is a haunted house attraction every Halloween. That is what happened to the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum here in Weston, A piece of history being commercialized. Oh well that's prgress right? :)

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author

Ms Chievous,

It's a funny thing that you should mention Weston. When I was growing up in Moundsville we assumed anyone from Westom came from the asylum!!

When I went to WVU I found out that people assumed by being from Moundsville meant we had been in the pen!!!!!!!

joel jordan 6 years ago

I was in moundsville in 1969 to 1971 it was not as bad as some would think.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author

joel jordan,

Were you a trustee? If so did you ever go to the B&K Market? You would have met my Dad at his store!!!!!!!!!!!!

Carmen Thompson 6 years ago

The "pentagram window" is a Masonic trademark, and considering it is featured in an area of the prison stonemasons had to have created (the sandstone work) it isn't surprising.

It isn't really the pentagram popular culture has created since the 1960s. The identification of a pentagram with the downward pointing ray with satanism was an invention of outspoken satanist Anton LaVey at that time. Prior to that it had a very long history as a Christian symbol. For example, the Masons have the star point down because that ray points to the manger holding the infant Jesus. Ancient churches all over Europe contain the pentagram very prominently in their decorations - point down. :-)

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 6 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author

Carmen Thompson,

Thank you for your interesting information. It's a welcome addition to my hub. If my Uncle Jimmy was still alive I may have already known this as he was a Master Mason.

AskAshlie3433 profile image

AskAshlie3433 5 years ago from WEST VIRGINIA

Hey there Tom. I recently saw the prison on Ghost Adventures. They said it was a rough place. This is a very great read. I love the history. I didn't know that about WVU. I would figure that would be their choice. Grate hub.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 5 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


I wonder if it was the same episode my daughter Jennifer had seen? I love remembering these old stories from my childhood and glad you enjoyed it.

Gawth profile image

Gawth 3 years ago from Millboro, Virginia

Tom, I saw one of your comments and noticed you were from Moundsville. I decided to look you up. It looks like a while since you've posted. I lived in Buckhannon for 22 years. I love WV. A good friend of mine, passed away several years ago, spent a year as a warden at the prison. He said he sure was glad to be replaced. He told some pretty interesting stories. Best to you.

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 3 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Was that Paul Kirby? Thanks for the read and comment.

Gawth profile image

Gawth 3 years ago from Millboro, Virginia

Fred Russmeissel. I think he got picked to fill in during an unexpected vacancy. Probably in the 70's.

ladyguitarpicker profile image

ladyguitarpicker 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

Hi, very interesting hub. I like reading old history, write some more. Thanks

Tom Whitworth profile image

Tom Whitworth 2 years ago from Moundsville, WV Author


Thank you for the complimentary comment.

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