Monday, April 4, 2016

HGB Ep. 116 - Moundsville State Prison

Moment in Oddity - Bella in the Wych Elm
by: Bob Sherfield

In the spring of 1943, in Hagley Wood near Stourbridge, in Worcestershire, whilst out poaching, four boys came across a large wych elm. One of the group, Bob Farmer, climbed the tree looking for bird eggs. In the hollow trunk he spotted what he believed to be an animal skull. Retrieving it, he was horrified to find that it was human. The boys panicked because they had trespassed, so they decided not to tell anyone. Later, one of the boys felt guilty and told his parents of the discovery and they called the police. In the trunk was an almost complete skeleton, along with a shoe, a gold ring and fragments of clothing. A hand was found buried near the tree. Forensics showed that the skeleton was a female, aged 35-40. She had been dead for at least 18 months. Taffeta within the mouth indicated that she had been asphyxiated and placed into the cavity of the tree whilst still warm. The police trawled through missing person reports and dental records for a lead, but to no avail. She seemed to have appeared from nowhere, and was missed by no one. Christmas came and graffiti began to appear. "Who put Luebella down the wych elm?" said the first one. "Hagley Wood Bella", said another. “Who put Bella in the wych elm?” became a common sight across the area. As recently as 1999, that message appeared on a 200 year old obelisk in nearby Wychbury Hill. Two years after the discovery, an anthropologist set forth a theory that the buried hand indicated use in an occult ceremony known as the “Hand of Glory” and that “Bella” had been a ritualistic murder. The idea of witchcraft caught the imagination of the public, but in 1953 a woman named Anna contacted a local newspaper claiming to know the killer's identity.  Bella, she said had been part of a spy ring gathering intelligence to aid the German bombing of Birmingham. In 1968, a book titled "Murder by Witchcraft" claimed that the records of the Abwehr (a German intelligence agency) showed Bella had a been a Nazi Spy who had been parachuted into the West Midlands in 1941, but disappeared without making radio contact. Sometime after 1999, the declassified files of the wartime MI5 divulged something interesting. In January of 1941, a captured Gestapo agent, a Josef Jakobs, was carrying a photo of a woman who he named as a German singer and actress, Clara Bauerle. He revealed how Clara, who had spent time before the war working in the music halls of the West Midlands, had been due to be parachuted into that area in 1941. Curiously, her career seems to come to an abrupt halt at that time, making no appearances after that date. Jakobs was convicted of being a spy and became the last person to be executed at the Tower of London. Bella also could have been a Birmingham prostitute. Another prostitute told police in 1944 that Bella had disappeared three years before. Another story that came out was reported by Una Mossop in 1953. She claimed her cousin, Jack, had confessed that he and a Dutchmen had been out drinking with a woman who had passed out, and as a prank they had placed her in the tree hoping so she would wake up the next morning scared and confused. She said Jack Mossop had been confined to a mental hospital, plagued by reoccurring dreams of a woman staring at him from a tree trunk. He died before the discovery of the body. The official closure of the police investigation and publication of the police files stated that whilst DNA evidence would prove useful, the whereabouts of the bones were now unknown. A skeleton being found inside a tree, certainly is odd!

This Day in History - Martin Luther King Jr. Assassinated
by: Kristin Swintek

On this day, April 4th, in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, TN. King was born on January 15, 1929 in Altanta, GA to Reverend Martin Luther King, Sr. and Alberta King. Martin Luther King is best known for his work as a Civil Rights leader. During the Civil Rights Movement, King led the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, in 1963 helped organize the March on Washington where is gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. In 1964, King won the Nobel Peace Prize for combating racial inequality through nonviolence. In 1968, King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference began working on the Poor People’s Campaign to help address issues of economic justice. In late March, he traveled to Memphis, TN in support of Black sanitary public works employees, whom had been striking for 3 weeks. On his way down, his flight was delayed due to a bomb threat made on the plane in which he would be traveling. In his final speech on April 3 at the Mason Temple in Memphis he said:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I see the Promise land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

King was staying at the Lorraine Motel in room 306 where he was with Reverend Ralph David Abernathy and Jesse Jackson. King had gone out onto the balcony near his room where he was shot at 6:01pm by a single bullet. Witnesses saw a man fleeing the house across the street. King was rushed to St. Joseph’s Hospital where he was pronounced dead one hour later after an attempt of emergency surgery. King’s killer was identified as James Earl Ray who had fled the scene of the crime which led to a worldwide manhunt. He was apprehended at London Heathrow Airport two months later. The Lorraine Motel in Memphis is now the site of The Nation Civil Rights Museum where white wreath is hung on the balcony and his room is exactly as it was in 1968.

Moundsville State Prison (Suggested by listeners Josh and Sarah Kitchen)


The West Virginia Penitentiary is located in Moundsville, so most people know it as Moundsville State Penitentiary. In its day, it was one of the most violent prisons in the United States. The Gothic architecture of the building resembles a castle with turrets and battlements. This place truly was a fortress, not as protection from outside forces, but to keep the bad inside. It would seem that some of the inmates of the prison still remain in the afterlife. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of the Moundsville State Penitentiary with our special guest, listener and paranormal investigator, Josh Kitchen.

Moundsville, West Virginia was named for Grave Creek Mound that is near the city and across from the West Virginia Penitentiary. Ancient Mound Builders made this conical shaped burial mound and it is one of the largest burial mounds in the United States. The indigenous people were known as the Adena People and it is estimated that the mound is made from 60,000 tons of dirt. Merriwether Lewis actually wrote of the mound in his journal on a trip to meet William Clark for an exploration of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Moundsville is a combination of two towns, Elizabethtown that was settled by Samuel and James Tomlinson and incorporated in 1830 and Mound City that was incorporated in 1832. The towns combined in 1865.

As the Civil War raged on in America, the state of Virginia was embroiled in its own personal conflict. Part of the state was preparing to secede. When it did, West Virginia found itself lacking in jail space. They attempted to keep prisoners in small county jails, but in 1865 nine prisoners broke out. The community was outraged and the press started putting pressure on the legislature for a real penitentiary. The government bought ten acres of land just outside of the city of Moundsville for $3,000 in 1866 and built a temporary wooden structure. Officials liked the structure of the North Illinois Penitentiary and they designed their new jail after that and used prison labor to construct the building. Hand cut sandstone was quarried to serve as building material. The North Wagon Gate was the first building erected. Next came the North Hall and South Hall cell blocks. The North Hall housed the kitchen, dining area, the hospital and a chapel. A four story tower connected the cell blocks.

The jail opened with 251 inmates, many of whom had actually built the penitentiary. Workshops were built and the prison had multiple industries set up including carpentry, blacksmithing, baking, painting and wagon building. As was the case with other penitentiaries at this time, the goal was to reform prisoners and the West Virginia jail initially was a good place to serve time. There was education and a library and there was plenty of food. But then things went so horribly wrong. Remember in the intro that we said that this was one of the most violent prisons in the country. Things changed. Conditions worsened and the prison quickly became overcrowded. And the worst of the worst were imprisoned here. These were murderers and rapists and all around brutes.

There was torture here. Guards hid whips and liked to use them. The two unique forms of torture used at Moundsville were "Kicking Jenny" and "The Shoo-Fly." The Kicking Jenny was an instrument built at the jail in the shape of a quarter circle. Prisoners were strapped to it naked, stretched and then whipped. The Shoo-Fly was an instrument that a prisoner could be strapped to with his head pinned back and he was completely unable to move. He was then blasted with ice water from a hose until he nearly drowned.

Death became a key part of the prison. Men on death row were hung and electrocuted in the electric chair. The hopeless committed suicide. And many were preyed upon by their own peers. Thirty-six men were murdered within the walls. The first execution took place in 1899 and hangings took place until 1949. Eighty-five men died in this way. Electrocutions started in 1951 via "Old Sparky." Nine men died in this way and then West Virginia abolished capital punishment in 1965. At the rime that the electric chair was being pushed forward legislatively, the warden at the prison sent a letter to the state legislature explaining why this would be a mistake. He wrote:
"The present system of conducting executions here is by all means the most humane, the safest and least painful and is less expense [sic]. From the time the subject is started from his cell until he reaches the scaffold, steps on the trap, is bound, strapped, the noose adjusted, the black cap placed, the brief prayer said, and the subject dropped and dead, is less than sixty seconds.

There have been twelve executions here since the law requiring executions at the penitentiary passed, three under my predecessors--nine under my administration. In every case there has not been the slightest hitch or error, and the subject has been subjected to no delay, so terribly hard to stand. Our people know exactly how to do this work and it is done quickly.

But the electric chair is the very opposite. It takes ten minutes to adjust the electrodes (which seems like ten hours), the sponges, and arrange for everything, for everything has to be done with the most absolute precision, and in the only two states that have this system, there have been recently the most unsatisfactory results, and the current has had to be applied over and over, to the great horror and disgust of the officials.

That is not all. Electrocution is the most horrible death known. Every nerve is shattered, every blood vessel bursted, the bones crushed and broken, and in ten minutes after, every particle of the victim's body is black and blue, a most gruesome sight--exactly what occurs to parts of the victim of a stroke of lightning."
Overcrowding was a problem and throughout the 1960s, more than a 1000 inmates were housed here. There were riots at the prison. One of them occurred in 1973 and five guards were taken captive. The basement of the prison was set on fire. People could hear the riots from outside of the prison. There was screaming and glass breaking. A couple of inmates were stabbed. Another riot occurred in 1985 and 15 hostages were taken that time. The prisoners demanded better conditions. One witness outside heard inmates requesting "better medical services, better living quarters, a pizza and some women." Several escapes were made from the jail over the years as well.

The penitentiary was officially closed via court order on March 27, 1995 because of the inhumane conditions inside of the prison. In 1998, the Moundsville Economic Development Council obtained a twenty-five year lease on the prison and they use the funds they make for refurbishment of the structures. There are daily tours and paranormal investigations are welcomed. The jail is open from April through November. In October, they host the haunted attraction "Dungeon of Horrors."

One of the infamous inmates at this prison had a connection to the Greenbriar Ghost that we talked about in the Moment in Oddity segment of episode 9. The story goes like this:

In 1873, Elva Zona Heaster was born in Greenbriar County, West Virginia.  In 1896, she met and fell in love with a drifter who was passing through Greenbriar named Erasmus and they married soon after.  A young boy running an errand for Erasmus to the home that Zona and Erasmus shared, found Zona dead at the bottom of the stairs.  The local doctor gave the body of Zona a cursory examination after Erasmus had already moved the body to the bedroom and dressed Zona in her finest dress.  The doctor made the exam brief, as Erasmus seemed very overcome by grief and the doctor decided that Zona had fainted and fallen down the stairs.  During the wake and before burial, Erasmus was very watchful of the body, concealing Zona's neck and keeping people away from the body.  Shortly after this, Zona's mother claimed that her daughter appeared to her in dreams for four nights in a row. The ghost would explain that Erasmus had been cruel and beaten her many times.  On this final beating, the ghost claimed that Erasmus had broken her neck and she turned her head almost completely around to show her mother.  Zona's mother went to the Prosecutor and Zona's body was exhumed after the doctor admitted he had not done a thorough examination.  It was proven that Zona's neck was broken and even more incriminating, her windpipe had been crushed.  Erasmus went to trial and his defense tried to make Zona's mother appear crazy by asking her about the ghostly visits, something the prosecution had avoided.  Zona's mother was unwavering and the people of the town believed her, so the plan of the defense backfired.  Erasmus was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison, where he died three years later. The ghost never appeared again and many believe Zona's mother made the whole story up because she didn't think anybody would listen to her theory that her daughter had been murdered without a witness.

Prisons breed pain and loneliness. They are stone structures that seem to absorb all the emotions experienced by those inside and most of those feelings are negative. Was it the violence of the prison and the deaths there that have led to reputed hauntings at this location or does the large burial mound across from it have something to do with the supernatural activity? Or was it a combination of the two? Most of the activity takes place in the shower cages, Death Row, the chapel, the Sugar Shack, which was a recreational area and the North Wagon Gate where executions were conducted. The circular entrance gate is known to turn all by itself.

There is the ghost of a maintenance man who used to live in the basement still hanging out down there. The prisoners believed he was a snitch and it would seem that he would report to the guards everything that the inmates were up to. So they cornered him while he was on the toilet and stabbed him to death. He is now seen as a shadow figure according to some people. Polly Gear described the shadow man as looking like black static as it moved. The face and hands were not defined, but it was shaped like a man. Polly shined her flashlight at the shadow and her light went through it and it seemed to spook the shadow figure. It did not feel threatening to her. Here is the first image captured of him in 2004 by Polly:


There is a malevolent spirit in the prison that goes by the name Robert. This was an inmate who was beaten to death by guards and buried within the prison walls. He is angry and is known to touch and scare visitors. Disembodied screams and footsteps are heard, noises with no origin, cell doors open and close on their own. Josh has several recordings he has shared with us that we are going to play on the podcast featuring EVPs and unexplained noises.

Moundsville is not unique when it comes to prisons. So many of these older and closed penitentiaries seem to be haunted. Do the lost spirits of inmates still roam these halls? Is the Moundsville State Prison haunted? That is for you to decide!

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