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W. Va. Penitentiary, 1886

W. Va. Penitentiary, 1886

W. Va. Penitentiary


An Interesting History of the West Virginia Penitentiary

Its Management, Condition, and Inmates -- Tales of Lawless Life Told by Life Prisoners, Etc.


Special Correspondence of the Sunday Register.

MOUNDSVILLE, W. VA, April 8. -- A history of the public institutions of a State is always interesting, particularly to the citizens of the State. in beginning a history of the public institutions of West Virginia, your correspondent begins at the penitentiary, as that happens to have been the first visited and examined in all of its details.

This State institution is situated in Marshall country, in the town of Moundsville, under the shadow of an Indian mound, the monument of an aboriginal race, long since extinct.

The main building is four stories in height. It is, like the flanking buildings, built of heavy cut stone. Upon each corner a tall tower overtops the buildings all about, which with embrazures, battlements and lattice works of iron, lends an appearance of massive strength, stern, forbidding and soul chilling. On each side of the main building a long, one-story edifice of like character stretches away to the right and left a distance of 180 feet in each direction.


A heavy stone wall, 35 feet high and 4 feet wide surrounds the yard. At each angle of this way stands a round turret or guard-house, from whose windows the alert and active guardsman, armed with 16-shooting Winchesters, keeps watch and ward upon the movements of human beings below.

The front part of the main building is occupied by the officers and family of the Superintendent. The long room to the left is the dining room of the convicts and that on the right is the hall, within which stands the four tiers of cells, which contain the sleeping apartments of the prisoners.


One day not long since your correspondent called at the State Prison and sent in his card to the Superintendent. He was ushered into the office and there formed the acquaintance of Col. John B. Peck, of Logan county, W. Va. After a few minutes' conversation Capt. Wilkinson, Assistant Superintendent, came in. They are both genial intelligent gentlemen, firm but just in their management of the prison.

To these gentlemen the people of West Virginia owe the fact that they have the cleanest and one of the best conducted State prisons in this country. Everything in and about the prison is kept clean and fresh. There is none of that prison smell, which is so sickening to the olfactories of even stalwart men. The prisoners are also required to keep their persons and cells clean.

There are 300 prisoners confined within these four chilly walls, and every morning 600 eyes glare with hopeless despondency toward the light which brightens the outer world.

These men, 13 of whom will spend their lives within the walls, came from different parts of the State, Kanawha furnishing more than any other county.

Capt. J. R. Mehen, now Deputy U. S. Marshal, has in his experience as civil officer sent 52 prisoners to this prison, principally from the county of Wood, which Capt. Alf. Burnett, chief of Eureka Detectives, has sent perhaps 100 in his long experience as a detective from Kanawha and other counties of the State. These two men have run down, captured and consigned more men to this institution than any dozen officers in the State.

Employment is found necessary, not only for the safety of the officers and guards, but for the health of the prisoners, who, if idle, would plot and plan a revolt in a very short space of time. They are employed in three different vocations, principally making wagons, brooms and whips.

The Webster wagon works, Weaver & Bardall's whip and broom factories are well-known throughout the country.

The convicts are of every nationality. No distinction is made, for white, black, red, old and young, are here prisoners alike, and treated as the law demands.


The methods of punishment in State prisons have caused a great deal of disension in almost every State, and have been changed a great many times. The paddling machine, with its pulleys and inhuman punishment, is not used. Neither is that horror of State prisons, the "weighing machine." Although something similar to it was in use two years ago. The following is a description of that instrument and its uses: It is merely a solid oak plank set in a grooved frame, so that it could readily be moved up or down to any height. When it was high enough two iron pins were pushed into the holes in the grooved pieces, and the plank was held fast. A hook was fastened in the centre of the plank, to which was fastened a chain connection with a pair of handcuffs. When a prisoner was brought up to be punished in this machine, he would first be handcuffed to the chain. The cross piece was then elevated until the prisoner's toes barely touched the floor of the cell. Thirty seconds of agony is as much as any man in any of the State prisons have been able to bear. Before that time the blood seems to burst from the finger ends, and the nails seem ready to fly from their places. The convict, be he ever so stubborn, shrieks and cries from pain. He is then let down and sent to a cell, often to remain there for weeks and months with swollen wrists and ulcerated wounds, which seem almost impossible to cure. There is now in the West Virginia penitentiary one convict, a negro man, who was punished in this horrible manner several years ago. When your correspondent under the guidance of Superintendent Peck went through the prison he found this man in the dining room. Upon making inquiry as to how he came to be so badly crippled, his wrists were covered with great suppurating sores -- learned that he have several years ago, before the new regime, been strapped up and "weighed." That poor devil will never entirely recover from the effects of his punishment and may at any time die of blood poisoning.

This class of punishment still continues at Sing Sing and a number of other prisons, but when Colonel Peck took charge of the West Virginia Prison it was immediately stopped. There is, however, no inclination on the part of the prisoners to mutiny and seldom, nowadays, is it necessary to inflict severe punishment. The


with its impenetrable, stygian darkness is here as in other prisons. One minute's experience in the cell was enough for your correspondent. No ray of light penetrated it. The darkness was so dense that one could not see a hand placed directly before the eyes and a knife would have been a convenient instrument with which to penetrate the black mass.


Is also relegated to the past. Its use is seldom needed.

The superintendent has adopted plans by which implicit obedience is enforced. Good food and plenty of it, with clean clothing, clean cells, literature and all the privileges that can be given consistently under the law, are of more benefit in securing good behavior than all the cruel inhuman punishments that can be inflicted.


At meal time the prisoners file into the dining-room in squads from the different work shops, with lock step, hand on shoulder of the man in front, they move with an elongated shuffle, resembling huge striped centipedes. Each squad as it enters files to the right of the room, ash their grimy faces and hands; about face and march to their positions at the long tables. They there stand fast until the long lines are filled and ranks closed up, when at the tap of the triangle they right face and seat themselves. The table is well supplied at noon time with wheat and corn bread, meat and coffee, fruit and vegetables in season are supplied. in fact the superintendent feeds his prisoners much better than is required, and often I learn, at his private expense purchases apples and other fruits which he has placed upon the table within easy reach of the men. Is it any wonder that the West Virginia penitentiary is a model institution of its kind, and that obedience to rules is secured without so much corporal punishment?

In this issue I will give the history of but one of the prisoners, one however, which is interesting in details from the fact that it is an anomaly -- no other of like character can be found in the history of the country for a score of years.


I will close the first chapter of this history by detailing an account of a crime, and not a crime, which consigned the first man in twenty years to a prison cell. Joseph Paul was, five years ago, a well known citizen and hotel keeper at Volcano, W. Va. He had a wife and two children, and seemed to be living as happily and with as good prospects as any of his neighbors. His business was good and required a great deal of attention. In order carry it on successfully, Paul looked about him for an assistant. One Reuben Marquis, a tall good-looking fellow, applied to him for the position and was accepted. He took charge of the saloon and in the absence of Paul looked after the hotel business. Everyting seemed to go on swimmingly for awhile, and money flowed into the coffer. But at last scandal attached to Marquis over his intimacy with Paul's wife. It was some time, however, before Paul heard the whisperings of the community. One day Paul came home unexpectedly from a business trip on the railroad and entered the house without being noticed. Seeing no one about he ascended to his room and there saw a sight which convinced him that Marquis and his wife were guilty. From the evidence adduced in the case I take the following: Paul enraged and frenzied at his shame, threatened to kill Marquis who admitted his guilt, but plead for his life. At last Paul let him go after he had promised to leave the State. Marquis did leave the Sate, but a short time later just about the time Paul's wife disappeared, Marquis returned to Parkersburg, where he met the guilty wife. He was advised to leave by persons who knew the circumstances of the case. He refused to do this, and said that he was armed and would kill Paul if he approached him. One the afternoon of the shooting Marquis went up to the passenger depot. Now it happened that the very same day Paul started for Washington from Volcano. The trains, being fast trains, did not stop a Laurel Junction, consequently Paul was compelled to go to Parkersburg to take the express train. When he arrived at the outer depot he saw Marquis standing on the opposite side of the street near the corner with one hand on his pocket. Paul started after Marquis and shot at him. Marquis ran but was follwed and shot again by Paul He fell and was taken to the American House, where he died a few days later. One his death bed, Marquis took the blame entirely upon himself, and asked that Paul be found guiltless. Paul was tried, found guilty in the excitement of the moment; the verdict of the jury was set aside and a new trial ordered. When the time came for trial Paul, broken in health and spirit, homeless and almost friendless, plead guilty and was sentenced to 16 years in the State prison. This is in brief the pith of the story. Here is an anomaly in law: Paul is the first man in more than 20 years found guilty of murder for slaying the destroyer of his family. Daniel E. Sickles, whose civil and political history is well known, shot Philip Barron for the ruin of his wife in 1853, was tried for murder and acquitted. McFarland stood behind the mirror in the Tribune office, and lying in wait, shot and hilled Richardson for a like offense. Here were two deliberate killings, yet the law could not and did not adjudge them guilty. Now, at this late date, long after Paul is incarcerated, witnesses come forward, good, reliable men, whose word is good as a bond, and testify that they saw Marquis after his dismissal by Paul near Sand Hill, and at other points near Volcano, and when they questioned him he told them of what he had been guilty and said that he was armed and would shoot Paul on sight. For a long time sympathy has been with this man Paul, and it is fully believed that were he tried to day no jury could be found to convict him of any crime.

[Continued next Sunday]

--Wheeling Register, April 11, 1886.

Part 2


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