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West Virginia Penitentiary, 1886

West Virginia Penitentiary, 1886


Wheeling Register, April 18, 1886.


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.[Concluded]

MOUNDSVILLE, W. VA., April 16 -- In resuming a history of the West Virginia penitentiary and its workings it will be apropos to give the names and positions of the different offices and guards in order that the reader may more readily understand its management and conditions.


The whole institution is under the management of a superintendent and assistant superintendent, subject only to the rules and regulations of the prison and the Board of Directors.

The superintendent and his assistant, Col. Peck and Capt. Wilkinson, have been already introduced to the reader.

Next in order may come the guardmen, which consist of T. J. Johnson, Capt.; J. R. Perry, hall guard, and J. F. Ferguson, W. Fitzsimmons, E. Ryan, J. C. Israel, Samuel Ferguson, Fred Bauer, Jas. Wood, W. H. Wiltis, H. J. Monahan, George O'Neal, John Doran, C. G. Reynolds, R. W. Maupin, J. Monahan, C. H. McCarraher, and H. E. Hogan, night guard. W. B. Humphreys, Esq. , is superintendent of the works in the shops.

Major C. W. Wickham is chief engineer, and has held that position for a long series of years. The Major is well-known throughout the State, and is certainly a very popular fellow. His Falstaffian figure, good-natured face, and extreme delight in getting the job on "the other fellow" is a solid fact not easily forgotten by the other fellow, (until he gets even with the "coon.")


To return to the subject in hand. Within the gloomy walls are situated a number of long brick buildings, within which the convicts perform their daily tasks. They are sold under contract of a series of years to different firms. The Webster Wagon Works is the largest concern, and employs most of the men. Here the men, after the morning meal, are marched into the different shops; the blacksmith, paint, machine and wood works. They have each man a task to perform, which is estimated at two-thirds of an ordinary day's work. After the accomplishment of their task they are allowed to stand at ease, rest beside their benches, or, if they choose, can still continue to work until the hour for knocking off arrives. For all extra work they are allowed a certain amount, and in a number of instances, your reporter found that prisoners gain extra pay in order to secure certain luxuries, such as reading matter, &c.


In order to learn whether their tasks were heavy or not, your reporter was allowed to ask one of the prisoners a few questions upon the subject. He selected Raymond, who had been sent up for a number of years for post office robbery. After the men had retired to their cells and the clang of the heavy iron bars of which each one closed a tier of cells, had ceased ringing with its cold steely sound in his ears, the reporter went to the door of the cell occupied by Raymond and said:

"Raymond, where do you work?"

In the laconic prison tones, which in long years of silent labor became second nature, he replied:

"In the wagon factory."

"How many pieces have been allotted you as a task?"


"How many did you make to-day?"


"How many could you readily make in work hours?"

"Two tasks."

Raymond's cell, like a number of others, was fitted up at the farther end with shelves, upon which were piled books, papers and pictures. By this means the more intelligent prisoners while away the tedium of the hours of evening before the command to "put out the lights and retire" is given.


The broom factory and whip factories under the management of Messrs. Weaver & Bardall, are conducted upon the same principles. Here, however, the smaller and weaker of the prisoners, who could not stand the heavier labor, are employed. Each room has the appearance of a busy hive of bees. The long benchers in the whip factory are filled with men and boys, who are kept busy at making whips of all kinds, from the "dog whip," destined to fill the delicate hand and taper finger of the Boston belle, as she fastidiously glides along the fashionable promenades of the city of "Culcha and Baked Beans," accompanied by her skye terrier or her more hydrophobic spitz, to the long cattle whip of the cowboy on the Texas plains. Whips in all stages of composition, from the thin strips as long as one's hand to the finished oiled and varnished whip, ready to ship, are constantly going through process of manufacture.


Among the convicts are many experts, whose handiwork are marvels of skill and schooled patience. Indeed, it would seem that after years of toil and confinement and with the means of obtaining an honest, honorable living and competence, these men would never return, but criminals glide back to their old haunts and old companions with a fatal facility. Let there be seemingly the fairest hope of reformation the frost work of new habits appears to melt away at the first fire of temptation. Victor Hugo exhibits a keen insight into human nature, when he makes Valjean rob the Savoyard of his two pence, even after the forgiveness and generosity of the good bishop. As an evidence of this there are a number of prisoners here who have been here before, and several now serving life sentences who have been sent a third time for some offence, which had it been the first or even the second offence, would have been perhaps for not more than two or three years, but the law, in its wisdom, dooms a man who has been convicted a third time in this State to a life sentence.


Near the workshops stands the long engine house with its immense boilers and massive engines which drive all the machinery and pump up the water supply for the prison. This department is presided over by Major Wickham, who is one of the best engineers in the State. Under his supervision and care the huge machinery is kept polished and bright as a mirror.


Under Mr. Wickham, the assistant engineer is Big John, a life convict. John is colored man whose sentence for life was passed 14 years ago for a crime the penalty of which now in the United States, would average, say 14 years. In giving me his history, all the officers agreed that John was the most faithful, reliable and honest prisoner they ever had. He was here when the present prison was built. He worked on the walls, cut the first stone and did more work, and all in workmanlike manner, than any outside free employe. Once, I am told, John with another prisoner was taken by a guard to the pumping station at the river. The guard was compelled to go back to the prison, I believe, and left John and his fellow convict, believing they would remain. The officer was detained longer than he expected, and one of the prisoners ran off. John ran to the prison and reported the escape of the prisoner. Of course, the man is treated as well as it is permitted. I made a rough estimate of the amount of money saved to the State by John's labor as mechanic and engineer, and arrived at the conclusion that he had saved not less than $10,000 since his incarceration. At all events it would have cost that much or more to have employed that amount of equally skilled labor. Before John's time the prison was surrounded by a high wooden fence. In 1867 several members of the notorious


among whom was Frank Jennings, son of old John Jennings, Wetzel county's notorious marauder. Frank Jennings was the leading spirit in all the mutinies and insubordinations of the prison, and one night during a terrible storm, in which the fence blew down, he led twenty-six prisoners in a dash for liberty. They were fired upon and pursued and all captured except Jennings himself, who escaped to the old haunts of the gang in Wetzel county, on Coal run, but a few miles back of New Martinsville. The house of old John Jennings was always an objective point to escaped prisoners, and it was so carefully guarded, and having secret means of egress and entrance, that very few were ever captured. The crimes of this gang, John Jennings, his four boys, William, Thomas, Frank and Jack, Godard, Barcus, Cannon, Parker, Willard, the Van Horn woman and others, are still fresh in the minds of the older residents of Wetzel, Tyler, Marshall, Pleasants and other counties. The pursuit of the gang, capture of several of them, and finally the descent of the "Red Men," after a series of horrible murders committed by the gang, upon the lair of the leader, old John, and his death after a terrible struggle, their descent upon Lynn Camp, the burning of the houses inhabited by the gang, and the exodus of outlaws and criminal refugees by the light of the torch and flame of burning houses is matter well known to many.

But to return to the subject:

In the paint shop, where the bodies of the wagons are painted are several notorious offenders, chief among whom is perhaps,


Douglas, who is a life prisoner, was sent up from Grant county for the murder of a young boy, a mail carrier. The details of the crime show it to have been revolting in its cold blooded, deliberate accomplishment. It seems the day of the murder several registered letters were put in the pouch carried by the boy and this knowledge came to the ears of Douglas, who waylaid and shot the boy, inflicting a serious but not fatal wound. The boy in endeavoring to escape the assassin ran his horse into St. Johns run and swam across, only to meet his murderer, who ran across a bridge and headed him off and deliberately murdered him as he came out of the water. Douglas had his trials, and was found guilty in both. Gen Flick was at one time retained by him, if I mistake not, but his crime was so great and the evidence to clear that nothing could be done to save him, and he was finally sentenced to the penitentiary for the period of his natural life. It may interest the newspaper fraternity to know that Douglas is the only one of their number who ever was sent to the West Virginia penitentiary for so base a crime. He told your reporter the story of his life, and the following brief outline covers the principal events of his history. He was born and raised in West Virginia, until, at the age of 15, when he went into a newspaper office as a "devil," (and he has been the incarnation of a veritable Pluto ever since). He learned to set type, became a compositor, afterward a "jour," and finally finding the field of journalism in West Virginia too narrow for his special talents emigrated to Texas. Being a man of pleasant address, and apparently a gentleman, there he formed the acquaintance and married an estimable young lady, by whom he had one child, which lived but three or four years and was shortly followed by its mother. He left that portion of Texas, went to Lampasas, and started a newspaper called the Lampasas Advertiser. Here he again married. Douglas was appointed a Deputy Sheriff, and performed the duty so well, especially that portion of it connect with capturing wild outlaws of the frontier, that when his time as Deputy Sheriff expired he was elected


As a Marshal there is no doubt that Douglas made his mark on more than one occasion, principally inscribed, no doubt, with 40 calliber bullets. He always brought in his man, but as often feet-foremost as with perpendicular, but one day he went out to arrest some one on a warrant, he followed probably his last trail (but one) of death. He returned to the little town of Lampasas, with his prisoner strapped to the back of a horse. But the prisoner was as dead as cold lead could make him. One story goes that the dead man had many friends who believed that he had been deliberately murdered and swore to avenge him. Another, but somewhat less plausible one was that the score keepers of the coroner's jury disagreed as to the number of bullet holes in the dead man, and the coolness that arose on that occasion gradually centered upon Douglas. Be that as it may, Douglas directly after the above occurrence left Texas for the mountains of West Virginia. He, like ninety-nine men out of the hundred in prison, declares his entire innocence of the crime attributed to him.


is another life prisoner. He, with three others, among them a Chief "Gray Eagle," was sentenced by the Government for murder. The murders committed by these men were the killing of whites, for which crimes they were tried by the United States Courts. Had the murdered man been one of their own color and tribe they would have been tried in their own territory under Cherokee laws. These Indians were brought here several years ago, but the Government of prison life, broke the heart of his chief and two of his companions, and they died. They are buried within the prison walls, in one corner of the yard, and their spirits released from human bondage, started for the happy hunting grounds where the rattle of chains, the clanging of iron doors and the constant toil of daily existence is no longer known. The only one left, Charley Thomas, is a half breed, tall, muscular and powerful. He is one of the best blacksmiths in the shops; always prompt, obedient and attentive. Doubtless the memory of broad plains, the wild free life of the nation, often rushes upon his memory, but if so, he never mentions it, but goes on with his work, quietly and assiduously, day after day, and retires to his cell at night like the hundreds of others, apparantly glad that the hours of toil are over and the shades of night and rest and sleep are bringing him one more day nearer the goal of hope -- freedom -- death.


A hospital is attached to the prison, to which all invalid prisoners are sent after examination by the prison physician. The hospital steward is, I believe, a certain doctor, a convict, who is a regularly educated physician. This disciple of Esculapius is an eccentric genius. One of his idiosyncrasies is, I belive, a fondness for appropriating other folks' horses. His weakness for horse flesh and disregard for the doctrine of meum and tuum brought suspicion upon him, and the last time the doctor got a corner on the horse market he lost his diploma and liberty both at one and the same time. He is considered one of the stubborn cases of the prison.


of the prison is one of its peculiar features. All classes of society and many professions are represented. The ex-minister and pick-pocket work side by side, while the ex-legislator marks time with the sneak thief, and the ex-treasurer of some large institution sits elbow to elbow with the scum of the lowest purleus. There are no class distinctions and no preferences.


is presided over and managed by convicts, who make and bake all the provisions of the convicts. Everything in and about the bakery is clean and neat. There is no waste of material although there is plenty of everything. Next the bakery is


which is manned by convicts also. The clothing of all the prisoners is here thoroughly cleansed and dried. So clean is everything that not the slightest speck of dirt can be found upon any garment. The soap is also made in the laundry by a convict from materials left from the prison bill of fare. When I went through the prison, Joe Paul, the unfortunate prisoner spoken of in my last letter, was foreman, I think, but his health has so badly failed, I learn that he has been removed to other and lighter work.


In the corridor at the door leading into the dining room covered with a leather case, stands the prison pet. It is a beautiful, nickle-mounted Gatling gun. Its roll of rifle muzzles point toward the door, and if a mutiny occur while the prisoners are all in the dining room a single guard could with one hand guide the muzzle, while with the other by turning a crank he could fill each emptied barrel with a fresh cartridge from the hopper at the top. A hailstorm of bullets would sweep across the dining room so fast and so true that not a living human being would be left standing, and this all could be done in less time than it takes to tell it. There will be no mutiny while the "Pet" "holds the fort."

With this paragraph I will close the description of the West Virginia Penitentiary. If the reader wishes to learn something of other institutions of the State he can be gratified at an early day by continuing the perusal of the SUNDAY REGISTER.

|W. Va. Penitentiary

Service provided by the staff of the Ohio County Public Library in partnership with and partially funded by Wheeling National Heritage Area Corporation.

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