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WV Penitentiary, 1886

WV Penitentiary, 1886

W. Va. Penitentiary

From the Cincinnati Enquirer, Nov. 30, 1886:


Prisoners in the West Virginia Pen Brutally Treated.

The Impress of the Lash Borne for Six Months

Many of the Victims Dead -- Awful Tale of The Assistant Superintendant -- Resigns on Account of Cruelty of the Superintendent -- Threatened Investigation.


CHARLESTON, W. VA., November 29, 1886.

Stories of fiendish cruelty and brutal outrages upon the prisoners confined in the West Virginia Penitentiary have of late been too frequent and apparently well sustained to be overlooked by the public and the authorities and there is no doubt but that the Snelling Committee which will be appointed at the Capitol in January will find plenty of work in the line. A short time since the Assistant Superintendent, Captain W. E. Wilkerson, resigned his position and left. Happening to meet the Captain a few days since at Charleston I interviewed him on the subject. The Captain's story of the life of the unfortunates of the prison, their cruel brutish treatment was one series of horrors, and if one-third of the allegations are true, and there seems no reason to doubt them, then the West Virginia Pen is hell on earth.

Some time ago a United States Inspector visited the prison and demanded that he be allowed to inspect the entire concern. Colonel Wilkerson says that Superintendent Peck ordered him to go into the dark cells and to conceal all of the instruments of torture which were in sight. "I went down there," the Captain said, "took all of the whips and other movable instruments of torture and hid them before the officers got there. The 'shoo-fly' was an immovable structure and I could not knock it into pieces as commanded, but everything else was put out of sight. When the officers got around to the cell, which was the last thing shown him by Superintendent Peck, he found nothing but the 'shoo-fly.' The superintendent told him that its use had been discontinued and that all cruel mistreatment of prisoners had been abolished."

"Captain, did you ever see any of the prisoners treated as cruelly as report says they have been?"

"Yes I have indeed. I have seen dozens of men hauled up for being short in their tasks and beaten so brutally that the sight made me sick.:

"Would you describe some of the modes of punishment?"

"The worst instrument of torture, one worthy of the genius of the Spanish Inquisition is the


"What do you call the 'kicking jenny?'"

"It is an instrument invented and built in the prison. It is made somewhat in the shape of a quarter-circle, with the highest end about three or four feet above the platform upon which it is set. The prisoner is stripped naked and bend over upon the machine. His feet are fastened to the floor with ropes, while his hands, which are stretched over the upper end, are tied with roped attached to small blocks, by which a tension so strong that the frame of the prisoner can almost be torn in two can be made with a slight pull. After the prisoner is placed in position the Superintendent, or whoever does the whipping, takes a heavy whip, made of sole leather, two pieces of which, about three feet long, are sewed together and the ends scraped slightly rounding, the lash being three inches broad at the handle, tapering to a point. With the whip the prisoner is beaten until he is almost dead, or the strength of the man who is doing the whipping gives out. I have seen men whipped until they were covered with great purple and red welts from their hips to their shoulders. The lash would make a long welt across the body, and perhaps the next blow would fall across the others, when the blood would let out of the wounds and the victim's back would be one mass of blood, torn and lacerated skin and flesh."

"Are you not overdrawing the picture?"

"No: I could not even picture the reality, and for proof of all I may say I refer you or The Enquirer to the officers of the prison, and the Clerk, Mr. F. W. Brown, who recently resigned."

"Who was to blame for this brutality."

"John E. Peck, the Superintendent."

"Will you give me the names of some of the prisoners who were treated in this manner.?"

"Yes, I will give you the names of a few. I have at home a complete list of the names, dates and all the circumstances, which I propose to take before the Legislative Committee at the proper time. Among those who were beaten so cruelly was John G. Roberts, whom the Superintendent once beat with whips so cruelly that he bore the scars from June until December. The beating was done in my room, and I was afraid he would kill the man, so I begged him to stop before he did kill him. For my interference I was roundly cursed and abused by the Superintendent."

"What became of Roberts?"

"He is dead, and lies buried under the walls."

"Have many of them died?"

"Yes, for fourteen months at least two died every month, and every one of them had been brutally treated and punished."

""Have you any other names at recollection.?"

"Oh, yes, they were only too numerous. There were John Forsett, who died twenty-three days after being punished; W. S. Douglas, Joe Paul, Louis Heckmer, and plenty of others."

"You said Louis Heckmer. He was the man sent up from Grafton on conviction of having misapplied the funds of the Catholic Knights of America, was he not?"

"He was. Heckmer was a man who had been well raised, a man of superior education, intelligent and gentlemanly in deportment. He was one of the most popular and prominent men of his section of the country. He was not physically a strong man and was whipped nearly to death not being able to perform a task which was set for him in the broom factory where he worked, notwithstanding the fact that the guard reported that Heckmer had labored diligently for ten hours at a time. The fact in this case -- this one which will create a great deal of indignation, particularly in the section where Heckmer is known -- is this Heckmer was unable to perform the large task assigned him and was reported by the contractor to the Superintendent (who was absent at the time) upon his return two weeks later. Heckmer was then stripped and tied to the kicking-jenny and beaten cruelly and brutally by the order the Superintendent.


"That infernal 'kicking Jenny' was not the only instrument of torture. There was the 'shoo-fly,' an instrument so arranged that the victim could be placed with his feet in the stocks, his arms pinioned and his head fastened so that he could not move it. Then some one would take the hose and turn the water full upon the prisoner's face. This was kept up until the victim was partly strangled to death. Imagine a man receiving a stream of water from an inch nozzle full in the face without the power of changing his position; then think of that stream being ice-cold water, and you can form an idea."

"Was there any other mode of punishment resorted to?"

"Certainly. Take the case of the man Roberts, for instance. After he had been beated with the knot until his body was one mass of cuts and welts, he was thrown into his cell upon a bare floor. Every thing in the shape of bed or bedding was taken from the cell, and he was utterly neglected. This is the man who was whipped in June, and on the 18th[?] of December following the marks of the beating were still plainly visible upon his person."

"But, Captain, didn't the Board know any thing about this?"

"Every thing which could possible be done to keep these outrages[?] from its knowledge was done. In the case of Roberts, however, a knowledge of the case was got[?] to it somehow. He was taken before it and commanded to strip. When he pulled up his shirt and the Board saw his back it quickly told[?] him to restrict[?] himself and to report to the Engineer. He was kept there out of the power of the contractor and the Superintendent was commanded to cease whipping the prisoners. It was a horrible sight."

"Is there any law conferring[?] the power of whipping the prisoners upon[?] the Superintendent?"

"No: the miserable brutish maltreatment of the convicts was altogether unauthorized by law."

"How has it been kept concealed so long?"

"I'll tell you, whenever a newspaper reporter or inspector appeared, the Superintendent would order me out[?] on some pretext and then he would take charge personally of the visitor. He was shown all over the prison, and, to all appearances, had seen the whole of it; but the visitor would never get sight of the instruments of torture, or even the places where it was inflicted[?]."

"Are there any others who were cognizant[?] of the mismanagment of the prison?"

"A number of them, and they will all be before the committee of investigation."

"Is not the Superintendent in fear of removal by the Governor?"

"Not a bit. He intimated to me that Governor Wilson was afraid to remove him."

"Captain, your story of the conduct of the West Virginia Prison is a fearful one. Are you certain you can establish your allegations?"

"I will have no trouble doing that. I will produce, if necessary, a number of officers who know all the facts. Beside that, there are a few of the victims still alive who can testify. I propose to have the whole matter investigated by the proper authorities."

The Captain then went into details, and told a story of brutality, mistreatment[?] and infernal outrage which would eclipse Dante's inferno. After he left I met with a member of the board to whom I mentioned the above matter, and found that it was not a matter of astonishment by any means. The story of cruelty as given by the Ex-Assistant Superintendent will bring about an investigation which will disclose all the facts. The Superintendent of the prison, Captain Peck, who is charged with brutality which would put an Apache to shame, will have an opportunity to defend himself if he can.

THE ENQUIRER, Cincinnati, Tuesday, November 30, 1886, p. 5.

Note: the microfilm copy of the Enquirer available from the Ohio Historical Society Library was badly scratched and somewhat out of focus. -- LH


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