Local Author Details Executions Conducted at Former West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville

Photo by Linda Comins Moundsville author C.J. Plogger talks Tuesday about his new book, “Pronounced Dead: The Executions at the West Virginia Penitentiary,” at the Ohio County Public Library.

Drawing upon penal records and old newspaper accounts, Moundsville author C.J. Plogger has researched the 94 executions conducted at the former West Virginia Penitentiary over a 60-year period from 1899 to 1959.

He appeared Tuesday at the Ohio County Public Library’s Lunch With Books program to talk about his new book, “Pronounced Dead: The Executions at the West Virginia Penitentiary.”

Plogger serves as pastor of Ash Avenue Church of God in Moundsville and leads tours at the former prison. Regarding the book’s topic, he said, “I personally do not believe in capital punishment.”

He said 94 men were executed at the penitentiary; a woman was sentenced to death, but received a last-minute pardon. The executions included 85 hangings and nine electrocutions. The state abolished the death penalty in 1965.

The last execution occurred on April 3, 1959, when Elmer David Bruner was electrocuted for the killing of a Huntington woman. While Bruner was on death row, he received a letter from an 11-year-old Moundsville girl; in response, he sent her “a beautiful letter” and a jigsaw puzzle that he had made, Plogger said. The framed puzzle was displayed during Plogger’s presentation.

Fourteen men were put to death for killing their wives, he said. They included Frank Hyer who, according to a newspaper account, was so heavy that his head popped off when he was hanged on June 19, 1931.

Of those executed, 40 were black, he said. Noting the racial disparity, he said they accounted for 43 percent of the executions, at a time when the state’s population was only 8 percent black.

The last public execution in the state occurred in 1897 at Ripley, where souvenirs and food were sold beforehand and pandemonium ensued, he said.

In reaction to that incident, the Legislature ordered that a special enclosure be built within the penitentiary’s walls to exclude public view of executions. The so-called “death house,” a brick and stone building, was constructed at a cost of $6,000 in September 1899, he said.

For hangings, prisoners walked 13 steps to the gallows and were placed in a noose with 13 knots as a symbolic nod to the 13 people — 12 jurors and a judge — who convicted them, he said.

Shep Caldwell, of McDowell County, was the first man to be hanged at the new facility on Oct. 10, 1899. Caldwell, a married man, fatally shot his mistress in a rage after he saw her with a boyfriend, Plogger said.

Frank H. Johnson, the state’s first serial killer, was hanged July 17, 1908. On the eve of his death, he confessed to five murders. Plogger showed a Wheeling Register article about the hanging, under the headline, “Black Friday at the Penitentiary.”

Harry F. Powers, a con man who allegedly murdered 55 women, was hanged in March 1938. Moundsville native Davis Grubb’s 1953 novel, “Night of the Hunter,” and Jayne Anne Phillips’ 2013 novel, “Quiet Dell,” were inspired by Powers’ story.

A triple hanging — of Philip Cannizzaro, Dick Ferry and Nick Salamante, members of the Sicilian “Black Handers” — took place Jan. 4, 1924, the author said. The group acquired its nickname for a habit of dipping victims’ hands in ink, he explained.

Another triple hanging occurred in 1938 for men convicted of kidnapping a minister who later died. Plogger said they were sentenced under a federal law enacted after the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

The youngest man executed was Phillip Eumen, 18, hanged Aug. 20, 1926, for killing a grocery store owner.

Inmate Henry Jackson was hanged Sept. 10, 1926, for stabbing guard Earl Langfitt with a homemade shank in March of that year. Langfitt was the first correctional officer to die in the line of duty, Plogger said.

The only Moundsville native to be executed was Raymond Styres, put to death on May 13, 1938, for killing the wife of a Wheeling casino owner, Plogger said.

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