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Whitegate Cemetery: ‘Rest ye Weary Souls’

By Sherri Brake - | Sep 1, 2020

Oh, Death, Oh, Death

Won’t you spare me over till another year

Well what is this that I can’t see

With ice cold hands takin’ hold of me

Well I am death, none can excel

I’ll open the door to heaven or hell

–Traditional

The West Virginia Penitentiary still stands solemn and foreboding in the town of Moundsville. Inmates who perished from disease, murder, suicide or execution are buried outside of town in a rural area surrounded by trees and a meandering creek. It may seem like a beautiful spot to rest, but darkness surrounded many occupants final hours.

Whitegate Cemetery is located along Tom’s Run, about ¾ of a mile from the main route into Moundsville on Fourth Street and about 4 miles from the prison. It is the final resting place for prisoners, unclaimed by anyone, from the former West Virginia Penitentiary. It’s estimated that around 240 souls are interred on the site. Unknown to many, it is against the law to bury an inmate within the city limits of Moundsville.

The Pen’s Original Cemetery

Along the south side of the penitentiary wall that was intended for a street, a small strip of land was temporarily used as a burial site for the inmates. In 1890, these inmate burials had to be moved because of water issues. Five acres was purchased next to the prison but in 1898, an Act of the Legislature made it mandatory for the Pen Board to provide suitable grounds for a cemetery and these needed to be outside of the city limits. At that time ten acres was purchased approximately ¾ of a mile from the prison on Tom’s Run and north of Moundsville. The cemetery was established in 1898 with its first burial believed to be in 1902. The first burial in the cemetery was probably Wilford Davis in June 1902. Cemetery records are incomplete and sketchy at best.

Whitegate Cemetery was the name given to the new cemetery and it was used when bodies were unclaimed by relatives. Disease caused many men to die before their time. (Communicable diseases such as smallpox, Tuberculosis and the Influenza epidemic of 1917-1918 to name just a few) In the 1920s and 30s, tuberculosis was a common ailment, in fact one of the prison hospital buildings had a ward with a large sun parlor for tuberculosis patients. From the 1930s -50s, almost all of the inmates who died in prison were buried outside Moundsville in Whitegate, whether because of the Great Depression, or lack of insurance. It was the wife of one of the Wardens in the 1950s who took an interest in improving the cemetery, and put up the white gate where the cemetery gets its name.

Fred Morgan, an inmate of the Pen, was shot through the heart by a guard. The guard allegedly shot Morgan in September of 1931 to protect himself and other guards. Morgan was born in Missouri and was a black laborer. He was married, but family did not claim, or were unable to claim the body so he was buried at Whitegate Cemetery.

Causes of death listed in the records varied among inmates of course, and range from illness, to injury and “accident”.

Frank Adkins died in 1969 from a coronary thrombosis.

Henry Aaron of Logan County died of syphilis in 1940.

Donald Abels was shot during an escape. No family claimed him so he lies in Whitegate cemetery.

Moses Adams was accidentally poisoned in 1961. His body was unclaimed as well.

Thomas Austin, inmate #17753 from Monongalia County died in 1949 from liver cancer.

Hugh Banks #30621 from McDowell County died of tubercular peritonitis and is also at Whitegate.

It’s sad to think that these men had no relatives to claim them (or any relatives who wanted to claim them). But at least they weren’t just buried without any compassion…the prisoners maintained a floral fund. Each inmate would donate one cent towards flowers to accompany a body to the cemetery.

The last man to face execution by hanging, Bud Peterson from Logan County, lies in the prison’s cemetery, as his family refused to claim his body. Bud was executed on February 25, 1949 for murdering a woman in Logan County West Virginia. She was tragically killed over a simple poker debt. According to an Associated Press account of the 1949 execution, just before the trap doors of the Wagon Gate dropped open, Peterson said he got good treatment at the prison. He then addressed about ten witnesses who had gathered to watch and said “Look what sin has brought me, you folks should stay on this side with Jesus.” A wise warning, indeed.

The cemetery still stands as a testament to the past history of the West Virginia Pen. I have visited it several times and always feel sadness when I am there. You can’t help but wonder about the men that lie there in the barren field marked only by small metal signs. What crimes did they commit? How did they die? What about the blank markers? Why are they blank? Are these the graves of unknown men who were buried near the walls back in the early days of the Pen? We may never know for sure.

Many who have visited this lonely cemetery have felt an unusual heaviness in the air. Whether it’s just the sadness of the secluded spot or the imprinted paranormal energy, we don’t know. Death has been called the Great Equalizer and it is certainly evident here.

Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tours owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net