Past Unraveled At Moundsville Penitentiary! Were The Inmates’ Final Words Really The Truth?

Susan Fleshman

West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville, WV. (Rhonda Humphreys)

“Why did they close?”, “Why all of a sudden?” “What happened?”. These are questions people have had for years since the closing of Moundsville penitentiary in 1995. But what lies behind the answers of these questions is a horrifying truth and past of things no one intended to be let out. But after the public pushing and pushing for answers some form of the truth was finally revealed.. 


Moundsville Penitentiary was officially opened in 1876, but the construction started in 1867, the whole prison was built by inmates from a different prison but was to be transferred to Moundsville right after completion. It cost them $363,061 to build the Penitentiary start to finish. 


But once the building was finished the prisoners started flowing in like a tsunami. But as the years settled, executions started happening, there was no new anymore, everyone knew the drill. Most people, when they are facing death in the future depending on their religion, wanted to get saved, wanted to “make their peace with God” and some are just bitter about dying. But most inmates when they get asked by the warden if they have any final words, their last words most of the time are a “I’m going home.” “Lord have mercy on my soul.” And some just want to proclaim their innocence one last time. No matter what it is, I have carefully chosen 3 inmates from the book “ Pronounced Dead” By C.J. Plogger that tells the stories, backgrounds, crimes, and deaths of the inmates who were executed in Moundsville penitentiary. These inmates have the most interesting last words in my opinion. Now according to “Pronounced Dead”….


  •  Omer Brill Inmate, No. 23526– Omer Brill is a white male who was born on May 9, 1912, in Moorefield. Omer was convicted of killing a 53 year old woman and her 17 year old daughter, during a robbery with his friend Charles Anderson they ended up with 66 cents from the robbery. Omer denied that he killed the women and that his gun was taken by Anderson who then shot the women, he stated that he was a witness to the murders, but not the perpetrator, but eventually confessed after being brutally beaten by police and to protect his long life friend. Omer was sentenced to death row at Moundsville Penitentiary on June 30, 1933. Omer waited 1 month and 11 days. On the day of his execution (August 10, 1933) there were 28 witnesses including the woman’s close friend Jean Fisher. Omer stepped onto the gallows and at 8:59 p.m. the door sprung and he fell, 15 minutes later he was pronounced dead. His last words were “I am absolutely innocent. I never killed anyone.” 


  •  Leo Fraser, Inmate No. 23360- Leo Fraser was a white male who was convicted of shooting a Kanawha County Deputy named Roy Shamblin and a inmate Roy Harper. Leo and his friends Charles Harper, and Henry Cano. Had made plans to ambush the deputy to stop him from transporting Charles Harper’s brother Ralph Harper who was 19 years old who was on his way to serve a 25 year sentence for robbing a shoe store. Leo was sentenced to death row on August 19, 1933. The day of his execution he declared he was innocent, Leo’s side of the story was that the 3 men ambushed the car and all opened fire. He said he had no part in the death of deputy Shamblin and Ralph. He said that once everything slowed, Ralph, who was still handcuffed, tried to overpower Shamblin, but Shamblin grabbed his gun, pointed it backwards and shot Ralph in the heart, killing him. Then Cano walked up to the driver’s side window, put his gun into the window and shot Shamblin in the face at close range. Leo said that the only reason he pled guilty to the murders was to save Charles Harper and Henry Cano from hanging. Charles and Henry ended up with life sentences. At 8:57; p.m. on November 24th, 1933 Leo Fraser stepped onto the gallows and 11 and a half minutes later was pronounced dead. His last meal was “Fried oysters, Steak, Potatoes, and Cake.” And his last words were to the warden about his statement. “My last statement to you was the truth warden.” 


  •  Robert Branch Inmate No. 25496- Robert Branch was a Black Male who was a wanderer throughout wheeling at the time, he had a temporary job as a coal mine. Robert had been known to be an alcoholic and loved drinking, on February 18, 1935 Robert and his friends Fletcher Smith and Brady Hill, were wandering aimlessly beside a market street. Out of nowhere Robert slashed Hill to death with a jagged edge of a broken bottle. But Robert could not remember the murder. He stated “I couldn’t say I killed  a man, I couldn’t say I didn’t”. But either way the man was full of bad luck, Roberts unlucky number was 19. He was arrested on February 19th, a month later, on March 19 he was sentenced to death by a judge to the gallows on July 19th. Robert waited 4 months till his death date then at 8:56 p.m. Robert was put on the gallows and 8 minutes later he was dead. His last meal was “Chicken, Potatoes, Bread, Coconut Pie, and Ice Cream.” Along with his last words, “Well sir, gentlemen, look me straight in the eye. I’m ready to go. I killed Brady Hill. I’m ready to stand up like a man and pay for my crime. I’m ready. Let ‘er go.” 


At the end of the day the person who knows the truth is the convicted and the victims. Not the judge, not the guards, not the witnesses. Just those 2. So we can’t help but wonder whether or not the inmates were telling the truth. How believable does it sound to you? We all think differently about things, even things like this. But our thoughts and opinions don’t matter. The only thing that matters is the truth. And like I said the only people that know the truth are the convicted, dead and the murdered. But I ask you… How much truth do you think was behind those final words?  


C.J. Plogger wrote a book titled “Pronounced Dead” The book was written in dedication to 4 correctional officers who died in the line of duty. I will give the same acknowledgment. 


  •  Correctional Officer Earl Langfitt- Died March 11, 1926, he was killed by inmate Henry Jackson, who was eventually executed for the crime on September 10, 1926. 


  • Correctional Officer A.H. Evans-Died June 10, 1927, suffered a stroke by the wheel entrance.


  • Correctional Officer Philip Ketchum- Died December 4, 1941, He was killed while transporting inmates, and was shot by an inmate in an attempted escape.  


  • Correctional Officer William Quilliams-died October 5, 1972, He was killed by inmate Bobby Jean Jarvis.