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Joe Taylor's Death at the WV State Penitentiary

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Cell Block at WV State Penitentiary, ca 1912
Source: WV History on View

The West Virginia State Penitentiary is one of the most haunted locations in the Mountain State, if the not the country. With a VERY long history of violence, including deaths from illness, suicide, murder, and execution, it’s no wonder why many of the prison’s former inmates are still sticking around…

There are plenty of ghost stories out there attached to the West Virginia State Penitentiary, and I’ve covered many of them here on Theresa’s Haunted History. However, as part of my dedication to fully covering as much HISTORY as possible on these awesome spooky locations, every once in awhile, I like to share the non-paranormal stuff as well. I like to share the every day atmosphere of what it was like to live and work in these locations. I like to share interesting, and somewhat funny tales. And, I like to share the stories of those who called these places home…their lives and their deaths.

Today, I’ll be sharing the story of Joseph ‘Joe’ Taylor, a middle-aged man from Putnam County who was a known dealer of illegal whiskey, an arsonist, and an all around bad dude. Despite being known in his hometown as a dangerous and hardened man, prison life proved just too much for Joe.

According to the (Point Pleasant) Weekly Register, Joe’s legal woes go back to at least 1896, although I’m guessing he was already known to local law enforcement well before then. But, in November of that year, Joe had been on the lam. Not long before, he had been arrested for moonshining and taken to the Cabell County Jail, where he promptly escaped the next day. Joe had a change of heart, though and wrote a letter to Deputy Marshal D.W. Frampton, saying he wanted to surrender. 

Local papers didn’t record whether or not Joe served any time for that infraction, or any other time before finally REALLY crossing the line in May of 1905.

Joe was still heavily involved in his bootleg whiskey business and living in Putnam County, WV. But, he had beef with another local family. William Larck/Lark/Larick and his wife, Alice lived about 4 miles from Winfield and were staunch members of the temperance movement. Early in May 1905, a member of the Larck family swore out a warrant for Joe Taylor for the illegal sale of whiskey. Deputy Sheriff C.A. Howell went to arrest Joe, but didn’t actually take him into custody that evening, as Joe promised to appear before court on his own. Instead of showing up for court, however, several days later Joe showed up at the Larck family home.

In the early hours of May 25th, around 2am, seven shots were fired into the Larck home, where William and Alice lived with their 3-5 children (the number varies according to article). After the seven shots were fired into the home, an incendiary device was launched into the home, setting it ablaze. The family fled the burning home only to meet MORE gunfire. Mrs. Larck (one report says Mr. Larck, instead) was shot in the foot as she fled. Nearby neighbors, seeing the fire, started to arrive to help, and some of them swore they saw Joe running from the scene.

Joe couldn’t be found, so bloodhounds were brought in, and the next morning he was found hiding in the loft/garrette of his own home. He was taken into custody, but talk of a lynching led authorities to take him to the jail in Charleston for his own safety. 

When Joe’s trial finally concluded in August, it didn’t end in Joe’s favor. During the course of the trial, it came out that Joe had tried to bribe anyone and everyone he could. He tried to bribe Detective H.C. Smith to let him escape while held in Charleston. He tried to bribe Detective T.G. Cochran with $3000 to let him escape during his transport back to Winfield for trial. He also tried to bribe two ‘friends,’ Vess Burdette and Jerry Keen to say that they were with him on the night of May 24th. Vess and Jerry actually did show up to court to testify (they were promised $1000 each) but they got scared and left when they saw how upset everyone was over the attempted assassination of the Larck family and the act of arson that left them with their home completely destroyed.

Two people who DID testify on Joe’s behalf were his aunt and his mother, who both claimed that he was home all night with them in the house they shared. As an added historical bonus, I did find a Taylor family living in the area on the 1880 census. 12 year old Joseph Taylor was living with his 80 year old grandmother, Frances Taylor, and her two daughters, Jennette and Leelie. It doesn’t mention who Joseph’s mother is, but I find it interesting they all have the same last name. It does sound like Joseph was borne to an unwed mother, who raised him with the help of his grandmother and aunt.

Anyway, their testimony did little to save him. After only 10 minutes of deliberation, the jury found him guilty on the charges of arson and attempted murder. Judge E.S. Doolittle sentenced him to a life sentence of hard labor at the West Virginia State Penitentiary in Moundsville. 

For awhile, it seemed like Joe had come to terms with his plight. He had a job with the Joseph Klees & Sons Pants Factory, who contracted out prison labor for the price of 62 cents per inmate per day. It was said Joe was a hard-worker, but that he was difficult to get along with. Still, he was in good health and otherwise seemed as okay as one who was to spend the rest of his life in prison could be.

Until the night of February 11th, 1906.

At 2 am (there’s a pattern here) Guard Maysfield was making his usual rounds throughout the cell block and found the approximately 36 year old Joe dead in his cell. Joe had taken his muffler, tied one end around his neck and the other to some wires in the ceiling, and lifted his feet up until he lost consciousness. Taylor had only been there 6-7 months. His family was notified of the death, but as of the last newspaper article available, no one had come forth to claim his body and he was presumably buried in the prison’s cemetery. 

Thus ended the tragic tale of Joe Taylor. He was just one of many men who found themselves in a similar mental state of not being able to cope with the looming idea of a life in the WV State Pen. 

*Want MORE WV Penitentiary stories from Theresa? WV State Penitentiary Page*


1880 US Census (Family Search)

The Weekly Register. 18 November 1896

The Fairmont West Virginian. 26 May 1905

The Weekly Register. 31 May 1905

Hinton Daily News. 21 August 1905

The Fairmont West Virginian. 21 August 1905

The Independent Herald. 15 February 1906

The Fairmont West Virginian. 30 April 1909

The Weekly Register. 23 August 1905


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