When prison guards at the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville opened the doors to two cells one afternoon in 1992, Russell "Rusty" Lassiter rushed out of his cell with a shank and attacked William "Red" Snyder in a cell not 10 feet away. Before a guard drew his gun and ordered Lassiter to stop, he had stabbed Snyder 37 times.
"That was a nasty stabbing," former guard Maggie Grey says. "But that was nothing."
Before it was closed by court order in March 1995, the West Virginia Penitentiary, which opened in 1876, saw the deaths of 995 inmates -- at least 36 of which were homicides -- and three guards.
Now, the Moundsville Economic Development Council is using the prison's infamy to attract tourists.
Soon after inmates were removed from the prison, the council obtained a 25-year lease for the building and reopened it to the public six days a week from April through November with guided tours.
But the tours are not for the timid. Guides, some of whom worked at the prison as corrections officers, supplement the 90-minute walk around the prison with stories of shanked snitches, drugs, prison gangs and riots -- of which there were four.
"There's not many places around here where something didn't happen," says Donna Richards, a tour guide.
While tour guides fill in the details, the prison itself offers colorful narration.
The Gothic sandstone structure was, itself, a form of punishment. Starting in 1866, about 150 prisoners worked in rock quarries to extract and hand cut the stone that, 10 years later, would cut them off from the outside world.
"They built their own prison," Richards says.
The facade and original entrance that loom over Franklin Street, just a few blocks south of Moundsville's business and cultural district, might, at first glance, appear more fitting on the campus of an old university. But the turrets and the high walls betray the structure's true purpose.
The inmates did a good job of sealing themselves in, Richards says. The walls aren't merely tall; they also extend six feet below the ground to deter escape artists from tunneling out.
That worked until 1992, when three inmates who worked in a greenhouse dug their way out during the course of a couple of months.
"They worked in shifts," says Joe Frey, who worked as a guard at the prison for six years and now works as a tour guide on weekends. "While two of them were working in the greenhouse, a third would be down in the tunnel."
It was no ordinary tunnel. The group of inmates, which included an electrician and a coal miner, wired the four-foot-high tunnel with lighting and placed wooden planks along the walls for support.
The three escaped unnoticed, but all eventually were caught.
"Some of these guys were so smart, you wondered why they were in here," Frey says.
While some inmates tried to escape, others spent their days making the prison more habitable by covering some of the walls with paintings and murals -- some more intricate than others.
A favorite artist of the guards was Billy Foster, an inmate who first entered the penitentiary around 1960 at the age of 18 and, during the course of three different sentences, spent 28 years within its walls.
One of Foster's works, "Blackwater Falls," greets visitors in one of the front hallways of the prison. The large painting smoothly captures the amber waters of the Blackwater River as it tumbles down a set of falls.
Foster also did pen-and-ink drawings and oil paintings on canvas, many of which he gave to guards. Grey has an original drawing of an old mill, and Frey has drawings of coal miners at work.
The intricate nature of Foster's paintings contrasts almost humorously with some of the other murals in the prison, such as the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and unicorns that cover the walls of the visitation area.
As the day tour winds through different parts of the first floor of the prison, visitors see wildlife scenes in the cafeteria and hallways, cartoon characters in the visitation area and depictions of the prison's mascot, the cougar, on walls in the basement and the floor of the gymnasium.
If the walls and tunnels reveal some of the inmates' creativity, the small and foul cells speak of overcrowding and infestation. In 1982, a West Virginia judge ruled the conditions of the prison, particularly the 5-by-7 cells, constituted cruel and unusual punishment. It would be several years and more legal proceedings before the prison eventually was closed. The prisoners were moved to facilities throughout the state.
"The living conditions were intolerable," says Arthur Recht, the West Virginia circuit court judge who issued a ruling that the prison be closed.
After hearing inmate testimony describing deplorable living conditions, Recht took a tour of the prison.
"There wasn't one redeeming feature about the place," he says. "It turned your stomach."
Recht described seeing loose, live electrical wires hanging in the inmates' cells, and complete squalor in the cell blocks and kitchen. He also says that as the prison's fate was being decided, inmates would send him roaches wrapped in cellophane -- little extras from their mashed potatoes.
"Every aspect of the conditions of confinement (at the prison) violated the conditions of confinement in the Eight Amendment," Recht says.
The cells look small from the outside, but when the tour guide closes the doors with a few tourists inside, the clank of the bars hitting the wall makes the space shrink considerably. When standing in the cell, there barely is enough room between the edge of the bunks and the wall for a person to stand and face the door.
Then the guides will talk about the overcrowding from the 1920s to the 1960s, when it was three men to a cell with one man sleeping on a mattress on the floor.
The peeling paint, wall markings and places where inmates carved pieces of steel from their beds and cell doors to make shanks illustrate the desperate reality of life in the penitentiary as the tour winds through two of the largest cell blocks.
In addition to the cramped cells, former guards say vermin had taken over the prison -- and they aren't talking about the inmates.
"I saw a rat like this in the kitchen," says Joe Frey, spreading his hands as thought he were describing a trophy fish.
To Grey and Frey, the conditions of the prison were as hard as the people it housed.
"It was freezing cold in the wintertime and steaming hot in the summer," Grey says.
Frey says that in the upper tiers of the cell blocks, temperatures would reach 120 degrees in the summer, and the inmates were given blocks of ice to place in front of fans. The stories told by tour guides also give an average person a peak into the hot and cold relationships between the inmates and the guards.
Red Snyder, who, before his brutal murder in 1992, was serving a life sentence for killing his father, was both liked and feared by prison staff.
"He was just funny," Grey says. "He'd talk to me about 'Days of Our Lives' as if those people lived just next door."
"But if he told you he was going to kill you," she says, "that's exactly what he meant."
Snyder was housed in the North Hall cell block, an area for misfits and particularly violent inmates. Because of the brutal nature of life in North Hall, it became known as "The Alamo" among prisoners and staff.
"We had to wear flak jackets and riot helmets and take shields with us just to feed (the inmates)," Grey says. "That's how nasty they were."
During the prison's 120 years of operation, two guards were killed by inmates.
That number almost grew on New Year's Day 1986, when inmates rioted in the cafeteria and took control of the penitentiary, an event that put the inmates and the poor conditions of the prison into the national spotlight.
During the course of three days, the inmates used 16 hostages to negotiate for better living conditions. A top priority was a new cafeteria, which was built a year-and-a-half later -- with automatic tear gas dispensers in the event of another riot.
The gas canisters hanging from the ceiling serve as a reminder to tourists that although the prison is empty, it once housed some of society's most violent men.
If the penitentiary seems formidable during the day, its appearance at night is simply frightening.
The day tours take people through the majority of the first floor of the prison as well as the yard. But the night and ghost-hunting tours bring the brave -- and those willing to pay more -- to the second floor to pass through the prison medical facility and psychiatric ward, then to the basement to see where inmates shot pool and snitches met brutal deaths.
The ghost-hunting and flashlight tours start late in the evening, and after the guided tours, visitors are allowed to roam freely and explore the dark, dank spaces.
The number of deaths in the prison makes it not only a place of physical horrors, but of spiritual ones, as well, many claim.
"It's haunted," Frey says. "I can guarantee that."
Ghost stories abound at the penitentiary, and the people who work there will tell plenty, some more believable than others. But it's certain that walking through the prison alone at night with just a flashlight is enough to frighten even the most daring thrill seekers.
The night tours and ghost hunts are popular and fill up quickly. Tour coordinator Pat Kleinedler says an estimated 30,000 people tour the penitentiary annually, with between 10,000 and 15,000 of those going to the haunted house at the prison every October.
"It's drawing a lot of people," says Charlie Barger, a spokesman for the Moundsville Chamber of Commerce.
When the prison closed in 1995, officials in Moundsville worried about a downturn in the local economy. Some guards found jobs at other correctional facilities, and Barger says the prison tours have kept Moundsville vibrant.
"We've seen a lot of new businesses join (the chamber), and they're all within a mile or so of the prison," he says.
Barger also says other local attractions, such as Indian burial mounds and a glass museum, have benefited from the penitentiary.
The penitentiary itself has a museum where all of the tours end. Visitors get a close look at the electric chair, "Old Sparky," which was used in nine executions, as well as a variety of shanks, tattoo guns and other devices inmates crafted from materials in their cells.
Perhaps the most interesting artifact in the museum is a handwritten letter from Charles Manson asking to be transferred from a prison in California to West Virginia to be close to the area where he spent his childhood.
"I think the warden responded, 'Dear Charlie: When hell freezes over,' " tour guide Donna Richards says.
The prison tours offer an interesting glimpse of the prison's history. The guides' narration combined with rusting cell doors, inmates' paintings and the lightless space of solitary confinement make for a remarkable tour.
One can't help but wonder whether Manson would have been so eager to go there after seeing the place for himself.