If all you did was look at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum building without knowing anything about it, your first impression might be that you’re looking at an Ivy League University.
Its “Neo-Gothic” architectural style was prevalent in the day for institutional buildings like schools and hospitals. It could be said that the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s appearance belies its troubled history.
Built the late19th century, it’s situated on over 600 acres. It’s a formidable structure, made of hand-cut stone and is listed on the United States Register of Historic Places. The immense structure was once known as the Weston State Hospital in Weston, West Virginia.
The first impression of a scholarly place of knowledge and learning, or healing and recovery, is deceptive. Some might even say it’s deliberately misleading. Behind a facade of compassion and serenity, supposedly based on rationality and science, was a house of horrors that makes a Rob Zombie movie look like an episode of Ozzie and Harriet.
Was Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Always so Bad?
No, not in the beginning. It didn’t start that way. But remember the saying, “The road to Hades is paved with good intentions.” You can’t find a better example of that than the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
During the 1850s, a movement stirred to reform and improve the treatment of the mentally ill. The movement wanted to change the publics’ perception of those stricken with mental illness.
Leading this movement was a woman named Dorothea Dix. In 1864, she convinced the Virginia General Assembly to commit the princely sum of $125,000 to the construction of an asylum.
This new asylum would be the very embodiment of a new, compassionate treatment for the mentally ill, as espoused by Dr. Kirkbride, another reformer of the time. In fact, buildings in this particular style was named after the doctor. They’re known as Kirkbride Buildings or just Kirbrides. The style was quite popular up until the late 20th century when most of them were abandoned/demolished due to their costly maintenance requirements as well as shifts in psychiatric treatment rationales.
What was so Different about Trans-Alleghany Lunatic Asylum?
For many, many years prior to Trans-Alleghany, the mentally ill were treated like dangerous criminals. They spent their days locked away and were denied basic human needs like food, water, sanitation, or even sunlight. The average farm animal lived better than many of those with a mental health condition in the 1700s or early 1800s.
You might be interested to know that the word “bedlam” was the actual name of an especially notorious English asylum in the early 1800s. The term means a place of utter chaos, degradation, and suffering. Dorothea Dix and Dr. Kirkbride hoped to change this for the better. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was one of the first. They expected it to be one of the most exemplary of this new, more “modern,” philosophy.
Remember, this was 1864!
The Trans-Alleghany hospital developed under several new and “radical” mindsets. These were not mere concepts from a baseless theory. Instead, the actual physical structure of the buildings and the grounds surrounding it reflected these ideas.
The concepts were:
- Patients needed plenty of sunlight. Therefore, the windows were large and numerous.
- Rooms were spacious and comfortable, eliminating overcrowding.
- Patients required quality, nutritious food.
- Patients needed the freedom to move about the grounds as they chose.
- Patients needed an aesthetic, pleasant, non-threatening environment both inside and outside the buildings themselves.
These principals seem basic and obvious to our modern-day sensibilities, but in 1864 these were new and very revolutionary ideas.
In spite of its size, the hospital’s design accommodated only 250 patients. So you can see its designers were not just paying lip service to these concepts.
So What Went so Wrong?
Despite all the new, compassionate, and progressive ideas that went into building the place, the general attitude towards mental illness was still shameful. Sufferers were locked away, hidden and forgotten. They were an embarrassment.
Due to this attitude, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum soon became a dumping ground for “undesirables.” These were people who were not necessarily insane; for the most part, they were merely noisy, slow, hard to handle, odd and different, or merely inconvenient. In fact, many folks were put away for such “afflictions” as
- Imaginary female trouble
- For employing birth control
Notice the sexism! This article by the Daily Mail provides a more complete list of the types of things people were admitted for. That was unfortunate enough, but such a wide door also led to overcrowding and a decline in the quality of care.
The asylum was also big business leading the surrounding area to become economically dependent upon it to an unhealthy degree. Soon, it became a matter of maintaining the cash cow and making sure that no bad news–or anything else that could upset the status quo–ever saw the light of day. This attitude lack of transparency led to abuses.
How the Asylum became Haunted
Soon, patients packed the hospital. As many as five people crowded into rooms meant only for a single occupant. Overwhelmed facilities like the kitchen, gardens, waterworks, and dairy could no longer provide needed food and water. Malnutrition and its attendant problems, diseases, and disorders soon became rampant. There were so many patients that the orderlies could not control them, and they overran the facility.
It was Bedlam all over again.
Out of desperation, the uncontrollable patients wound up locked into cages. The general attitude of the staff deteriorated into “they’re just animals.” Thus, the situation descended even further. It went from mere neglect and inattention to the worst sort of outright abuse and sadism.
Why is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Haunted?
It’s well known that locations where egregious injustices have occurred, tend to be rife with hauntings. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum certainly qualified as one of these places.
Patients murdered other patients, for one thing. In one case, two patients ganged up on another and killed him according to this episode of Portals to Hell. They tied a bedsheet around his neck and raised him off the ground until he passed out, doing this repeatedly. They also used a metal bed frame to crush his head. One man held the victim down and put the bed leg on his skull, while the other man jumped up and down on the bed.
A few weeks later, a nurse was reported missing. Her body was found at the bottom of an unused staircase.
Hydrotherapy, insulin shock therapy, electroshock therapy, lobotomies, and trans-orbital leukotomies were rampant. These are practice, now considered barbaric and tortuous, were commonplace and frequently used arbitrarily. The resulting spiritual and mental turmoil resident in the building would be thick enough to cut with a knife.
Another Source of Trauma
For a while, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was also home to the infamous lobotomy specialist Dr. William Freeman. Freeman was really more of a carnival barker than a doctor. It is rumored he would sometimes perform surgeries dressed in a straw hat and striped shirt.
He went so far as to set up a “lobotomobile” and drove around the country performing the procedure in people’s living rooms. If you’re not familiar with this procedure, realize, it involves driving an instrument through the eye socket and into the brain in order to sever certain connections, “freeing” the patient his obsessions, compulsions, and delusions. All too often, though, it freed patients from their personalities and intelligence, turning them into walking zombies.
He would perform it on anyone deemed “difficult” or “uncontrollable” during the 50s. How this helped somebody is anybody’s guess. Quite a few of these were performed at the asylum, most or all of them were completely unjustified. Fortunately, the medical community now views this practice as barbaric and it’s no longer used.
This now-defunct hospital has been repurposed as an attraction, in order to raise money for its restoration and preservation. It is open to the public for tours and ghost hunting, which you can learn about here.
Some of the ghosts that roam the property include a child who was born in the hospital. She likes to play with visitors through the use of her toys.
Jesse was a long-time patient who now whispers in peoples’ ears. Jane has a habit of going for the neck. Visitors claim to feel strangling sensations and pressure around their necks due to this spirit in Ward B. A patient name Larry was violent in life and continues to be so in death. It is claimed that he enjoys throwing things and is not exactly friendly to visitors, according to Miami Ghost Chronicles, who also list exact locations where the ghostly inhabitants appear.