To Adam and me, raw, rainy, late October days are good for two things: curling up under a cozy blanket to watch movies and visiting the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. If there was ever a month designed for the exploration of the old, the disturbing, and the downright unnerving, October is it, and if there was ever a place that embodied those same characteristics it would be the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Nestled in the tiny town of Weston, West Virginia, the former hospital tells an incredible story about the history of mental illness in the United States. To learn more, Adam and I traded our couch for coats and decided movie day could wait for another weekend.
Our visit coincided with the Halloween season, a perfect time to immerse yourself in spooky tales—but certainly not the only time. The asylum, later renamed the Weston State Hospital, offers tours throughout much of the year, and whether you hear them in the chill of autumn or warmth of summer their importance remains the same. Operating from 1864 until 1994, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers a glimpse of how one building sought to aid efforts to improve the lives of the mentally ill.
It also just might be haunted.
Bright Beginnings at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic AsylumThe Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum opened its doors in 1864, just after West Virginia achieved statehood and just before the end of the Civil War, but construction continued for almost two decades more until the building was complete. On the outside, the Gothic and Tudor Revival architecture looks ominous and foreboding, but its early days were quite the opposite. The hospital was built according to the Kirkbride Plan, a design plan created by psychiatrist Thomas Kirkbride that incorporated light, fresh air, and nature into the building. Doorways were carefully positioned so that, when opened, sunlight would flood them. Open spaces for patients to gather to socialize and eat were plentiful, and even the grounds were landscaped in such a way that patients looking out windows would see only rolling hills and openness—nothing that would suggest their hospital was also surrounded by gates to keep them locked inside.
Art therapy and performances were part of the hospital’s culture, and some patients reflected fondly on their experiences.
Kirkbride believed in physical activity as a form of patient therapy, and patients were afforded privacy, comfort, and dignity. In fact, the enormous building was initially designed to house no more than 250 people at a time. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum contained its own farm and dairy, and fresh, nutritious food was available for all patients. As we listened to our guide, Hayley, describe how the asylum operated in its earliest days, I found myself surprised to envision a calm, nurturing environment supportive of the people entrusted to its care.
But life at the asylum didn’t stay that way for long.
Overcrowding at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Although the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was built for 250 patients, it wasn’t long before those numbers crept up, with multiple beds crammed into rooms that were once cozy but quickly became crowded. As more and more people were admitted, the staff took incredible actions to house patients. In the 1950s, when the population swelled to 2,600 patients, bed sharing measures were implemented and effectively allowed people eight hours of rest before their beds were given to someone else.Overcrowding was, in part, due to the incredible variety of reasons people were admitted; while plenty of people suffered from mental illness, not everyone arrived for those reasons. Hayley listed some of the surprising notes found in patient records: some were medical, such as asthma, rabies, and tuberculosis, which certainly aren’t mental illnesses. Others were stranger still: wives who were insubordinate to their husbands, indigestion, doubting one’s ancestry, political and religious excitement, and being kicked in the head by a horse were also on the list. Hayley smirked a bit as she watched our group ponder the multitude of reasons people wound up at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. “If you think about it, almost everyone would probably be admitted these days,” she said, and she’s right: who hasn’t had a stomachache, a fight with a spouse, or been upset about today’s political climate? I found myself gazing into the rooms more observantly after that, thinking about which room I might have preferred for my own.
A man could admit his wife for any reason, and if he decided to never bring her home—if, say, he started a new relationship—she remained as a ward of the state. Children often accompanied their mothers, and some children were born within the hospital’s walls and were raised there. Other children were dropped off in front of the hospital as orphans. A big part of the hospital’s history was written by people who should never have been there in the first place.
Medical Treatments at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Kirkbride’s belief that those who suffered from mental illness should be holistically cared for did not govern the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum long enough. Controversial therapies, medications, and treatments altered the lives of patients—and not always in a productive manner. Chlorpromazine, also known as Thorazine, was introduced to treat psychotic disorders, but it was widely prescribed and often used to keep patients in a catatonic state. Similarly, laudanum—an opiate most commonly used to treat pain—was regularly provided to patients. Looking through the apothecary at the asylum provided a fascinating peak into the role medication played for patients. Insulin shock therapy—which placed patients in comas—and electroconvulsive therapy—or shock treatment—were also employed by the staff.
Of the medical treatments used at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, lobotomies intrigued our group the most. Lobotomies were regularly used to treat mental disorders because they interrupted the neural connections in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, which ultimately stole the patient’s personality and left them without affect. Patients at the asylum underwent transorbital lobotomies, crudely known as icepick lobotomies, which involved the insertion of an icepick-like instrument into the eye socket until it connected with brain tissue. Dr. Walter Freeman popularized the procedure and brought it to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, where he conducted lobotomies for 25 USD per patient and encouraged crowds to watch as if it were a theatrical presentation. Almost all patients who underwent the procedure were completely altered, often unable to provide even basic self-care, and many died during the lobotomy. Lobotomies were horrific, brutal, and all too frequently ended or irreversibly changed lives.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum: Stories of Severity
As the asylum declined, hundreds of patients suffered at the hands of overworked staff in an overcrowded building. Plenty of patients suffered at each other’s hands, too.In a room toward the back of one wing, Hayley pointed toward the ceiling as she told us about an inmate who was murdered by two others. When an attempt to hang him failed, the men placed his head under a bedframe and jumped on it until the bedframe touched the floor. Other patients were also murdered by their peers, aggravated by situations where mental illness, overcrowding, and poor care became a lethal combination.
Asylum staff were empowered to send patients to isolation if the patients were uncontrollable—and even if they weren’t—and some patients were kept in solitary confinement for days or even weeks at a time. Isolation was so detestable that one inmate in particular—a former boxer who suffered from injuries that rendered him emotionless and occasionally violent—attempted to beat down the metal door that closed behind him when he was placed in a solitary cell. He ripped one door off its hinges and left visible dents in the other door. When the door was opened, he handed the door he destroyed to the nurse and calmly returned to his room.
Death at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
While some people eventually left the asylum under their own power, many died there. The staff notified next of kin when a patient passed away, and in many cases, families did not return to identify or take the bodies for burial. Patients who were not claimed by their families were assigned a number, buried in the cemetery, and issued a simple gravestone reflecting only their identification number. Over time, many of the gravestones were removed and even repurposed; today there is virtually no way to identify the bodies buried at the asylum. Patients were always buried; they were never cremated.
Is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Haunted?
In a building brimming with stories of torture, neglect, and desperation, it’s no wonder tales of ghosts running amok are part of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s rich tapestry. While the hospital offers overnight paranormal tours that provide the best chance a visitor can have for encountering a ghost, you don’t need to visit after dark to feel like a spirit might be right in front of you.A few ghosts are known to the staff, including Lily, a playful child believed to have spent her entire life at the hospital. She is known for her laughter and interest in playing games, and some reports of balls rolling on their own near her room suggest she is an active part of the asylum community. Dean, the patient who met his unfortunate demise at the wrong end of the bedframe, has been known to spend time in the room where he died.
If ghost hunting is your idea of a good time, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is a likely place to encounter spirits who haven’t quite moved on yet. Our daytime visit didn’t connect us to any ghosts, but standing alone in deserted hallways, staring into rooms decorated with peeling paint and rusted furniture, certainly set the tone for a paranormal encounter. Guides and visitors say ghosts have revealed themselves in a number of ways, including slamming doors, screaming, and appearing as lights or orbs, so stay aware for strange or unexplained sights and noises—or, at the very least, don’t be surprised if some of these elements work their way into your trip.
Hotels Near the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
If you are planning a trip to visit West Virginia’s haunted hospital for yourself, there are a few options in and around Weston. Here are a few deals to consider.
Visit the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offered the perfect late-October experience for us: haunting stories combined with striking visuals to transport us through the hospital’s long, complicated history. It was a tour marked by contrasts; there are many elements of the asylum that seem to oppose one another. Soft pastel hues color the walls of rooms that were once crammed with as many beds as could fit. The light and openness built into the architectural design is juxtaposed with questionable therapies and procedures that tormented those the building was supposed to support. To learn the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s history and process it creates a cacophony of emotion. It was built with positive intent. It treated thousands. It was overused, and it was misused. The individual stories of those who lived and worked there give voice to the building itself.
In the end, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is the story of the people who lived and worked there. The hospital closed its doors in 1994, when its fall into disrepair and advancements in mental illness treatment rendered it outdated. Today, its doors open to educate and continue the conversation about mental health. All admission fees are used to support their ongoing renovation efforts as they restore the building to its former glory. It’s a terrific way to spend a cold, dreary October afternoon.
And don’t be surprised if you feel a chill during your visit. You never know who—or what—might be just over your shoulder.
More Information: Trans-AlleghenyLunaticAsylum.com
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* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. This post includes our candid review of our experiences at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. We selected this location based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.