Imagine the year is 1885 and your husband has just informed you that he’s leaving you to be with his mistress. If that’s not worse enough, he says he’s having you committed to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia. For what you ask? Desertion by husband of course. You see, at that time and for many years, married women were the property of their husbands just as unmarried women and girls were the property of their fathers. If a husband wanted to be with another woman, he could do so (mind you, it was never the same reverse). Upon entering the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum for our visit, we were given a sheet that listed all of the reasons for admission from its founding in 1864 until 1889-desertion by husband was one of them along with other ludicrous things like “novel reading” and “cold” (the latter I can’t even begin to understand what this was).
In today’s society, mental health is very much a slippery slope; stereotypes abound while treatment and services are often lacking for those who are ill. As bad as the institution of mental health is in modern day times, it was that much worse 100 years ago…and even 50 years ago. Founded in 1864 and operational until 1994, it’s hard to imagine all that happened at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, both good and bad during its 130 year existence.
The hospital was first authorized by the Virginia General Assembly in the early 1850s as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (remember that until the Civil War, West Virginia was simply part of Virginia). After conferring with Thomas Story Kirkbride, then-superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane, a building in the Kirkbride Plan (a system of mental asylum design that Kirkbride had pushed for during the mid-19th century) was designed in the Gothic and Tudor Revival styles. Skilled stonemasons from Germany and Ireland were even brought over to complete it. Its main building is the second largest hand-cut sandstone building in the World (second only to THE Kremlin in Russia).
The hospital actually had a prominent role with the events of the American Civil War (along with lots of twists and turns). Construction of it was interrupted after war broke out in 1861 and following Virginia’s secession from the United States, the government of Virginia demanded the return of the hospital’s unused construction funds for its defense. However, before this could happen, the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry seized the money from a local bank, delivering it to the city of Wheeling, where it was put toward the establishment of the Reorganized Government of Virginia, which sided with the northern states during the war. The Reorganized Government appropriated money to resume construction in 1862; following the admission of West Virginia as a U.S. state in 1863, the hospital was renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. The first patients were admitted in October 1864, but construction continued into 1881. During the war years, both the Northern and Southern armies fought for control of the area.
Like many things, the Kirkbride Plan was noble with its intentions-long rambling wings arranged in a staggered fashion so that each connected wing received sunlight and fresh air which helped in promoting privacy and comfort for patients, extensive grounds where well-behaved patients could be outdoors. Kirkbride believed that this idea of institutionalization was central to effectively treating patients with mental illnesses. The main building was designed to hold 250 people but as the years went on, the asylum became more and more overcrowded along with terrible living conditions for the patients. In the 1950s it housed as many as 2400 patients. On the tour we were shown rooms that while they appeared massive due to them being empty, were told that row after row of beds would be set up here. It wasn’t a room of hospital beds where people were only staying for a short time. Some lived there for decades. Of course the individuals who were housed in rooms such as these were poor, had no money and no connections. So they obviously weren’t “benefiting” from the Kirkbride Plan. A report in a West Virginia newspaper in the 1950s (around the time the hospital was at its worst in terms of overcrowding) noted that ” they found poor sanitation and insufficient furniture, lighting, and heating in much of the complex.” As recent as the 1980s it became known that those patients who could not be controlled were locked in cages.
It was interesting to learn that when plans were first made to construct an asylum, the townspeople of Weston were for it. Although I could have seen some small towns in the 1850s not wanting an asylum steps from where they lived, but for the people of Weston, all they saw were the jobs and financial benefits it would bring. Many asylums were built secluded from society but here at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, the town was right outside. One of the exhibits even stated that inmates often escaped due to staff shortages and would end up at the homes of residents. Residents became so used to this that they would often feed the inmate, call the asylum and wait until someone came to get them. During its entire 130 year of operations, the hospital would serve as the primary economic resource for the town of Weston. Twenty years after its closing, the town has yet to financially recover.
The hospital was intended to be self-sufficient. Our guide explained that everything from a farm, dairy, green-house, waterworks, and cemetery once existed here. All of these operations also gave a chance for some of the inmates to have work and enjoy a sense of normalcy in their lives.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum housed all types of people-men, women, the rich and poor, blacks and whites. Being the South, in 1873, separate rooms for black inmates were completed. It’s sad to think that even in a mental hospital, the institution of segregation was alive and strong. Class and money dictated the treatment and living conditions you had at the asylum. Having money meant you could have your own room. If you were cast off or even worse, a ward of the state, you had no privacy, you had nothing to call your own.
As I mentioned above, if you were a woman and your husband decided to cast you aside, your children would be admitted to the hospital as well. An innocent child (or children) could have their childhood taken away from them merely at a father’s whim if he chose. What was further disturbing was learning that when a male child reached the age of 16, if he was deemed to be mentally fit, he would be allowed to leave the asylum but a female child, she would stay indefinitely since she was after all the “mother’s daughter.” To think of the number of lives that were destroyed by having been sent to a place like this for no legitimate reason was just heart-breaking.
One of the creepiest parts of the tour for me was visiting the Medical Center. It was constructed in the 1930s and made me think of the Hollywood film Shutter Island. None of it has been restored yet, with natural lighting being the only source of light. Our guide told us that patients dreaded coming here more than anything else for many would never leave its doors once they passed through it. Survival rates from surgeries were very low due to things like infections, lack of proper equipment, and highly trained staff. The guide also mentioned that as much as they feared coming here for surgeries, fear of “oral” surgeries was even worse since there back then, there were no numbing aids or sedatives to knock you out. Apparently, patients could be punished by having all of their teeth removed…On a lighter note, there was also a “hair salon” in the medical center since doctors realized that allowing patients to actually feel alive and attractive could aid in their recovery. Hair coloring was not permitted (they were afraid patients would want to alter their appearance to escape) and neither were hair perms (doctors believed that the chemicals could “seep” into the heads of patients).
The hospital was forced to close in 1994 due to changes in the treatment of mental illness and the physical deterioration of the building. It lay vacant for a couple of years, with various plans for it never fully materializing until it was auctioned by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources on August 29, 2007 to Joe Jordan who was the highest bidder. He paid $1.5 million for the 242,000-square-foot building. Our guide told us that the money generated from tours goes towards the renovation of the hospital facilities. Some work has already been completed but much is still to be done.
There’s so much more I could write on a place like the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. But instead of writing more, I encourage you to visit here if you ever have the chance. Too often, the history of mental health is ignored and forgotten here in the United States but not at a place like this. It’s also a wonderful example of your tourist dollars directly helping to restore a one of a kind historical building and contributing to the local economy as well.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
71 Asylum Drive
Weston, West Virginia
Tips for visiting:
-The hospital is only a short distance from the Interstate 79 exit
-It’s open six days a week for its heritage tours (Monday tours are by appointment only). Those offered include 45 and 90 minute tour options. For more information on these click here.
(I did the first floor tour which lasted 45 minutes and was $10 a person. I thought our guide was terrific in both explaining about the history of mental health, the hospital, and key figures associated with it.)
-Paranormal tours are also offered. For information on those, click here.
For the record, there are ghost stories and testimonials in an exhibit area on the first floor, if you still want to read about some reported sightings.