People forget, today, that once, the streets of the nation weren’t full of “homeless,” babbling nonsense in their disconnection from reality, until they finally do something violent enough to get whacked or locked up by the cops. Those people, who have been with us since time out of mind, were once housed in asylums. But thanks to the ruinous 1960s/70s policy of “deinstitutionalization,” they were cut loose to fend for themselves in the streets. It wasn’t supposed to be that way: closing the booby hatches, which had come to be thought of as decrepit and brutal warehouses for mentally weak and helpless human beings, was supposed to usher in a new age of peace, love and brotherhood.
Well, the curtain of peace, love and brotherhood is always descending on us, but generally seems to land jackboots-first. In the case of the mentally ill, those valiant warriors of the Atheist Criminal Lovers Union have gone to court to make sure that the mentally ill can live in conditions that would be felony cruelty and neglect, if inflicted on a dog or a cat.
If people today have forgotten (or not learned) the lessons of deinstitutionalization, no less did the authors of deinstitutionalization forget (or never learned) the lessons of the asylum builders. The asylums were not built, as the deinstitutionalizers’ heirs have written in kids’ textbooks, by cruel monsters in black hats. They were, like early prisons, the product of well-meaning reformers, who found the mentally ill suffering in public all across the land (rather like they are today). The most famous of these reformers was Dorothea Dix, an heiress who probably struggled with mental illness herself, but was financially insulated from the consequences, unlike most middle or working class people. Dix advocated for hospitals for the mentally ill, and for humane treatment of their inmates, radical ideas in the early 19th Century. Dix’s philosophy was given physical form by a Philadelphia psychologist — then a new and much disputed profession — turned architect, Thomas S. Kirkbride. Kirkbride believed that the mentally ill could be helped by light and airy buildings, and in his 1854 On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane, he conceived hospitals with wings that were echeloned back as they extended further from a central administrative core, so as to ensure the constant availability of daylight and fresh air in all rooms.
And here before you, is the largest surviving mental hospital built to the Kirkbride Plan, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia. The Kirkbride plan was to uplift, help, and cure the mentally ill explicitly by institutionalization, as Dix promoted; Kirkbride extended her argument to propose that if the building was right, and the grounds were well-designed and -groomed, they would help ease the mentally ill back to health. While it was a plausible argument in 1854, fifty years of pursuing it at a national level proved it didn’t work. (We know more about mental illness today — but certainly not enough to cure it).
Other once-common treatments, like the prefrontal lobotomy, have been found to be something other than the cure-alls they were claimed to be. The intent may not have been cruel, but could the result be anything but?
By the late 20th Century, the Government interests which had initially neglected the mentally ill, and then institutionalized them “for their own good,” no longer defined Government’s duty as taking care of the few most helpless; its priority now was on bestowing the greatest variety of benefits on as many as possible, and the vast resources embedded in Kirkbride Plan institutions such as this asylum, for the benefit of only a few inmates, could not be justified. And with the growth of populations, even this massive building, the second largest cut-stone building on the planet (the largest is the Kremlin), was overcrowded by over ten times. Designed for 240 inmates, it held 2,600 at its peak, in conditions which rivaled the bestiality that had produced Dix’s call for reforms in the first place.
A couple of online sources say 2,600, but during OTR’s recent tour, they told him, “The facility was designed to hold 250 patients and held over 4,000 patients at one time.”
Many of the patients were restrained — and only the worker who put you in restraints was authorized to release you, so if you went in on a Friday, you were probably bound up until Monday. If people didn’t come in insane, wouldn’t they go that way?
Along with straitjackets, there were five-point restraints, and wall points to which a lunatic might be chained.
This is the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, construction of which began before the ink was dry on Kirkbride’s 1854 volume (and which continued, after resolving a dispute about funding, after WV broke from VA at the outbreak of the Civil War. As the Historian for the site wrote in his book Lunatic: The Rise and Fall of an American Asylum (available at the onsite giftshop for less than at Amazon), “This Gothic structure was the end of the line for West Virginia’s insane for 130 years.”
If that seems cruel, consider today’s end of the line for the insane: a cardboard box in a traffic island, a sleeping bag under a bridge, or the point of a policeman’s bullet.
Of the surviving Kirkbride Plan mental hospitals, Trans-Allegheny is unusual in three things: it is being maintained, not allowed to decay; it holds several kinds of tours, including straightforward historical tours and spooky night “ghost” tours; and it is in private hands, away from the neglect of government ownership. Recently Our Traveling Reporter traveled to the site and took the non-ghost tour. (We’re thinking that an obsession with the “paranormal” is a marker for someone whose presence at a lunatic asylum should not be constrained to a mere visit. There may be reasons to lock up OTR, but a lack of sense is not one of them).
Some things change over time, but some do not. Here is the grounds plan from its early years:
Did you see the segregated “colored patients” area? No surprise, in the West Virginia that gave us Exalted Octopus Robert Byrd. Here’s a period (late-19th-Century) shot of the “Colored Annex,” probably from the clock-tower spire of the administration core:
What do you think this had become by 1989, shortly before closing? (The functional map is of 2nd floor offices as of 1989).
Yep. The veterans’ unit. Note also the improvement in illustration standards over the century plus between the two sketches.
For more of Our Traveling Reporter’s photos and captions, hit “more” after the FMI links below
For More Information
- Official website of the Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
- Gift Shop of the Asylum
- Wikipedia Page
- Asylum Projects Page
- Historical Photo Gallery of the Asylum
OTR learned a lot from the tour, and came away with an abiding gratitude for the gift of sanity.
Dr Freeman was not a licensed physician. He was licensed for medical research. But he was intent on performing the procedure he saw as a cure for mental illness: full craniotomy lobotomy. He could not get licensed as a neurologist. He got together with another doctor, and did 17. Then he presented his research.
He went to a board (aka a “doctor dinner”) and they were outraged. He went to the media and got support for his radical new therapy, and was licensed. Then it was off to the races! He did 238 lobotomies in a 30 day period.
Freeman reinvented the procedure and used his wife’s ice pick. He used no pain medicine and did not clean his hands. 30% of his surgical patients died due to infection.
Recovery time was ostensibly 25 to 30 minutes. In reality, that recovery room illustrated above is where the clearly botched ones came to die. Why? Because the lobotomy area is 2 buildings away and the would not wheel the patient here for a short time.
Next to the lobotomy ward is one with an even more chilling story:
Why was there an infant ward in a laughing academy? Because the dominant theory of the age was that insanity was produced by inbreeding or otherwise heritable, it was assumed any baby born to an inmate mother would be insane, also. “If you were born to a patient you lived your life here.”
They estimate that over 100,000 people died here. They’re pretty sure it’s an underestimate.
They could not transport the insane in passenger cars. They came naked by train in cattle cars. The townspeople would line up to watch.
When people finally complained they put patients in burlap sacks for transport.
Next stop here, the admissions area:
Main (male) admissions area:
Female admissions area:
The colors were supposed to help. It turns out they didn’t. Long term exposure to these pinks and greens caused aggression.
There was actually a doctors’ quarters on site. It wasn’t quite as spartan as the inmates’ spaces, and it has been restored to its former glory.
Hey, the physicians had standards to uphold. The next picture was shot at 90º from the one above. (The fire extinguishers should help you orient yourself).
When they go to restore the Colored Wards, they’re probably not going to look like this, don’t you think?
Along with the routine deaths of inmates due to natural causes, and the butcher’s bill for botched lobotomies, there were some real tragedies here. At this place, one inmate demanded a sexual favor (unspecified) from another. The propositioned inmate declined the honor. The rebuffed suitor drew a knife…
… and stabbed him 17 times with a butter knife. (That’s a pretty emphatic “no.”) Ghost buffs insist that the asylum is haunted by both “Frank” and “Larry,” and that the two ghosts have reconciled and are buddies now. Part of the tour is an attempt to call their spirits up using flashlights.
OTR did not report personally sighting either shade, and no one called 911 to report the shooting of a paranormal apparition.
A different kind of tragedy is embodied in the Children’s Ward. Shorn of its personnel and equipment, it doesn’t look much different from the adult wings of the warehouse. These children would include mentally ill children, but also the neurotypical children of inmate mothers, some of whom lived their entire lives locked inside these bleak walls.
Along with the inmates, a variety of personnel came to the asylum to work daily. Along with the doctors, nurses, and matron on daily duty, there were night watch and night matrons on duty around the clock. Their are plaques explaining the duties of each of these specialized workers, as described in the asylum’s 1882 regulations.
And an interesting display of staff gowns and clothing.
Wheelchairs were not the ultralight, space-age and durable folding contraptions that have given some disabled people unprecedent access to daily life today.
They were heavy machines of wood, iron and wicker. Some of the mentally ill were also physically disabled by disease (remember polio was epidemic until the discovery of vaccines in the 1950s), or as a consequence of Dr Freeman’s crude lobotomies.
In the Hotel Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave. Those inmates who weren’t claimed by their families on demise were buried on the grounds, in cemeteries with rough stone markers. The numbers on the markers were presumably tabulated with the late patients’ names in a book or books that have long since been lost. And over the years, the cemeteries, too, became lost. This display reflects these bleak, lost graveyards.
The story resting on a stone in the second row:
The grave stones below are original to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
It is rumored that state maintenance workers or patients moved the stones to make cemetery maintenance less time-consuming. Another rumor was that the asylum hogs rooted the stones up, but that story is less likely.
In 2009 we received a call from a local man who was rebuilding his furnace in the basement of his new home. After removing his furnace he realized that the base was built with over sixteen stones from the Asylum.
After recovering the stones, we removed the mortar, and discovered numbers at the head of each stone.
The only problem? Duplicate numbers. Did they use the same numbers in each cemetery?
Indeed, the current owners and historian know that there are graveyards on the grounds, but they have no solid idea where they are.
Among about 50,000 people who died here between 1864 and 1994, there were thousands, wards of the State, whose remains went unclaimed. They were placed in simple wooden coffins next to their vital statistics enclosed in glass jars. Then buried, unidentified, in one of three graveyards located in the hills behind the Asylum.
The Asylum wasn’t only a hospital, it was also a farm, which was intended to give it it self-sufficiency in food.
The availability of farm land was an important element in the decision to build the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston.
It was the third mental asylum in Virginia, and the first to be on the”other” side of the Allegheny Mountain range. A flat area large enough to hold a Kirkbride building, and the presence of the nearby river (and later) train transportation were also important elements.
The problem of periodic flooding of the town apparently was outweighed by the positives. And there was land suitable for farming right behind the building site – beginning with the purchase of 200 acres and ultimately, some say, making up 666 acres, but at any rate hundreds of acres.
Given the length of this post already, we’re going to stop here. But there’s more to come, including a possible message from the sufferers of bygone years to Our Traveling Reporter and his lady friend, and a view of some of the instruments used by the physicians of the Asylum.