If you missed Part 1, yesterday, it’s here, with the basic history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, and some of the photos from Our Traveling Reporter’s recent tour of the facility, which is carefully maintained, being restored in places, and privately owned.
On to Part II of this great tour. We intended this to be the final part, but there will be a Part III. Lots of pictures!
There is an eerie display of luggage, reminiscent of the suitcases of Auschwitz or the parallel display in the Holocaust Museum in DC. In this case, these are the unclaimed steamer trunks of patients. What became of the patients? Those anonymous, numbered graves? God alone knows.
One of the trunks bears a very clear name and address. Who was Henry L. Geer? And what was the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn? We found one Henry L. Geer, single, at age 54 living with his parents in Oswego, New York in 1930. (Source document). He was a laborer, working in the industry of “general laborer,” and like most of the men on that page of the 1930 Census, the “veteran” block was marked “yes.”
The Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn occupied three blocks centered on First Avenue and 52nd Street. It provided armed guards (duh) to merchant ships in wartime. These were the gunners on armed merchantmen, and In World War II Brooklyn provided guards for ships trading to Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, which we know from a site on WWII Armed Guard history. We also know that there was an Armed Guard in WWI. It is possible that Geer’s veteran experience qualified him to be an officer commanding a shipboard detachment in WWII (he would have been nearly 70, though). And somehow he wound up at Trans-Allegheny after that? If this is the same Geer.
The uniform, presumably Geer’s, bears the Purple Heart, three campaign awards (American, European-African-ME, and Asia-Pacific/CBI), and the Philippine Liberation Medal, awarded by the Republic of the Philippines. Those were the days when two rows of ribbons meant something.
Other miscellaneous artifacts were found when a wall built a century-plus ago to close an archway and improve the bathrooms in the doctors’ housing was removed by restorers. The Asylum continues to give up its secrets — and raise more questions.
Geer, and other inmates, generally wound up in simple wooden coffins. The number of the dead is unknown; there were three known cemeteries in the hills behind the Asylum, indifferently marked if they were marked at all, and historians believe they have discovered a fourth. The dead were buried with their “vital statistics” in sealed glass jars, including their death certificates. Was this a bow to future ages?
Note that the coffin has been stripped of its handles!
They have three cemeteries and they believe they have found a fourth.
Death certificates were usually buried with the bodies. Coffins stacked 5 on top of each other.
No names on headstones. Numbers, or nothing. But then, State employees ripped up headstones to make it easier to cut the grass and sold them as building material.
This is not an apparition. It is a tour guide.
They dress in period nurse uniforms! (However, OTR corrects us — he and his lady friend both did have a paranormal experience at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. You will have to read Part III to see what it was).
The asylum wasn’t designed in a vacuum:
The asylum is modeled after one in Illinois. The asylum here is a quarter of the size of the one in Illinois!!!
And to get the right quality of work, they needed the right quality of people.
They brought in stone masons from Germany.
The masons pointed out that carting the stone in from 20 miles away by ox cart was wasteful. They could get it out of the river 600 feet away.
One side of the striking clock tower had no clock. The reason? That face was towards the working farm, and they wanted to discourage clock-watching among the inmates detailed to farm duty.
The architectural details are amazing, like this view up a stairwell…
…and these hand-formed plaster details on arches and pillars.
More after the jump, including some of the stuff the doctors at the hospital used to take care of the routine (not mental) health problems of the hundreds or thousands of inmates.
The number of people onsite varied over the years. For example, in1927 they had 1300 patients and 120 staff. That’s not just the medical professionals and their helpers; it includes cooks and grounds keepers. Logistics for a brigade, but without an established logistics train, or any of the 20th and 21st centuries labor-saving inventions.
The medical instruments used at the time include some used today, and some that today’s doctors would look upon in horror. Here’s a medical supply cabinet:
Unfortunately it doesn’t include Dr Freeman’s wife’s icepick. “That’s pronounced FRONK-en-Steen, if you please.” Still, Freeman didn’t believe he was a monster, much less a creator of them; he thought he was helping. On the cutting edge, you might say. He not only did lobotomies here, but did them by request all over the country — almost 3,000 in all.
The instruments in the bottom shelves in the cabinet above were used for amputations, at one time the last and best hope for containing infection in wounded extremities. A variety of braces and supports were left behind by deceased patients — note the label on the cabinet below!
Syringes in those days were reused. They were complex, expensive instruments of plated (later, polished stainless) steel and glass, and they really needed to be used many times. They would be sterilized between uses — or were supposed to be, anyway.
If you embiggen it you can read the labels. Somehow, though, we doubt a “pituitary rongeur” was used in spinal surgery, as the label suggests — either that, or these docs’ grasp of anatomy was worse than we thought.
That’s it for Part II. Tomorrow in Part III:
- A deeper dive into the doctors’ and familes’ comfortable quarters;
- A look in some of the wards;
- A review of the tension between treating people and keeping dangerous people locked up;
- Some more stories from the place’s long history; and,
- OTR has a creepy — was it paranormal? — experience.
Thanks for reading!