Trans Allegheny Insane Asylum | Weston | USA

Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum – – 71 Asylum Drive, Weston, West Virginia, USA – MAP

TALA today (PatrickRohe on Flickr)

History of Trans Allegheny Insane Asylum

Constructed between 1858 and 1881 on the “Kirkbride Plan”.  A plan based on modern cures stemming from moral standards.  Structural features implemented by Thomas Story Kirkbride’s theories for healing insanity.

Creating an environment exposed to natural light and air circulation.  Called a “bat wing” style, housing many wings spanning out from a center head.  With long halls and 12-foot ceilings. 

Hallway / Ceiling height / Natural light

With strict guidelines on staffing.  They should live on or near the site and be gender balanced.  Basically, a similar number of men and woman attendants.  Along with giving freedom to the patients to roam the “wings”, finding stimulation for their minds.

This style of asylum was popular then, worked into 73 total facilities.  Surprisingly 40 remain.  Having survived fire and the wrecking ball. 

This includes Trans Allegheny.  A place that didn’t hesitate to screw over Kirkbride.

Building History

It’s the largest hand-cut stone building in North America and believed to be the second largest in the world next to the Kremlin in Moscow.

The main building was opened in 1864.  Might have been quicker if not for a delay, due to the Civil War.  Then loosing its money when West Virginia separated.  A local militia marched on Virginia and stole back the construction fund. 

Built.  The original hospital was designed for 250 patients.  By 1880 it had 700 due to an increase in mental health issues and stigma surrounding the disease.  By 1950 it had 2,400 patients.  All stuffed inside a building nicknamed a “prison”. Maybe they should have known.  A big sign might be the lands. 

Zoned out for self-sufficiency.  The hospital, farm, dairy and water works, and cemetery took up exactly 666 acres.  Curious.

Overcrowding  Violence – –

Not when you factor in the violence though.  Held secret until the public found out through a series of articles written by the Charleston Gazette in 1949.

From the articles, I quote,

“More than 1800 men and women were jammed into long, dreary dormitories, doubled up on tiny rooms intended for one, many existing in miserable depreciated quarters, which could never pass inspection for domestic animals”.

Historic photo of Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
Historic photo outside Trans Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

This series of articles showed horrible conditions.  Exposing the filth many patients were forced to live in among broken furniture and no Winter heating.  At its worse, 4 to 5 patients confined to each room.  By 1938 it was 6-times over capacity, and by 1950, 10-times over.

They said the articles were successful.  However, even after inspections were done in the 1950’s not much changed. 

Things improved through the 1960’s and 70’s, partly due to the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  It exposed the drugging and mistreatment of patients.  Making asylums more mainstream knowledge.

Didn’t do much in West Virginia.  Took till 1986 before a new facility was announced for Weston.  Then another 8 years before the last patients were transferred over in 1994. 

The Disturbing Results

To say it was bad from the outside doesn’t give one much to think about.  Better to know horrible events.  This is when I get dark.  Brace yourselves.

Disturbed people.  Plus, so many violent patients and not enough doctors, nurses and orderlies to watch over them.  A recipe for disaster.

One solution… lock the worst of them into cages.  Small cages lined the hallways holding the most violent patients like animals.  A way to keep control. 

Didn’t stop the free patients from violence and murder. 

Violence

Suicides were a problem.  Many noting the exposed water pipes running through patient rooms as “problematic”.  So many took advantage of this feature.  Using their bed sheets as a noose. 

“Problematic” pipes in rooms

A story from the earlier days featuring the daughter of a local dentist.  One day she received a town pass.  Meaning she could leave from morning until night.  And when coming back in, she snuck lighter fluid.

Later while lying in bed, pouring it over herself and lighting a match.

Firemen put her out.  Thinking the girl was dead, until her eye shot open.  She said, “I didn’t do a very good job, did I?”  Then later died in the burn center of a Pittsburgh hospital.

Murder

And murder too.  One night two patients pulled another from his bed.  Twisted the bed sheets and threw them over the infamous pipes.  Hanged him from the ceiling.  The pipe held but the sheets didn’t. 

Enraged, they shoved his head under the leg of the heavy metal bed frame.  Together like rowdy kids, jumped up and down on the mattress until he was dead.

Not just patients in danger.  A report tells of a nurse who disappeared into the massive structure.   Many assumed she had left for the night.  Nobody thought to look until the woman was reported missing.

Police came into the hospital but couldn’t find her.  Assumed her disappearance had nothing to do with Trans Allegheny.  Just a missing person and future cold case.

Maybe they didn’t search hard enough or refused to go into the worst areas of this disturbing place.  I say that because for two months her body lay rotting at the bottom of an unused staircase.  Murdered by a patient who hid her in the abandoned spot. 

Desensitized Staff

A former housekeeper interviewed after working in the asylum during the mid-70s sums up the feeling.  How she got used to insanity.  Saying calmly, “maybe they can offer some counseling to workers” after seeing a male patient murdered… dragged into the hallway and hanged from the ceiling.

And 2 years before the asylum was closed, in 1992, a patient committed suicide just after another was murdered.  The murderer known to staff because a few years prior… he murdered another patient. 

A newly arriving doctor met the killer personally.  Was quoted,

“The first day I walked up on the unit … guy walked up and looked at me with his Hannibal Lector eyes and said, “I’m gonna cut your heart out.” I thought, “Why am I here?” But the Medical Director just said, “Now, just mellow out.” I was used to mentally ill people, but not someone who wanted to cut my heart out.”

Dr. Walter Freeman – –

How little did the public care.  So little an infamous American physician, Dr. Walter Freeman, was able to test his aggressive and experimental lobotomies on patients. 

He gained popularity by inventing what was nicknamed the “ice pick lobotomy”.  This avoided the drilling of a skull.  But used of a long and sharp pick slid through the eye-socket.

Dr. Walter Freeman, the ice-pick lobotomy
Dr. Walter Freeman, the ice-pick lobotomy

Was considered a successful method until one high-profile failure. 

JFK’s Sister Rosemary

Freeman performed it in 1941 on the older sister of American President John F. Kennedy.  Rosemary was only 23 years old.  It was their father’s wish, to cure her of seizures. 

Maybe hearing all the great strides Freeman was making in the field.  Most likely lies because Rosemary Kennedy’s procedure was a failure. 

An entire life in institutions while mostly ignored by family.  But behind the scenes this may have inspired her sister Eunice.  She created the Special Olympics in 1962.

Freeman doing a lobotomy in Trans Allegheny

Dr. Freeman worked at Trans Allegheny which became his personal testing lab.  As one nurse recalls in 1939,

“It was my second day of work when I was asked to bring the doctor a male patient.  I didn’t know who he was, or why he needed the patient.  Found a good one, who could dress himself and go to the bathroom alone.” 

They say the patient wasn’t able to do or feel anything after the surgery.

The good doctor was known for being careless.  Killing one patient when stopping for a photo.  Not paying attention and pushing the ice pick far into the man’s brain.  Not to mention he always refused to wear a mask or gloves.

Karma?

Freeman performed so many lobotomies.  Including one busy time when he did 228 inside Trans Allegheny in just one week.  Over the years performing 4,000, including on 19 kids.  One a 4-year-old boy.

Countless harm caused through surgeries.  Do you want to believe in Karma?  Dr. Freeman died on the operating table in 1972.  Complications during surgery related to cancer.

And an interesting fact.  Dr. Arden on “American Horror Story : Asylum” was based on Freeman.  Disturbingly portrayed by actor James Cromwell.

James Cromwell as Dr. Arden (AHS:Asylum) – based on Freeman

Ghosts

Many people visiting for the first time, greeted by a white haze floating out from dark corners.

Little Lily – –

And their resident ghost, a little girl named Lily.  Haunting the 4th floor in Ward R.  Not the original room because a fire gutted it in the 1930’s.  Changed the original structure. 

Her energy remains in the post fire formatted space and is the most popular ghost communicating with investigators.

But she’s a mystery.  2 possible origin stories told by TALA guides today.  First, Lily’s a patient who spent her short life inside these walls.  Or second, she was born to a patient and kept safe by hospital staff.  Then getting pneumonia and dying at only 9-years-old.

Today many leave her toys spread around the 4th floor room, or Lily’s Room.  They say she moves them around.  Such as playfully rolling a ball back and forth with guests.

Woman in Kitchen – –

Down in the kitchen, workers and visitors feel like they’re being watched.  Like a security guard walking near the kitchen while doing his rounds. 

The Kitchen and Staff inside Trans Allegheny - - circa 1914
The Kitchen and Staff inside Trans Allegheny – – circa 1914

Felt like someone was watching him.  Made him anxious just before seeing movement from behind a framed opening.  A grayish figure stood stick still.

He said it looked like a woman.  Refusing to say more.  Maybe it was the figure’s shape.  What he did add was, “she was staring at me”.

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