Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Visiting the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum


In the small town of Weston, WV, on the banks of the West Fork River, rests an imposing, formidable building that, at nearly a quarter mile long (1295 feet), is nearly impossible to miss.  Over the past century and a half, it has had several names:  Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, and Weston State Hospital.    

During the years the hospital was in operation (1864 - 1994), the Gothic   Revival and Tudor Revival style, hand-cut stone building housed thousands of patients who suffered from mental illness and many who did not (more on that later).  Today, the former hospital is privately owned and offers various history and paranormal tours.  The building's name has also changed back to its original name - Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

As a kid growing up in West Virginia in the 1980s, I admit that the Weston State Hospital (what it was called then) was quite often the pun of many poorly thought out adolescent jokes.  If a classmate or teacher acted strangely, someone might say that he/she was heading straight to the lunatic asylum up in Weston.  Funny thing is, I feel safe in saying that not many of us even knew where Weston, WV was but we were well aware that a lunatic asylum located there.  And, had you told me back when I was a teenager that I'd one day visit the mental hospital, I would've told you that you were crazy.  Well, last week I ate my words and paid the former hospital a little visit...  as a tourist.



The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was commissioned by the Virginia General Assembly in the early 1850s, a decade before West Virginia seceded from the state of Virginia during the Civil War and joined the Union.

The building was constructed following the Kirkbride Plan, a design advocated by psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride.  The design of Kirkbride Buildings featured long rambling wings en echelon so that each wing received an abundance of fresh air and sunlight, which Kirkbride felt were crucial elements to the care of patients in asylums.  Kirkbride Plan asylums tended to be large and shaped like a bat when viewed from above.



The hospital's main building is said to be the largest hand-cut masonry stone building in the United States and the second largest hand-cut sandstone building in the world, second only to the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.


Circa 1920s

The building was originally designed to house 250 patients, but during the peak of its overcrowding in the 1950s and 60s, it housed upwards of 2,400 patients.  By the 1980s, wide sweeping changes had been made in mental health treatment and the hospital's population was in decline.  The daily operational costs as well as the costs to repair and maintain the aging facility were no longer cost effective and the Weston State Hospital was closed in 1994 after a new psychiatric facility was built nearby.  




The building sat empty for 13 years and during that time fell into disrepair.  It was also subjected to looting and vandalism.  In 2007, the building and grounds were purchased at auction for $1.5 million and renovations on the building began.  The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers various tours March through November.  Proceeds from tours and other seasonal activities held on the property go towards the restoration of the historical building.  The TALA   was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and became a designated National Historic Landmark in 1990.  It is currently one of the few Kirkbride asylums still standing.
  
These photos show what a sitting room would have looked like and how one of the rooms looked like when restoration began.

The restored room in its current state.

One of the upper floors that has been renovated.  This floor housed nurse and doctor apartments.

My mom and I took the 90-minute historic guided tour and we were able to visit all four floors of the main building as well as the Civil War section and the first floor of the Medical Center.  Our guide, a young woman named Haleigh (I believe), dressed in an all-white nurses uniform, lead us throughout the grounds and shared so much history about the 160-year old facility that it was a little overwhelming.  


The Medical Center, which sits behind the main building.



Cadaver coolers in the morgue.

Two of the most disturbing things I learned during the tour were 1) some of the treatment methods that were used on patients in the hospital and 2) some of the utterly ridiculous things people, especially women, could be admitted for early in the hospital's history.

Some of the early treatments of mental illness were simply barbaric.  Patients were often shackled to the walls in isolation rooms, restrained in bathtubs for hours on end in cold baths (which was thought to cool the blood to the brain and calm the patient), subjected to electroshock therapy or insulin shock therapy (the latter put patients into  medically induced comas), or worst case scenario, given a lobotomy.  



In the early 1950s, the Weston State Hospital was home to what has been called the West Virginia Lobotomy Project.  Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the lobotomy who was responsible for performing Rosemary Kennedy's lobotomy, visited the Weston State Hospital numerous times throughout the 1950s.  He developed a more "efficient" method of performing a lobotomy that didn't require drilling a hole into the person's skull.  The process involved rendering a patient unconscious by electroshock before inserting a sharp icepick-like instrument into the patient's orbital socket above the eyeball.  The instrument was hammered through the skull and then wiggled back and forth to sever the connections to the prefrontal cortex.  This barbaric, crude practice left many patients in a vegetative state or reduced them to child-like behavior.  It is reported that Freeman performed 228 lobotomies within a two-week period while visiting the Weston State Hospital. 




The other thing for I learned that I found disturbing was that often people in the late 1880s were admitted for utterly ridiculous reasons.  Sadly, asylums were often viewed as repositories for more than just the insane and people were committed for ridiculous reasons such as laziness, menopause, superstition, and domestic trouble.  

If I had lived in the time after the Civil War, there are many reasons why I could have been admitted.  For instance, I could've been admitted for novel reading.  Yes, novel reading and that my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.  

Women were at a distinct disadvantage during this time because we were viewed as the property of our husbands.  If I had lived in the last nineteenth century, my husband or lover (if I were someone's mistress) could admit me to the insane asylum if I inherited money.  Yep, the man in my life could've locked me away until he decided to come back and get me or he could've just left me there until I died.  And of source, he would get the money.


All I can say is THANK GOD times have changed because it really sucked being a woman late 1800s, but I digress.

Overall, I found the history of the TALA absolutely fascinating and I would be interested in making a return trip one day.  There's just so much history to take in that I really do feel that I need a repeat trip in order to fully comprehend it all.  And, I might take a ghost or daytime paranormal tour as well.







Doorknobs used on the inside of patient rooms.  This style prevented the patient from being able to hang him/herself from it, tie sheets to it in order to prevent the door from opening from the outside, or to use it as a weapon.

Coffin style staircase


If You Go

Location:
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum 
79 Asylum Drive
Weston, WV  26452

Tours:
Open daily April - November
Click here for more information


Linking up with:








*Even though the TALA isn't in Louisville, KY, it's kind of local to my hometown in WV.

7 comments:

  1. Absolutely horrific history especially to women - most modern young women have no idea what women went thru in the past.

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  2. Places like that give me the creeps! I kind of love the things people could be admitted for - novel reading? LOL.

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  3. I'd totally have been locked up if I was a woman in that time. It's crazy, and the treatments they did! Horrifying. I'd be interested in checking this out too though - fascinating stuff.

    -Lauren
    www.shootingstarsmag.net

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  4. The building is incredible, but hinking of what probably took place there makes me want to cry. So many wrongs!

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  5. Ericka, per usual this is an interesting post. It amazes me how barbariacally they treated the insane or so-called insane. If you haven’t watched it check out the classic movie with Jack Nicholson called “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” It’s not only entertaining, but it gives you an inside look into an insane asylum.

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    Replies
    1. Thank you! It was a very interesting place to visit! I agree, the treatment practices that they actually believe were beneficial just boggles the mind. Yes, I watched OFOtCN many years ago for a college project. Fascinating movie.

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