Very few abandoned buildings can evoke the anxiety, fear, and outright horror that accompanies the simple mention of their name. An insane asylum is one of those places. From campfire stories, TV shows, horror movies, and my personal favorite, Stephen King novels, asylums hold an especially terrifying place in our psyches, and tend to invoke our most primal fears. Justifiably so–the stories told about these historic halls of horror weren’t just pulled out of thin air or dreamt up by the twisted minds of storytellers. The true history of our world’s insane asylums may be just as terrifying as the darkest recesses of our imaginations would have us believe.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA) in the mountains of Weston, West Virginia, holds many dark and disturbing stories. Later known as the Weston State Hospital, TALA was a Kirkbride psychiatric hospital, constructed from 1858-1881 and in operation from 1864 until 1994. The main building is one of the largest hand-cut stone masonry buildings in the United States. From end to end it is almost one quarter of a mile long and contains two and a half miles of hallways. The hospital was intended to be self-sufficient, with a farm, dairy, water supply, and cemetery all located on its original 666 acres (Yep, you read that right! From what I can discern through Weston’s Geographic Info Services, the current owners only have approximately 335 acres of the property in their name.)
This Kirkbride style building was based on Dr. Thomas Kirkbride’s “moral treatment” theory:
“Essential to the realization of his vision was moving patients from overcrowded city jails and almshouses, where patients were often chained to walls in cold dark cells, to a rural environment with grounds that were ‘tastefully ornamented’ and buildings arranged ‘en-echelon’ resembling a shallow V if viewed from above. This design called for long, rambling wings, that provided therapeutic sunlight and air to comfortable living quarters so that the building itself promoted a curative effect, or as Kirkbride put it, ‘a special apparatus for lunacy.’ These facilities were designed to be entirely self-sufficient providing the patients with a variety of outlets for stimulating mental and physical activities.” (source)
During the early 1900s a study found that many of the patients housed in the Asylum were “epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts, and non-educable mental defectives”. Originally designed to house around 250 patients, the asylum held over 700 by 1880, over 1800 by the 1940s, and at its peak, held a staggeringly overcrowded 2600 people in the 1950s. Along with overcrowding, the sanitation in the hospital suffered, and lacked proper furniture, lighting, and heat throughout much of the complex. The overcrowding led to deplorable conditions, with four to five people in a room, and an overworked and exhausted staff.
Life inside the asylum was inhumane. Reports of violence inside the complex were rampant, with incidents of patients killing one another and even the staff. One report states that when two patients failed to kill another patient by hanging him, they cut him down and used a steel bed frame to crush his skull.
Several fires were set by patients, one in 1935 destroyed the fourth floor of the hospital. To deal with some of more violent and uncontrollable patients, many were kept in cages, seclusion cells, or confinement cribs. Today you can still see metal rings on some of the walls of the seclusion cells where patients were chained up. On the floors of these cells are drains, so that they could hose down the cells after the chained patients had been left to wallow in their own filth for days at a time.
Reasons for being admitted to the asylum weren’t always because of mental illness. Physical ailments such as asthma, epilepsy, rabies, or tuberculosis were cause enough. In the early days, it was not uncommon for a husband or a family to have a spouse or relative committed for afflictions as vague as political excitement, religious enthusiasm, and seduction. Some of the underlying reasons behind hospital admissions for women were: “change of life,” “menstrual problems” and “childbirth,” as well as “religious excitement,” “disappointed love,” “death of sons in war,” “domestic trouble,” “laziness” or “novel reading”. That’s not to say these cited “maladies” were the sole cause for admission, rather they were factors that might have produced or exacerbated such an illness as to warrant admission.
In the early 1950s, Walter Freeman led a program called the West Virginia Lobotomy Project in an effort to treat and reduce the overcrowding of patients in the asylum. Freeman, who had no formal surgical training, performed over 4,000 lobotomy surgeries over the course of four decades, and pioneered the “icepick” lobotomy. Unlike a traditional lobotomy which involved drilling through the skull, the icepick method involved inserting a pick into the corner of each eye socket, hammering through the thin bone with a mallet, and then moving the pick back and forth to sever the connections in the front of the brain. This procedure, also known as a transorbital lobotomy, was performed without anesthesia, and used “electroconvulsive therapy” to induce a seizure in the patient. (Excuse me for a second, I’m a little woozy after typing that out…)
Almost 40% of Freeman’s patients were gay individuals who were subjected to a lobotomy in an effort to alter their homosexual orientation. The procedure left most of these perfectly healthy individuals severely disabled for the rest of their lives. Many of his patients had to be re-taught to perform basic functions of living such as eating and using the bathroom. Around 15% of his patients died from the procedure.
Insulin Shock Therapy was a technique that was used in the 1940s, primarily in the treatment of schizophrenia. The patient would be given a large dose of insulin, enough to induce a coma which would last around an hour. This procedure would be repeated several times a week with increasing dosages, sometimes combined with electro-convulsive therapy, based on the belief that seizures were beneficial to treatment. With electroconvulsive or electroshock therapy, patients would be strapped down on a table, with a rubber mouth guard inserted to prevent them from biting off their tongues. They would then send powerful currents of electricity through them to induce seizure.
By the 1980s, much of the overcrowding had been reduced as changes in treatment for mental illness were better understood and implemented. In 1986, The William R. Sharpe Jr. Psychiatric Hospital was built. The old Asylum was phased out and closed in 1994.
In 2007, West Virginia businessman Joe Jordan and his family purchased the former asylum at auction, with the intention of preserving and restoring portions of it. The facility now offers a variety of tours and experiences, including paranormal tours, heritage/history tours, ghost hunts and tours of the facility’s farm, cemeteries, and out-building wards for the criminally insane. A few areas in the center of the building have been restored to resemble how the asylum would have looked during its operation. The nurse’s quarters, Doctor’s quarters, and other rooms are cleaned up and restored, but by far, the vast majority of the complex has been left in an abandoned state. Guests can experience most areas, depending on which tour is selected.
As you might imagine, a place that was home to so much pain, suffering, and agony is bound to have its share of ghost stories and reports of hauntings. The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum has an abundance of both. TALA has been featured as a haunted location on several paranormal television shows, including Ghost Stories, Syfy‘s Ghost Hunters, Travel Channel‘s Ghost Adventures, and Paranormal Lockdown on Destination America/TLC. The numerous reports and sightings range from Civil War era ghosts, to children, to ex-patients and staff. Personally, I can’t say that I have ever seen a ghost, but I will say during the two days that I was shooting here with my good friend and photographer A.D. Wheeler, that we both heard some prolonged rhythmic banging noises that we could not explain (we were the only ones in the buildings for two entire days). Additionally, we both witnessed my camera malfunction in a way it had never done before or since. It was definitely one of the creepiest places that I have photographed, and I don’t usually get creeped out at all while exploring or photographing these places.
Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is a truly incredible place to visit and photograph, and I highly recommend adding it your list of historic destinations. The fact that it’s being preserved and open for visitors, but mostly left in an abandoned state, makes it a unique place to tour. I highly recommend visiting their website ( http://www.trans-alleghenylunaticasylum.com/ ) to check out the times of year they offer tours, and plan a visit to beautiful West Virginia, to explore and experience this magnificently terrifying but intriguing piece of our American history.
To read ALL about my trip and visit to TALA with fellow photographer A.D. Wheeler, click HERE to go to his blog and read about our entire eerie adventure! 🙂
Weston was closed in May, 1994 when the replacement hospital Wm R. Sharpe hospital opened, that same year.
Important part of history, buy also a horrifying reminder of how the mentally retarded, the depressed and mentally ill were treated. So sad. This place is most likely haunted.
To even think this went into the 80’s & 90’s, 1980-1990 is hard to even conceive. Thanks for sharing this story