The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was supposed to be a place of peace and restoration, but it soon devolved into madness and destruction.
Deep in the heart of West Virginia, surrounded by sweeping grounds and green lawns, there is a beautiful long building with a tall steeple in the center. It looks like an expensive boarding school or an attractively weathered manor house.
The structure is neither: now abandoned, it was once the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, and its halls witnessed atrocities that left their mark on the building and the surrounding community.
What The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Was Supposed To Be
The asylum wasn’t always a nightmarish facility — in fact, when it was commissioned in the early 1850s, its conception marked one of the first hopeful developments in centuries for mental patients.
The building was the brainchild of Thomas Story Kirkbirde, a doctor and crusader for the mentally ill who founded what would in time become the American Psychiatric Association.
Kirkbride built on the foundation established by famous reformer Dorothy Dix, who sought to disabuse people of their misconceptions about mental illness — namely, that it was a shadowy, irreversible condition best treated in darkness with force and physical restraint.
Shaky as the science behind some of Kirkbride’s medical ideas was, it undeniably led to a more humane and all-around more effective plan of treatment for the residents of his asylums than any other practice of the era.
He emphasized the importance of light and fresh air, suggesting that asylums be built as long halls with 12-foot ceilings, plenty of windows, and ventilation that allowed for cross breezes.
He also emphasized freedom; mental patients, he felt, should be allowed to roam as much as possible and find stimulation for their minds. They would behave better, not worse, if given more control over their own lives.
His ideas inspired the construction of 73 “Kirkbride” hospitals across the country in the second half of the nineteenth century — including the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
From Good Intentions To A Terrifying Reality
When it opened its doors in 1863, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane, was a model of Thomas Kirkbride’s ideals.
It could house 250 patients, each with their own comfortable room.
Skilled stonemasons had been brought in from Germany and Ireland to contribute to the architecture that featured wide-open windows, giving patients access to natural light and fresh air.
The grounds were magnificent and sustainable, including a working farm, dairy, waterworks, gas well, and cemetery. It was, as architect Richard Snowden Andrews had intended it to be, a self-sufficient, state of the art facility, designed to make patients feel at home, well cared for, and restored.
Then, in 1881, disaster struck. Due to an increase in mental health diagnoses and the stigma surrounding the disease, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum found its tranquil facilities overrun, housing almost 500 more patients than they ever imagined.
The hospital couldn’t keep up. Conditions began to decline dramatically. Patients were crammed together, with sometimes four or five to a room intended for one.
The farm and dairy on the compound, originally designed to provide for 300, were unable to meet the increased demand that came with overcrowding. Patients began to suffer from malnutrition, which only exacerbated mental health issues.
By 1938, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was six times overcapacity. The patients inside were running wild, and orderlies, outnumbered, struggled to regain control.
At its peak in the 1950s, the hospital was holding 2,600 patients, more than ten times the number it was intended to house.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Is Shut Down
To expose the terrible conditions within, the Charleston Gazette attempted to send in a crew to investigate the inner workings of the asylum. What they found shocked them.
Patients were sleeping on the floor and in freezing rooms due to a lack of furniture and heat.
The overcrowding had resulted in overworked staff and a decreased emphasis on sanitation. The once bright, clear windows were covered with grime, darkening and further chilling the rooms. The wallpaper was peeling from decay, and where it hadn’t disintegrated on its own, the patients had torn it off in a panic.
Worse still were the patients themselves. Those whom the orderlies deemed “unable to be controlled” had been locked in cages in open spaces, in an attempt to make more bedrooms available for less worrisome inhabitants.
The asylum had also become a training ground for experimental lobotomies, as Walter Freeman, the famous surgeon and lobotomy advocate, opened up shop.
In the course of his lifetime, Freeman performed some 4,000 lobotomies, leaving sometimes perfectly healthy patients with lasting physical and cognitive damage.
His “ice pick” method, which involved slipping a thin, pointed rod like an ice pick into the patient’s eye socket and using a hammer to force it to sever the connective tissue in the brain’s prefrontal cortex, resulted in a number of deaths.
By the time the asylum closed, only one part of its grounds had been expanded to accommodate the new demand: the graveyard.
The exposé published by the Gazette spurred a movement to close down the hospital, but it wasn’t until 1994, after more than one hundred years of squalor, that the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum closed its doors forever.
Now, the once-ornate building, intended for healing but destined for destruction, sits abandoned, as if the patients simply vanished into thin air. Rooms are still filled with medical equipment and decrepit furniture, and wheelchairs sit in the hallways.
Since 2007, tours have been made available for those who wish to see the asylum firsthand. Ghost hunters, the building’s most frequent visitors, say they can feel the presence of the hundreds who perished in shocking conditions.
The skeptical deny this — but all agree the building serves as a reminder of a shameful past and an urgent call to do better in the future.
After reading about the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, check out these haunting photos of mental patients from years gone by. Then, read about the Bedlam insane asylum. Finally, learn the story of Frances Farmer, the woman who was committed to an asylum against her will.