The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum stands in commanding silence over the town of Weston, West Virginia—an imposing relic of America’s troubled mental health history. The brainchild of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, the asylum was supposed to represent the best of psychiatric medicine. Instead, it evolved into a monolithic house of horrors whose corridors echoed with the screams and anguished cries of tormented souls—some of whom still reside within the hospital’s haunting desolation.
After receiving his medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1832, Dr. Kirkbride took up residency at Friends Asylum, a psychiatric hospital located in northeast Philadelphia. Influenced by sensible Quaker practices, Friends Asylum fostered a nurturing and socially interactive atmosphere for its patients, free of restraints and barbaric “therapies” implemented inside other contemporary institutions. The concept of “moral treatment” became central to Kirkbride’s clinical practice and ideology, which earned him a flourishing reputation among the nation’s esteemed medical community. He was appointed Superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane in 1840 and later co-founded the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, a forerunner of the modern-day American Psychiatric Association.
In 1854, Kirkbride published On the Construction, Organization, and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane, which popularized the idea of institutionalization—patient care via facility design where buildings themselves could influence therapeutic outcomes. Sunlight, fresh air, calming aesthetics, and self-sufficiency were central to Kirkbride’s philosophy. The architectural conception of such elements included a staggered series of patient wards (or “wings”) arranged by like diagnoses with spacious individual rooms and common areas to promote optimal mental and social restoration. In addition to a deliberate institutional layout, Kirkbride also stressed the importance of spacious landscapes. Hospital grounds were to be a minimum of one hundred acres with manicured walkways, gardens, and pastures to provide patients stimulating outlets for self-sufficient physical activities. “The Kirkbride Plan” would influence the construction of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum and 72 other hospitals across the United States and solidify Kirkbride’s place as a leading authority in the treatment of mental illness.
The Virginia General Assembly approved plans for the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in 1858 and commissioned architect Richard Snowden Andrews to oversee its construction. Designed in the Gothic and Tudor-Revival styles, both convict laborers and skilled stonemasons worked to assemble the building’s intricate features. The southernmost wing was completed in 1861; however, the outbreak of the American Civil War prevented any further progress for several years.
After Virginia's secession from the Union, the state legislature demanded the Exchange Bank of Weston to return its unused hospital funds (approximately $30,000 of gold coin) to help subsidize the Confederate war effort. General George B. McClellan, who commanded Federal forces in nearby Wheeling, was made aware of the situation by several concerned citizens. He dispatched Colonel Erastus Tyler and the 7th Ohio Volunteer Infantry to seize the money before it fell into rebel hands. On June 30, 1861, Tyler’s troops arrived in town and pulled off the “Great Weston Gold Robbery”—securing more than $27,000 from the bank without much resistance. After establishing camp on the asylum grounds, Colonel Tyler shipped the gold back to Wheeling, where it was used to finance the Restored Government of Virginia.
In 1863, following West Virginia’s ratification of statehood, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Its first patients—all nine of whom women—were admitted on October 22, 1864, although construction continued for an additional seventeen years thereafter. Upon its completion in 1881, the hospital (which coincidentally sat upon a 666-acre campus) measured 1,295 feet in length, making it the second-longest sandstone building in the world, behind only the Moscow Kremlin. The total cost of the project was $725,000.
Despite its imposing size, the asylum was originally intended to hold a maximum of 250 people; however, that number was quickly surpassed. Asylums were often exploited as “dumping grounds” for society’s unwanted, “crazy” or not. In many cases, people were stigmatized and committed for seemingly benign offenses, such as laziness, political excitement, and even menopause. Others, through no fault of their own, were admitted for illegitimacy or physical deformities. When construction finished in 1881, the hospital was already 300% above capacity.
Conditions began to deteriorate quickly as the hospital staff struggled with the challenges of overcrowding. Many patients endured poor living conditions—unsanitary linens, rickety furniture, malnutrition—which only exacerbated their existing mental health issues. Manic patients were sometimes restrained in isolation cells or caged in common areas as staff members lacked the time or know-how to appropriately deal with their behavior.
During the early 20th century, the asylum—renamed ‘Weston State Hospital’ in 1913—constructed several auxiliary buildings on its campus to accommodate the surging patient population. Among these structures were a geriatric center, greenhouse, morgue, and tuberculosis sanatorium. Later in 1949, a ‘Criminally Insane’ ward was constructed behind the main building, which helped separate dangerous offenders from the hospital’s general population.
Violence was an unfortunate reality inside Weston State Hospital. The asylum’s medical personnel were severely under-resourced, sometimes operating at a 248:1 patient-doctor ratio. This lack of adequate supervision correlated with instances of violent outbursts, abuse, suicide, and murder. Both patients and staff were susceptible to these horrific acts. Female attendants experienced persistent physical and sexual harassment by the hospital’s most aggressive inmates. In one instance, a nurse was murdered by an unknown assailant—her decomposing body found at the bottom of an unused stairwell two months after her disappearance.
Several fires were set by pyromaniacs over the years, including one in 1935 that caused part of the roof to collapse onto the main building’s south wing. Remarkably, no one was killed. The damages were repaired by the Works Progress Administration in 1938.
In 1949, investigative journalist Charles Armentrout published a series of reports in the Charleston Gazette detailing the poor conditions that ravaged Weston State. Armentrout’s exposé portrayed understaffed buildings, grimy common areas, and crammed patient rooms where up to eight individuals shared a space meant for just one person. Some patients were forced to sleep on freezing hallway floors due to lack of bedding supplies. At its peak in the 1950s, Weston State Hospital housed 2,600 people, more than ten times the number it was intended to accommodate.
Patients at Weston State were indiscriminately subjected to several controversial psychiatric treatments, including electroconvulsive shock therapy, contrast baths, and forced sterilization. However, none were as notorious as transorbital lobotomies. From 1948 to 1952, the asylum participated in the West Virginia Lobotomy Project—nicknamed “Operation Ice Pick” by local media—headed by Dr. Walter Freeman, the infamous neurologist who popularized the crude “icepick” technique in America.
Unlike traditional prefrontal lobotomies which involved drilling through the skull, the icepick lobotomy was performed by placing a slender rod (orbitoclast) into the corner of each eye socket, striking the instrument with a mallet, breaking through the eye socket, and moving the rod in a methodical sequence to sever connective tissue in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. In lieu of anesthesia, electroconvulsive shock treatment was used to induce a seizure, rendering the unfortunate patient unconscious. While Dr. Freeman had no formal surgical training, he performed or directly supervised 775 lobotomies across five West Virginia mental institutions, seventy of which at Weston State.
Though Freeman touted overwhelming success, the reportedly curative procedure was severely debilitating. Many previously healthy individuals were afflicted with lifelong cognitive and physical deficits, requiring constant care for basic functional needs. Tragically, four Weston patients succumbed to complications as a direct result of their lobotomies.
The 1950s welcomed the emergence of psychotropic drug development. Chlorpromazine, under the trade name Thorazine, was the first antipsychotic drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1954. Referred to as the “chemical lobotomy,” Thorazine sedated excitable symptoms of psychosis with few adverse effects, rendering surgical lobotomies impractical. However, Freeman continued to perform transorbital lobotomies well into the 1960s, inflicting immeasurable amounts of pain and suffering unto thousands of individuals. In his career, Freeman performed nearly 3,500 lobotomies nationwide; roughly 14% of his victims died from the procedure.
On January 26, 1986, West Virginia Governor Arch Moore announced that Weston State Hospital had lost its distinction as a mental institution. For the next several years, the sprawling complex served as a correctional facility while a new psychiatric hospital was constructed across town. Weston citizens were understandably upset with the closure of the asylum, which had been a major employer and community unifier for generations. Despite numerous protests, the hospital permanently closed in 1994 and was left abandoned for over a decade.
In 2007, the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources auctioned off the property to private investors for $1.5 million. The new owners worked diligently to preserve and partially restore the asylum’s historic buildings before reopening the complex to the public in 2008. Today, the hospital operates under the original ‘Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’ moniker and offers a wide variety of thematic tours pertaining to its history, psychiatric medicine, and all things spooky.
Across Trans-Allegheny's 150-year existence as an operative mental institution, an estimated 30,000 people died within its walls. Untold thousands are buried in unmarked graves on the hill overlooking the asylum. The State of West Virginia attempted to exhume and identify the bodies, but this endeavor was discontinued after 4,000 sets of remains were found. Given its gruesome and tragic history, the asylum is popular among paranormal enthusiasts and has been featured on Syfy's Ghost Hunters, Travel Channel's Ghost Adventures, and Destination America's Paranormal Lockdown.
One of Trans-Allegheny’s most active entities is that of a little girl named Lily. Believed to have been born in the asylum around the turn of the century, Lily tragically died of pneumonia at the age of nine. Her room, located on Ward Four, is adorned with toys and trinkets to entertain her playful spirit. Her favorite item is a pink music box, which will mysteriously play an eerie melody all on its own. Rolling balls and disembodied giggles are some other well-documented anomalies that occur in her room.
Ward Two on the second floor is another hot spot for ghostly encounters. The melancholic spirits of a double suicide are said to haunt the area where they committed their final acts. Some visitors are overwhelmed with emotions of anguish and grief while others reportedly feel “suffocated” upon entering the room. Shadow figures have also been seen lurking in an adjacent bathroom where a patient was stabbed seventeen times.
On the third floor are Wards F and C—the violent male and female blocks, respectively. During Trans Allegheny’s waning years of operation, hospital administrators haphazardly grouped aggressive and docile patients together to address the troublesome overcrowding issue. This negligence was problematic for several reasons, and it ultimately led to one of the most horrific murders in asylum history. A deaf, mentally handicapped patient named Charlie (or Dean, depending on the source) was placed with two vicious inmates named Joe and Big Jim. Childlike in nature, Charlie was a beloved member of the hospital community; however, his immature temperament was a nuisance to Joe and Jim. One evening, the two perpetrators beat Charlie for his “annoying” behavior and attempted to hang him with bedsheets from an overhead pipe. Charlie was suspended and lowered several times from the makeshift noose, losing consciousness but still refusing to die. In a maniacal rage, Joe placed an iron bed frame on Charlie’s head and jumped repeatedly, crushing the unconscious man’s skull. Charlie’s spirit is believed to reside in the room where he was so brutally murdered. The malevolent entities of Joe and Big Jim are also reported to roam these halls, pushing and scratching unwary visitors.
There is no shortage of curiosity at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, whose stories and events are both frightening and enlightening. Yet, these anecdotes represent a mere fraction of the experiences endured by countless thousands, many of whom remain forgotten to time. The hospital endures as a testament to their memory—somberly enigmatic and hauntingly historic.
Visit the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum for more about its tour offerings
Read the following resource for a comprehensive history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum:
Jacks, Kim. Weston State Hospital. West Virginia University, 2008.