The massive structure watches over an otherwise unassuming West Virginia town. While the stone building is imposing, it’s not at all threatening. A manicured lawn and sparkling fountain welcome you upon approach. And, as you stroll the grounds, you’d never know—from the outside—that the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was once home to some of the most shocking and inhumane medical procedures imaginable.
How Did You Even End Up At The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum?
It’s strange to write that I’m a “fan” of dark tourism, but… I’m a fan of dark tourism. I actively seek out the weird and wonderful. And, just so you know, there are strong opinions in the travel industry on this. People think dark tourists are glorifying or exploiting death and tragedy. But I view it differently.
It’s educating yourself on the world’s history, lurid as it may be; it’s examining the human psyche, lurid as that may be; it can even be paying your respects. And, for all of these reasons, I found the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum to be a super intriguing spot, worthy of a visit.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is located in Weston, West Virginia, just a couple hours from my home base. The #AdventurePartnerForLife and I decided to do a day trip out that way, à la Meantime Meanderings—drive the West Virginia hills, enjoy the scenery, do a tour, and grab some lunch.
The fact that it’s supposedly one of the most haunted locations in the United States is just an added bonus. Travel Channel’s “Ghost Adventures” even filmed there once.
How Did The Asylum Come To Be?
Construction of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum started in 1858 and was completed in 1881. Despite the year of completion, the hospital actually opened in 1864.
And, while the asylum is now infamous for its crude and barbaric medical practices, it was actually constructed with the intent of being a safe haven for society’s unwanted. An environment where patients suffering from insanity—previously regarded as incurable—could potentially be treated, instead of literally chained to the walls in a prison.
This new approach was led by well-known social reformers Dorothea Dix and Thomas Kirkbride.
“… I come as the advocate of helpless, forgotten, insane men and women; of beings sunk to a condition from which the unconcerned world would start with real horror.”—Dorothea Dix
It’s worth mentioning as well that, mid-construction, the town of Weston became an important Civil War post, and the half-constructed hospital served as barracks for the troops (both Confederate and Union as the location changed hands).
Multiple raids occurred over the years, including one in 1864, where food and clothing intended for incoming patients was confiscated. Despite the looting, the asylum opened October of the same year.
How Did One… “End Up” At The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum?
The hospital was originally built for some 250 patients, but by the 1950s would house more than 2,600. You might ask how such severe overcrowding came to be.
Well… lots of conditions that we wouldn’t typically classify as mental illness in this day and age were considered incurable afflictions back then. And, the asylum would eventually begin to house individuals that, even by 1800s standards, don’t qualify as mental illnesses.
“Conditions” ran the gamut. Anything, from epilepsy to drug or alcohol addiction to female “hysteria.” Then, you had mental retardation and the criminally insane.
But you also had women who deserted their husbands, asthma, tuberculosis, and indigestion. Men admitted their wives and simply left them there while they pursued extramarital affairs. Children were sometimes dropped off with their mothers, and orphans were left at the asylum. All became wards of the state.
The overcrowding would inevitably lead to horrendous conditions at the asylum with various reports of unsanitary conditions, and lack of heating and lighting.
“State-of-the-Art” Medical Procedures
While the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum hung its hat on caring for its patients humanely, a number of controversial therapeutic techniques would be employed over the years.
If you were lucky, you’d spend your days heavily sedated on Laudanum or Thorazine and basically be left in a catatonic state. Isolation was another, less drastic measure one might hope for.
“Moderately horrific” treatments included insulin shock therapy and electroshock therapy. With insulin shock therapy, patients were injected with large doses of insulin, purposely inducing daily comas over a period of time.
Patients would sometimes suffer seizures before or during the coma and would subsequently be obese after long-term treatment. (And this practice was widely used in most hospitals in the US and UK right up through the 40s and 50s!) But for the fact that you’d be conscious during the procedure, electroshock therapy might seem like a walk in the park comparatively.
If the “moderately horrific” medical treatments weren’t “shocking” enough, wait until you read about the transorbital lobotomies that were performed. Yup—icepick lobotomies. They were a real thing.
An icepick-like tool was jammed into the back of the eye socket to pierce the bone and separate it from the frontal cortex. It was thought that cutting certain nerves would minimize emotion and, therefore, stabilize one’s mood. The results, of course, varied. Some people seemed to improve and others became vegetables. Or even died.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum Now
The asylum experienced a massive population reduction in the mid-80s as a result of modernized medical practices. It finally closed its doors in 1994. The property was later auctioned off and is now a museum that hosts a variety of tours. There are a ton of tour options, but they essentially fall into two categories—heritage tours and paranormal tours.
We did two heritage tours—one of the 1st floor of the main building, and one of the Unit for the Criminally Insane. Which is located in a separate building …in the back. Other heritage tours include all four floors, a VIP option, a long-form (5-hour) tour, and a photography-specific option.
The sheer number of tours are almost a little overwhelming, to be honest. But it really depends on what parts of the asylum you’re most interested in seeing. There’s the Civil War section, the women’s ward, the Unit for the Criminally Insane, etc., etc. They’ve got a tour for anything and everything you could possible want… including paranormal tours.
One of the Most Haunted Places In America
Staff, guests, and multiple celebrity ghost hunters have reported experiencing paranormal activity. They’ve seen apparitions, heard inexplicable sounds or voices, and have even been touched or shoved.
The frequency of the reports have earned the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum “the honor” of being named one of the most haunted places in America.
You can see for yourself on one of the hospital’s paranormal tours. If you dare. There are 8-hour public and private paranormal tours, nighttime tours, daytime tours, and flashlight tours… the list goes on. But they all sound creepy as hell if you ask me.
Anyone been before? What other haunted destinations have you visited? Tell me all about it in the comments below.