Like many early asylums and mental hospitals built in the United States, the building originally known as the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was constructed using the Kirkbride Plan. The approach, created by Philadelphia psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride in the mid-19th century, emphasized architecture designed to have a curative effect on patients, with long, staggered wings that give each patient's room access to light and fresh air. Unfortunately for the residents of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, those admirable goals of moral treatment wouldn’t stretch far beyond the construction of the building…
Construction of the building began in 1858, with work conducted by prison laborers. Construction was interrupted by the outbreak of the Civil War, but by 1864, the first patients were admitted to the hospital. By then, the institution had been renamed the West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Construction continued until 1881, and in an ominous portent of things to come, the grounds of the hospital ultimately numbered 666 acres.
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By 1880, the hospital, which was intended to house 250 patients, held 717. By 1938, that number had more than doubled, and a report issued by a group of medical organizations listed its population as including “epileptics, alcoholics, drug addicts and non-educable mental defectives.” At its peak in the 1950s, the hospital’s population had almost doubled again, and the building, which by then was known as the Weston State Hospital, housed as many as 2,600 patients–more than ten times the number it had been built to accommodate.
Over the years, problems in the asylum continued to multiply nearly as quickly as the number of residents. Multiple fires were set by residents, including one that caused $155,000 worth of damage in 1935. The crowding also led to outbreaks of violence among patients, who were forced into unbearably close quarters.
In the 1950s, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum became a primary site of lobotomies as part of the West Virginia Lobotomy Project. Neurologist Walter Freeman, who finessed the procedure into the popularly known version involving an ice pick through the eye, believed that lobotomies would cure all mental illness. Trans-Allegheny, still known as Weston, was one of four sites for the procedure. As many as 900 people were lobotomized.
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In addition to the nightmarish overcrowding and risk of being lobotomized without consent, patients were kept in substandard conditions for decades. A series of reports published by The Charleston Gazette in 1949 revealed poor sanitation and a lack of furniture, light and heat in much of the building. While the population of the hospital had decreased by the 1980s, treatment of its patients had not improved, with those patients who could not be controlled spending time locked in cages. The hospital was finally shut down in 1994.
Any big, old, imposing asylum is bound to have a reputation for paranormal activity, and the dark history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum affords more than its fair share of grist for such rumors. The building, which is also a National Historic Landmark, has been featured several times on shows like , , and Forgotten Planet. The building’s current owners offer historic daytime tours and paranormal tours six days a week, as well as Ghost Tours and Ghost Hunts on Friday and Saturday nights.
Journey down the empty corridors of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the haunting photos below:
An early body refrigeration unit seen inside the Medical Center building at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. The hospital was intended to be self-sufficient—it contained a farm, dairy, water supply, and cemetery on its grounds.
A view of two patient rooms in the main building of the Asylum. Other patients weren’t lucky enough to have their own rooms—or even share a room. If they were deemed uncontrollable, patients were locked in cages.
A tour guide dressed as a nurse stands in the first-floor lobby of the main building of the Asylum. The now privately owned complex is open to tours and fundraising events, the proceeds of which go to the restoration and preservation of this historic landmark. After its closure in 1994, the local economy was unable to recover—and continues to deal with the devastating effects.
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The door to a medical room is seen inside the Medical Center building. The room displays the insufficient lighting and poor sanitation that plagued much of the asylum. By the 1950s, the hospital was housing over 2,600 patients who were exposed to terrible conditions and inadequate attention.
A rendition of the living room in the doctor’s apartment in the main building. Built by architect Richard Andrews, the hospital’s main building is one of the largest hand-cut stone masonry buildings in the U.S. In order to complete the stone masonry, many skilled workers traveled from Germany and Ireland to contribute to the construction of the building. The room shows the elaborate details within the building that unfortunately deteriorated.
Medical equipment in a room in the main building. This room also demonstrates the dire conditions of the building, as increased numbers of patients and overworked staff led to a disregard of basic sanitation. Plenty of windows were left covered in grime and the wallpaper was peeling from decay.
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A prop bed sits in the smoking room in the main building. In addition to moving furniture around, some patients were forced to sleep on the floor because of a lack in furniture.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum courtyard was meant to be accessible to all patients in order to have natural sunlight and fresh air. However, as the number of patients increased, many saw conditions worsen, and patients were unable to enjoy those basic liberties.
Balls, dolls and other toys are gathered in a room at the Asylum. Patients admitted to the hospital ranged from alcoholics to drug addicts to those with intellectual disabilities. When the hospital exceeded its capacity, many patients were left to fend for themselves, while others roamed wildly.
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Old wheelchairs are seen in the hallway of the main building. Now the once ornate building sits abandoned with plenty of equipment propped in rooms or hallways.
Doctors’ and nurses' rooms on the fourth floor of the Asylum. During the nineteenth-century the hospital personnel used barbaric healing tactics on their patients, which included bloodletting and insulin coma therapy. Some patients were innocents victims that were admitted to the asylum with a misdiagnosis or due to unfortunate consequences—some women were abandoned at the asylum by their husbands who were looking to claim their inheritance.
The clock tower seen from the fourth floor of the Asylum. The 200-foot clock tower was completed in 1871. It stands in a section of the building that was designed to house offices and personnel—it even featured a large ballroom at one point.
An original component of an X-Ray machine sits on the floor inside a medical room. In 1990, Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was designated as a National Historic Landmark, but by that point the building was in bad shape. With aid from the government and private donations, the asylum has undergone plenty of renovations in an attempt to preserve its history.
All photos: Eva Hambach / Getty Images