The best adventure is one that changes you in some way, where what you learn and saw and felt become a part of who you are.
The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum has been on my summer bucket list since the day a friend told me that it exists. Visiting here was one of those best experiences mentioned above.
It was designed by renowned architect Richard Andrews following the Kirkbride plan, the same plan that was used in the design of the asylum in Athens. So I felt a small connection to the place, having visited the Athens site and studied some on Kirkbride’s ideas about treating mentally ill patients.
Located in Weston, West Virginia, it was built across the street from the train station when there was little else in Weston. Construction began in 1858 and ended in 1881 but the facility began receiving patients in 1864. The town grew up around this massive facility. Today, it is said to be the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in North America and second largest in the world – beat out only by the Kremlin.
Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride was a Philadelphia psychiatrist who believed that environment and exposure to natural light and fresh air were vital to patient recovery. His “bat-wing” style floor plan called for long, narrow, staggered buildings with lots of windows, making all Kirkbride facilities seem massive. This one is staggeringly large.
The original asylum building was constructed to hold 250 people. At its peak, the completed complex was packed with about 2,500 souls. Deteriorating conditions and changes in treatment methods forced the closure of this facility in 1994. Some patients were transferred to other facilities while others were simply allowed (or forced) to leave. What little the state left behind was looted by the community and the buildings were abandoned until several years ago when the place was sold at auction and work began to transform it into a museum and tourist attraction.
Today, they offer a variety of tours covering history and paranormal activity that range in price from $10 to $100. The work they’ve done to transform this place into an attraction is well done. It’s respectful, thoughtful and thought provoking.
They have restored parts of the original Kirkbride building while leaving others untouched. The restored areas give a wonderful peak at what it was like around 1906. Of course, my favorite places were those left raw.
It took me a while to decide what I want to say here because there’s a lot but I’m going to focus some on the women of this and other asylums like it.
But first – the word asylum conjures images of a sterile place, straight jackets, lots of white and people who are, well, crazy.
Many of the patients were permitted to roam their ward and the grounds freely. Their day room resembled a hotel lobby – light and bright with comfy furniture and areas for conversations or chess with friends. Rooms for these well behaved patients were sparse but comfortable and these people were said to have a relatively good life.
Poorly behaved patients were kept behind locked doors higher up in the asylum and dangerous patients were isolated from the general population. Years later, a separate fortress like building was constructed to keep the criminally insane.
Doctors frequently lived in upstairs quarters that were quite nice but they were permitted to live off-site as well. Nurses were required to live here and slept in shifts in cramped rooms.
Nurses were expected to have no life outside their career. They could have no kids, no husband and it was helpful if they were homely to discourage fraternization with doctors and patients. They worked twelve hour shifts with one day off every month. For this, each nurse earned $13 a month and she paid the asylum $12 for room and board every month.
They cared for patients with a wide range of conditions. Some were mentally ill. Others were not. Some were soldiers with PTSD while others were simply a little depressed. Today they would be given a prescription for Zoloft and sent home to their families.
Many were women who were menopausal, hormonal or suffered from “lady trouble.” Some were committed to the institution out of convenience rather than need. It wasn’t uncommon for a husband to bring his wife here as an alternative to divorce. Since she couldn’t check herself out, she would be stuck here until he chose to come back and retrieve her. But this never happened for countless women as their husbands would frequently move on. and never look back.
Overcrowding eventually became an issue and rooms meant to house one patient were suddenly packed with many. Hallways were converted to dormitories and lined with beds. And yet, most wards had just one nurse to oversee countless people.
As the means for treating mental illness changed, life became less pleasant even for those patients who previously had a relatively good life. Freedoms were lost, drugs were introduced and lobotomies became a constant threat.
One doctor traveled the country, performing thousands of lobotomies on patients without even knowing their medical history or whether they needed the procedure. This particular doctor liked to perform for an audience, showboating for cameras while operating on up to sixty people in a day. Without regard for cleanliness or patient discomfort, no steps were taken to make the patient comfortable and those who fought received electric shock treatment until their resistance ended. Incidentally, this doctor traveled to Athens too.
Horrors became part of the daily routine for everyone.
Our tour guide was a young woman whose great grandmother was once a nurse here. Her grandmother, suffering from dementia, was horrified to think that her granddaughter was working at the asylum. She had demanded that no woman in her family ever work there again and didn’t understand that it was a museum now.
This place is sobering. It’s eye opening. It’s sad. Immensely sad. But the lessons they teach here are important and it’s a part of our history that we need to know.
It’s astounding that such a place existed and that we ever thought it was ok to treat people this way. We’ve come a long way in the treatment of women, in the treatment of the mentally ill, in the mainstreaming of divorce, in equal pay and in the treatment of women in the workplace.
Each poster in the above picture represents a woman who was once a patient here. They all were young and mostly brought here for ridiculous and unfair reasons, probably by a male relative. These are just a few of the thousands who suffered this fate.
If I had lived 150 years ago, I might have been committed by a bored husband because I was too willful, too independent or simply incapable of living under a man’s thumb as his property. Or I might have been one of those homely nurses making $13 to work for one day off a month and to sleep in shifts with other women in a cramped, hot room with no life or future outside work. It’s a terrifying thought.
This is why it makes me angry, knowing how women today take for granted things like their right to vote or their ability to work in any kind of job they wish even though we still typically aren’t paid equally. Our husbands can’t toss us into an institution simply because they’re bored and want a younger model. I once worked for a man who said I didn’t need a raise because I wasn’t a man with a family to support. Never mind that I worked harder and was more productive than any man who has done that job before or since. And yet, it wasn’t that long ago that I wouldn’t have been considered for the job at all.
But I digress.
If you’re looking for a thought provoking, fascinating destination, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is for you. I loved the experience, even if it did send my mind wandering through tangents like the one above. Click here to learn more about the asylum tours and to plan your visit. If you live close to me, it’s an easy drive and four lane most of the way.
Dress for the weather as there is no climate control and the facility is hot in the summer. Also, allow plenty of time. Our tour lasted ninety minutes and there were some museum rooms to explore afterward. And one last thing – every penny you spend here goes into the restoration and preservation of this place. So be sure to drop a few bucks in the gift shop or leave some in the donation box so that these important stories can be told for generations to come.