The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (Part II of III)

If you missed Part 1, yesterday, it’s here, with the basic history of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, West Virginia, and some of the photos from Our Traveling Reporter’s recent tour of the facility, which is carefully maintained, being restored in places, and privately owned.

On to Part II of this great tour. We intended this to be the final part, but there will be a Part III. Lots of pictures!

There is an eerie display of luggage, reminiscent of the suitcases of Auschwitz or the parallel display in the Holocaust Museum in DC. In this case, these are the unclaimed steamer trunks of patients. What became of the patients? Those anonymous, numbered graves? God alone knows.


One of the trunks bears a very clear name and address. Who was Henry L. Geer? And what was the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn? We found one Henry L. Geer, single, at age 54 living with his parents in Oswego, New York in 1930. (Source document). He was a laborer, working in the industry of “general laborer,” and like most of the men on that page of the 1930 Census, the “veteran” block was marked “yes.”


The Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn occupied three blocks centered on First Avenue and 52nd Street. It provided armed guards (duh) to merchant ships in wartime. These were the gunners on armed merchantmen, and In World War II Brooklyn provided guards for ships trading to Atlantic and Mediterranean ports, which we know from a site on WWII Armed Guard history. We also know that there was an Armed Guard in WWI. It is possible that Geer’s veteran experience qualified him to be an officer commanding a shipboard detachment in WWII (he would have been nearly 70, though). And somehow he wound up at Trans-Allegheny after that? If this is the same Geer.


The uniform, presumably Geer’s, bears the Purple Heart, three campaign awards (American, European-African-ME, and Asia-Pacific/CBI), and the Philippine Liberation Medal, awarded by the Republic of the Philippines. Those were the days when two rows of ribbons meant something.


Other miscellaneous artifacts were found when a wall built a century-plus ago to close an archway and improve the bathrooms in the doctors’ housing was removed by restorers. The Asylum continues to give up its secrets — and raise more questions.

Geer, and other inmates, generally wound up in simple wooden coffins. The number of the dead is unknown; there were three known cemeteries in the hills behind the Asylum,  indifferently marked if they were marked at all, and historians believe they have discovered a fourth. The dead were buried with their “vital statistics” in sealed glass jars, including their death certificates. Was this a bow to future ages?


Note that the coffin has been stripped of its handles!

They have three cemeteries and they believe they have found a fourth.

Death certificates were usually buried with the bodies. Coffins stacked 5 on top of each other.

No names on headstones. Numbers, or nothing. But then, State employees ripped up headstones to make it easier to cut the grass and sold them as building material.

This is not an apparition. It is a tour guide.


They dress in period nurse uniforms! (However, OTR corrects us — he and his lady friend both did have a paranormal experience at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. You will have to read Part III to see what it was).

The asylum wasn’t designed in a vacuum:

The asylum is modeled after one in Illinois. The asylum here is a quarter of the size of the one in Illinois!!!


And to get the right quality of work, they needed the right quality of people.

They brought in stone masons from Germany.


The masons pointed out that carting the stone in from 20 miles away by ox cart was wasteful. They could get it out of the river 600 feet away.

One side of the striking clock tower had no clock. The reason? That face was towards the working farm, and they wanted to discourage clock-watching among the inmates detailed to farm duty.


The architectural details are amazing, like this view up a stairwell…


…and these hand-formed plaster details on arches and pillars.


More after the jump, including some of the stuff the doctors at the hospital used to take care of the routine (not mental) health problems of the hundreds or thousands of inmates.

The number of people onsite varied over the years. For example, in1927 they had 1300 patients and 120 staff. That’s not just the medical professionals and their helpers; it includes cooks and grounds keepers. Logistics for a brigade, but without an established logistics train, or any of the 20th and 21st centuries labor-saving inventions.

The medical instruments used at the time include some used today, and some that today’s doctors would look upon in horror. Here’s a medical supply cabinet:


Unfortunately it doesn’t include Dr Freeman’s wife’s icepick. “That’s pronounced FRONK-en-Steen, if you please.” Still, Freeman didn’t believe he was a monster, much less a creator of them; he thought he was helping. On the cutting edge, you might say. He not only did lobotomies here, but did them by request all over the country — almost 3,000 in all.

And another:


The instruments in the bottom shelves in the cabinet above were used for amputations, at one time the last and best hope for containing infection in wounded extremities. A variety of braces and supports were left behind by deceased patients — note the label on the cabinet below!


Syringes in those days were reused. They were complex, expensive instruments of plated (later, polished stainless) steel and glass, and they really needed to be used many times. They would be sterilized between uses — or were supposed to be, anyway.


The following is a self-portrait of OTR in his guise as a connoisseur of instruments of torture vintage medical instruments. Many of these seem orthopedic-surgically oriented. trans-allegheny211

If you embiggen it you can read the labels. Somehow, though, we doubt a “pituitary rongeur” was used in spinal surgery, as the label suggests — either that, or these docs’ grasp of anatomy was worse than we thought.

That’s it for Part II. Tomorrow in Part III:

  • A deeper dive into the doctors’ and familes’ comfortable quarters;
  • A look in some of the wards;
  • A review of the tension between treating people and keeping dangerous people locked up;
  • Some more stories from the place’s long history; and,
  • OTR has a creepy — was it paranormal? — experience.

Thanks for reading!

21 thoughts on “The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (Part II of III)

  1. Scott

    Typos: (On the first, the punctuation outside the parentheses drives me crazy. Apologies if that is stylistic flair.)

    (However, OTR corrects us — he and his lady friend both did have a paranormal experience at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. You will have to read Part III to see what it was).

    the woking farm,

    1. John M.

      (The style I was taught is that if the entire sentence is inside the parentheses, the punctuation also goes inside the parentheses.) If the parenthetical is contained within a sentence, then the punctuation goes outside the sentence (as when you close a sentence with an aside).

      -John M.

  2. Keith Z.

    Thanks for posting this series. It’s a bit different than what you normally post, but still facinating. I thought that comparing the hospital to a battalion an unusual, if apt comparison.

  3. DaveP

    Bottom left of the instruments are actually Doyens, non-crushing used mostly for intestinal surgery. Might be used for C-sections or, given the circumstances, female sterilization procedures? Which along with frontal lobotomies are pretty horrible to consider…


  4. Pathfinder

    I don’t think that is a Purple Heart. The colors on the edge are wrong.

    I think it is the Naval Reserve Medal. Which became obsolete in 1958.

      1. Pathfinder

        Wouldn’t be the first time that a vet got a medal at the end of his service and just put it on there. I have seen lots of pictures with ribbons out of order.

        Still an impressive rack though, as SPEMack said below. He covered a lot of ocean.

        1. Blackshoe

          Also worth noting if that was his uniform on display, he was Lieutenant Commander, not a Lieutenant

          1. Hognose Post author

            My guess is it is, and he was promoted beyond the rank marked on his footlocker. I still have a duffle bag somewhere that says I’m a PFC (and has my SSAN on it), and I have my great uncle Ovide’s which is stenciled with his rank (and serial number) from the Pacific Theater. Somewhere.

        2. SPEMack

          Bah. That response didn’t come out the way I intended. Yes, it would be senior to his campaign ribbons. The medal is equivalent to a GCM for Naval Reservists/denoting how much service one has in the Reserves.

  5. SPEMack

    I think it is too. My Great Uncle who crewed Destroyers in three wars has that Medal.

    Still an impressive ribbon stack. Not a theater he didn’t sail across.

  6. Docduracoat

    That glass syringe with the metal luer tip connector in the box, labelled hypodermic syringe resistance glass, is still in common use for “loss of resistance” technique to identify the epidural space.
    One is supplied in every sterile epidural tray and is used once and discarded.
    Strange to see one displayed in a museum case.
    We use special plastic loss of resistance syringes so I collect these unused glass syringes and donate them on medical missions
    The Doctors in Haiti, Cuba and Guatemala only need to wash and autoclave them.
    They are also useful for measuring duracoat and cerakote paint and catalyst.

    1. John M.

      Cuba? That can’t be right; Michael Moore told me that Cuba has the best medical care in the Western Hemisphere.

      -John M.

    2. Hognose Post author

      We used to have old stuff like this, and an autoclave, in the team med kit, back in the day (as late as mid-90s). At some point we turned it in.

    3. Hognose Post author

      Strange to see one displayed in a museum case.

      Odds about 99% that whoever set up that display knows diddly about medicine. I know just a little, and I didn’t know that these were still in use in your epidural kits.

  7. Max Mueller

    Our mother spent many months at the Cincinnati Sanitarium (later the Emerson A North Hospital) in the 1950’s and early 60’s as a result of thyroid deficiency which was discovered too late after many shock treatments and restraints. A sorry time for our Dad and us kids!

  8. Y.

    Back before it was found you could cure syphillis with malaria, a lot of the inmates in these asylums were there because of tertiary syphillis..

    That was the age, when people were one ill-advised tryst away from insanity.

  9. Pingback: The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (Part III of III) | WeaponsMan

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