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

trans-allegheny-overviewThis is Part III of three parts. To catch up, here’s Part I and Part II. Yesterday, when we stopped working on Part II in order to post it up, we promised:

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

Before we go too deep into those details, we’ll look at some of the other buildings’ exteriors, and we may circle back to more exteriors at the very end of this post.

Here’s the original, Civil War period, building. It was the subject of a dispute between Virginia and West Virginia over funds. West Virginia spirited the money off, as it was seceding from VA which was seceding from the Union — or trying to.


This later building behind the main structure was a medical center, or “hospital for the hospital,” built 1930, later repurposed as a tuberculosis isolation ward.


To continue, through the bullet-listed items above, take the jump by clicking “more”!

Welcome to Your New Home in the Nut House

It could be pretty nice, if you weren’t one of the nuts. Let’s start with some more of the doctors’ quarters. This style of furnishing remained popular well into the 20th Century.


As any reader of old novels knows, a doctor has to have a study! Here are two images of the reconstructed study.


They have generally tried to restore these rooms in line with specific period photos.


Wonder what date that newspaper is? And how many nations are in Africa, on that globe?

The doctors’ children were well provided for.trans-allegheny303

The nurses’ quarters weren’t quite so lavish. Nurses were expected to be single women, and lived two to an apartment, with two bedrooms per apartment.


A nurse’s roommate worked the opposite shift.


Life in the Loony Bin

On the other hand, if you were one of the nuts, the possibilities of life ran the gamut. Some people were fairly functional and given considerable freedom, and some even came away with fond memories of their stays here. Many, though were treated more harshly, especially if they were considered threatening to others.

trans-allegheny07This Ward E sign (previously shown in Part I) was also significant in that it is the only original ward sign. All the rest were taken, presumably as souvenirs, when the facility closed!

Ward 1 held the most docile, tractable and calmest patients. It had much less of a prison feel to it. Today, it has been restored to match 1906 photographs.


It had more amenities…


Hardwood floors were standard throughout the building. But they were lost in many wards in a tremendous fire. An inmate started the fire, using turpentine stolen from the paint shop. With only three fire escapes, there might have been tremendous loss of life — but a nurse rang the dinner bell instead of the fire bell, and the patients duly filed out to the dining facility and safety!

Here and elsewhere throughout the building, the bars on the windows were curiously constructed. Why? So that they aligned with the windowpanes.

trans-allegheny331They were trying to keep people under lock and key, without making it look like a prison and making them feel like prisoners.

Ward 4 was last used as a geriatric ward.

trans-allegheny334 In 1953, a dedicated geriatric building was constructed instead.


Ward C (next picture) is today relatively bare. It was, however, the ward most feared by the staff: the violent womens’ ward. The wide corridors were designed for practicality as well as aesthetics.


OTR notes:

The most dreaded ward to work on at the hospital. Women were more violent and unpredictable then men. Staff only came through in small groups.

Ward C with tour guide and tourists for scale:


Note that many tourists return every year or two, because the Asylum is constantly adding exhibits, restoring new rooms, opening more of the grounds to the tours, and conducting events. For example, in October they do a bunch of Haunted House things leading up to Halloween.

This next image looks like Ward C, apart from the color scheme. This was Ward F, the violent mens’ ward. In the womens’ ward, the wooden doors were natural-finished. But here…


…in the mens‘, the doors were painted blue and generally disguised as steel doors. If the inmates knew they were wood, they’d attack them. (People in here were crazy, not necessarily stupid).


Take a note of the window panes. More on them anon. Next picture is the room that was the “day room.” Patients/inmates would gather here and entertain themselves, or be entertained.


Not all patients were safe (for themselves, for others, or both) in a group ward. And sometimes, rule infractions needed to be dealt with. But they didn’t have solitary here. 

They called it seclusion. Note the tiled room, and the floor drain. You got stuffed in here if you were a physical danger to yourself, the other inmates, or the staff. Or all of the above.


There were multiple seclusion cells. These blue doors really were steel.


If you were out of control in the seclusion cell, the next step of escalation was to restrain you to this shackle point.


As crowding increased, the facility ran out of seclusion cells, and one idea that was attempted was this “seclusion dorm” holding multiple violent male inmates.


That worked about as you might expect, locking dangerous inmates in with other dangerous inmates. How would you expect it to go?

[One inmate] killed another man by punching him and driving his nose through his brain.

Patients hung another patient with bed sheets. They hung him repeatedly as torture.

They then put a bed post on his head and jumped on it until it went through his head.

Well, that’s one cure for mental illness.

And one of the weirder features of this kind of lockup? The wallpaper. Look at it closely:


It’s not wallpaper. Each bit of the design is hand-painted, on a layer of paint that is now yielding to the ravages of time. Why painted? Wallpaper could be ingested, torn off, even weaponized. This place was trying to serve two masters, to prevent these inmates from harming anyone, while nursing them back to mental health.

Here is Ward S (not sure who was housed here). Remember that the paint wouldn’t have been peeling like this when it was occupied. One hopes.


Throughout all of the 20th Century, doctors continued to try to apply the latest science to the thorny problems of mental illness. Here, a room once held the then-novel invention, the electroencephalograph.



Starting to understand brain waves certainly hasn’t done science any harm, but it doesn’t seem to have gotten us any closer to practical help for the mentally ill.

The first patient ward, ever, was a female ward. Here it is today…


…and in a historical picture.


Some women here were insane, but some were just unwanted. 

The first patients were women and most were here for domestic reasons.

The man that owned you and one man that was considered sane would sign a form and, bang, you were here.

He just had to amend the form and say the kids had the same disease, and he could leave them here too.

Only the man that put you in could sign you out.

It wasn’t all bleak. This bare room fails to tell its story alone, because it was an auditorium in which entertainments were presented.


The auditorium was used for church services for staff and patients alike, and the holiday festivities there  fondly remembered, at least by one former inmate:


But delight and despair always walked hand-in-hand in the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. In this next picture, you stand at a weighty crossroads. Left: the auditorium, and all the delights within. Dead ahead: confinement ward for criminally insane women.


End of Life in the Asylum

Before you passed into the caskets seen in previous parts, you had to die. When that happened, you rode this elevator…


…to the morgue, here with Nurse Tour Guide running through the history of the utilitarian room.


You might spend some time in the cooler, before or after autopsy.


Then, it was off to a coffin, with your death certificate in a jar, and an unmarked grave, as previously recounted.

The Criminal Insane vs. the “Virtuous Insane.”

The 19th Century was a cruel and judgmental era. Along with the people that we might think ought to be in asylums today — the hopelessly dissociated and the violent lunatics — the asylum of 1880 or 1930 was also home to many who today remain at home and more or less integrated in society. These included people with Down Syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, mental retardation, and even physical illnesses that were misunderstood as mental, such as cerebral palsy. Many of these disorders can have a range of effects from mild to severe, and those inmates (especially in the 20th Century) were often under a work-release program, where they engaged in productive work in Weston or nearby during the day and returned to their rooms in the Asylum in the evening.

From the earliest days, the dangers of integrating the Criminally Insane with the “Virtuous Insane” were well understood.


Dr. Bland didn’t live to see it but in 1946, a special building for the criminally insane was constructed. It housed 125 in the squat, ugly architecture of the 20th Century.


This is a visiting room in that building. Security had to be primary, here.


This is a protected station from which staff could keep an eye on the criminally insane inmates, views in two directions from the same spot.

trans-allegheny341 trans-allegheny342

Later, this building became the “forensic building.”

One set of inmates who suffered were women. In the 19th Century, women’s rights existed exactly to the extent that men were willing to indulge them. An upset father or husband seeking to move on could, and some did, simply sign over “his woman” as a lunatic, without her protestations amounting to anything. “Hey, lady, it’s the nuthouse, everybody here says he or she’s not nuts, it’s part of the insanity.” She couldn’t leave on her own: her father or husband had to sign for her.

It was sharia-compliant nuthousing, before sharia was cool.

Many women today suffer minor mental illnesses such as mood disorders or depression and function alright in society and in life (in part, thanks to medications that were unimaginable even 50 years ago, when it was Thorazine or nothing).

OTR Gets a Troubling Feeling

Our Traveling Reporter is a stable, steady, phlegmatic sort, not much given to flights of fancy and capable of sitting with you in companionable silence, never feeling the urge to talk just to fill dead air. When he speaks, he has something to say, a bit like the taciturn Indian of old stories. He did, however, begin to tell this story to his lady friend, who was on the tour with him. She, too, is a person of marked stability — had they lived in the 19th Century, neither would have been put inside this place.

OTR got a shooting pain in his skull. At that point, the guide then told the members of the tour that they were in the lobotomy recovery area. The pains stopped when they left the room.

He told her what he’d just experienced. And she reported that she had experienced exactly the same thing. Neither told the other until they had exited the area. As he texted us:

Both of us got severe headaches and shooting pains behind one eye when we walked in to the lobotomy recovery area.

That was before [the guide] told us what it was.

Neither of us mentioned it to the other. Both of us had it stop as soon as we left the area.

Perhaps it’s just that the creepy history of the place makes one suggestible. Or perhaps the sufferers of the lobotomy ward so filled the place with their suffering, that even today one feels it. We can’t say.

We can only wonder which of today’s standard treatments will be viewed three-quarters of a century from now, with the shock and horror that the well-meaning Dr Freeman’s frightening surgeries, of three-quarters of a century ago, induce today.

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

  1. Haxo Angmark

    in the bad old days,, Mrs. Clinton would be in just such an Institution: criminally insane wing. But now she is going to be Prez…and burn ‘Murka down. Excellent.

    1. Hognose Post author

      The guy is rock-solid. I’d join him in a quest to bring back the three heads of Cerberus on a stick, that’s how solid. If he said it happened, it happened. Why it happened? Neither of us can fully address that.

  2. John M.

    “We can only wonder which of today’s standard treatments will be viewed three-quarters of a century from now, with the shock and horror that the well-meaning Dr Freeman’s frightening surgeries, of three-quarters of a century ago, induce today.”

    “Anti-depression medications” which have as a listed side effect, “suicidal ideation” will be on that list. I’ve no doubt about it. As will “turning the insane out to city streets and Obamavilles nationwide.”

    -John M.

    1. Antibubba

      “Suicidal ideation” is legal talk. As someone who would not be alive without those medications, I can tell you why people who start taking them sometimes off themselves. I’m not sure Hognose wants that discussion posted in his comments section, though.

      1. John Distai

        From what I’ve read, people who are severely depressed aren’t motivated to do anything. Then once some of the depression is lifted, they now have the motivation to take some action, which unfortunately, may be to end their life. Is that your understanding?

    2. bloke_from_ohio

      My personal favorite is the medication for restless leg syndrome that is linked to spontaneous compulsive gambling. I would love to see the data that backs up the warnings on those adds. How did they even know to look for that? You have to give that outfit kudos for covering all their bases.

      Another good one is the social anxiety medication that causes uncontrollable diarrhea. I guess it must be pretty strong if it can mask the anxiety one must feel knowing they might spontaneously soil themselves in polite company.

      -Overly Educated Operations Analyst

  3. John Distai

    On one stay at the in-laws house I had “something” happen. I told them, in jest, that their house was haunted. They are very religious, so I was curious if they’d freak out. They turned to me calmly and said “Yes, we know. We’ve had weird stuff happen here over the years. The former owner died in that room…”

    I always hope for a repeat, but my other visits have been uneventful.

  4. Tennessee Budd

    Hognose, I’m not sure, but I think that in the description of the nurses’ quarters you meant “…lived two to a bedroom, with two bedrooms per apartment”.
    If not, just ignore me.


    The caption on the brainwave doodad describes it as an “electronencelphalograph” which I’m pretty sure is incorrect. I’m sure that having a spelling error (or multiple spelling errors in one word) in a photo must be driving Scott…errmm…mad….:-)

  6. Cap'n Mike

    Who knows what kind of reflection or echo we leave behind when we die.
    I have never experienced anything like what OTR did, but i wouldn’t discount anyone who has.
    There is so much about the universe we just don’t know.

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