West Virginia Hills by Jeff Ellis

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, Weston

     A lot of us might be able to remember the 1975 film starring Jack Nicholson, who gave a stellar performance as Randle McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, a story set during the late 60s, early 70s in a state mental hospital somewhere in Oregon. I was only 16 years old, but I will never forget how terrified I was of Nurse Ratchet, and her horrible treatment of the mentally ill patients in her ward, especially the 6'7" very docile Chief Bromden, the 1/2 Indian character (the story's narrator) who was driven by his fear of the "Combine," a huge conglomeration that controlled society and forced people into conformity. I can't remember what it was I feared more -- her, or the idea of potentially being forced to give up my own individuality if I ever failed to maintain anything less than a semblance of normality! I was a teenager! I was feeling somewhat rebellious and abnormal anyway, and while I understood that McMurphy pushed the envelope (so to speak) a little too much, and so did not get a lot of sympathy for most of the film, even he finally was forced to succumb to the superior powers that be. So who was I? There was even a history of slight "craziness" in my family, so I needed to be extra careful! Electroshock therapy and lobotomies were not to be taken lightly, and the "institution" had the power to do as they pleased! We had all heard "stories." Ken Kesey, who wrote the novel (published in 1960), was inspired to write his story based on what he had witnessed while working in a mental institute during the 1950s. And as I walked down the long corriders of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston, I felt transported back to the days when women, especially, could easily end up being committed.  Thank goodness I was with John who is still rather enamored with me, and doesn't think I'm all that nutty!

     It was a sunny day when we headed out along beautiful, scenic Rt. 47, on what was originally the Staunton Turnpike that ran from Parkersburg across the mountains into Virginia. In less than 2 hours we hit Rt. 33 in Weston, taking us right by the asylum, and not having a set destination, plus never minding that ominous dark clouds ere brewing up a bad storm overhead, we decided to stop and check it out. And, as luck would have it, we were right on time for the 90 minute Paranormal Tour (I'm not kidding!), so we paid for our tickets and quickly joined our guide and another couple. Together the five of us would be hitting the "hot spots" of ghostly activity as we walked down the nearly dark hallways (they were rather dimly lit, plus by then it was thundering and pooring rain) covering all four floors of this delapidated stone-cut masonry building built some 140 years ago.

     We were kept entertained by lots of really cool ghost stories of past residents who seemed to still be hanging around. There was Ruthrie, an 89 year old woman who liked to slam her dinner tray, and a not-so-friendly man who paced the end of one hall,  whose presence both John and I felt. It was really hot in the asylum, as there was basically no air circulating anywhere; but at the end of this first hallway we both felt this man's presence so strongly that cold chills were running up and down my arms, and John said he felt like he was being pushed. Many times we felt a heavy weight on our chests (another sign of spirit activity); and we both witnessed the ghost of Lily, a 9 year old girl who had lived there with her mother, "playing" with a plastic ball. On the 4th floor John actually saw an apparition run into a closet in a room and then disappear. Some weird stuff actually showed up in John's photos, like shadow figures (which they say are seen often roaming the halls, as are people's faces) and spirit-like light forms; and then lots of his pictures turned out fuzzy, as if they were out of focus. Twice, John's camera just stopped working in rooms where there was supposed to be a lot of paranormal activity. He wouldn't be able to take a picture, and then he'd walk away, and BAM! He could.This kind of thing has never happened to him before, and it really frustrated him!

     Construction began on this asylum, formerly known as the Weston State Hospital, in 1858, and opened in 1864 to house 250 people, reaching its peak in the 1950s, with 2,400 patients in what became extremely overcrowded conditions. Changes in the treatment of mental illness, along with the deterioration  of the building, forced its closure in 1994. The building and its 300 acres were privately purchased in September 2007, and renamed the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.

     Both the building and its use have fascinating and notable histories.  On June 30, 1861, while the building was still under construction, Colonel Erastus Bernard Tyler swept through town with his 7th Ohio Infantry  looking to round up and convict any and all southern sympathizers, though their main mission was more likely the Western Branch of the Exchange Bank of Virginia, which had in its vault $30,000 in gold coins deposited by the VA state government to provide wages for the laborers working on the new asylum.  Tyler removed $27,000 of it (which would be worth 1/2 million dollars today), and took it to Wheeling, where it was used to help fund the new state of West Virginia in 1863! (Thanks, Virginia!) At the end of the war, the completion of the asylum was given top priority, and to this end Weston never had to experience any post-war economic depression.

     As for the insane, American colonists came to our shores believing that people who exhibited aberrant behavior had to be possessed by demons, witches, or Satan himself (note the Salem Witch Trials of 1692). Those without family or friends were most often placed in prisons along with criminals, chained naked to the walls, no matter the temperature, and mired in their own filth! Families who felt more responsibilty, but embarrassed none the less, often hid their relatives in attics, or sheds, or even in holes in the ground. By the 1770s facilities began to be constructed specifically to house the insane, but still more to extricate them from society rather than to help them, since insanity was thought to be incurable. It was Thomas Kirkbride who theorized that creating a more curative environment, one that admitted lots of sunshine and fresh air, would at least be a more moral way to treat patients (as he had witnessed the Quakers' treatment of the insane while he was a doctor at the Friends Asylum in PA), and could more possibly help towards some recovery. Thus, the building in Weston was designed based on Kirkbride's theory. Dorothea Dix, a famous social reformer, also greatly disturbed by the barbaric treatment given the mentally insane, worked single-mindedly towards altering their conditions as well. It is also noted at Weston that Dix would hire only the ugliest of women to be nurses, so as not to excite any of the patients, male or female, or other hospital staff. The doctors, nurses and staff members all had residences and living quarters on the upstairs floors. The occassional smell of pipe tobaco still lingers in the air of one doctor's apartment, which it did on the day John and I visited, prompting some excitement from our tour guide, who suggested that it was unusually strong that day, as we could all smell it! Hmmmm.

     By the turn of the century the practice of brain surgery had begun, and an American by the name of Walter Freeman  "perfected" the lobotomy, performing his first one in 1936. Inserting ice picks under the eyelids of patients, he drove them through the thin layer of skull bone, using a mallet and local anesthesia. Freeman performed 1000's of these lobotomies, even beginning a propaganda campaign to promote them as being the cure for anything from psychosis to depression to neurosis to criminality. He worked in WV before moving to CA where he eventually performed "assembly line" lobotomies, going from one patient to another, even having his assistants time him to see if he could break lobotomy speed records! He performed his last ice pick lobotomy in 1967 when a patient died on the table. By this time both doctors and the public were up in arms, questioning the number and necessity of lobotomies being performed in the United States. Unbelievably, while lobotomies are no longer being performed, having been replaced by the drug thorazine, electroshock therapy still is being used!

     From 1864 to 1889 there were about 125 different recorded reasons for admittance to the Weston State Hospital. Among them were listed bad habits and political excitement, domestic trouble, fever and jealousy, female disease, hysteria, ill treatment by husband, marriage of son, religious excitement, seduction, time of life, sexual abuse and stimulants, grief, hard study, shooting of daughter, venereal excesses, novel reading, parents were cousins, dissapointed love, desertion by husband, feebleness of intellect, over action of the mind, laziness, fall from horse, suppressed masterbation, and women trouble. These were just a few, but one can imagine that not every person admitted needed to be there, or wanted to be there. There's more than one story of women suffering from post-partum depression being admitted, along with their babies, by their husbands, never to be released even after recovery. Their husbands had found a new wives and moved on. I also imagine that still other people found solace and happiness shut away from the drudgery of their everyday lives. But in any case, it's hard to imagine why any of them might still be hanging around.

     The SyFy Channel's Ghost Hunter's Academy will be airing their visit to the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum  tomorrow, Wednesday, June 9th at 9:00 p.m. If you're interested, check it out. John and I will definitely be watching!

(c) copyright 2010 Travelin' West Virginia All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without prior written consent. For more information send an e-mail to trvlnwv@live.com

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