The structure has drawn ghost hunters from across the country, using the latest developments in paranormal research technology to catch a glimpse of a wandering soul on video, an audio recording or a photograph.

The Weston State Hospital — one of its many names since the 1850s when it was planned and construction of what is purported to be the largest hand-cut stone structure in the nation began — has drawn many spectators since it was closed in 1994 to patients.

There are those looking for a thrill — a slow drive-by during the long, dark hours between dusk and dawn, checking windows and the lawns contained within Victorian wrought iron for images of patients long gone from this world but who can’t help but wander the wards of the place where they were held captive during life.

There have been those looking for destruction, vandals who have certainly left marks on the building that are still visible today — broken windows, carvings on the expansive woodwork within the building and stains on the walls and doorways from a paintball battle when a group of off-duty police officers talked their way past a security guard in 1999.

Some have tried to take a little bit of history home with them — a room within the superintendent’s apartment still has a pile of broken pieces of wood that once framed a large fireplace in the quarters.

The current owners of the massive facility and other smaller buildings on the sprawling campus are making a dent in some of the damage left behind when the building was left vacant for 14 years. Joe Jordan, an asbestos demolition contractor from Morgantown, purchased the hospital, several smaller buildings and about 300 acres in 2007 for $1.5 million during an auction held on the Lewis County Courthouse’s steps.

Working quickly, the Jordans have opened the hospital and grounds — now referred to by its historical name, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum — to the public, offering something for everyone.

There are daytime historical tours, guided by volunteers who once worked with patients there on the grounds and are experts about the sordid and storied past of the facility.

There’s the “Hospital of Horror” event, a traditional haunted house set up in an auxiliary building that once served as the dining hall of the facility. And then there are the nighttime tours of the expansive building for thrill seekers and ghost hunters who are looking to either be spooked by an unknown sound or shadow or collect evidence of paranormal activity.

With such a storied past, an historic building like the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is sure to draw the curious, among them those who seek to prove the existence of life after death or capture paranormal activity as that proof.

Just this spring, the popular SciFi television series “Ghost Hunters” visited the facility and declared it to be haunted. Hosts Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson of The Atlantic Paranormal Society said they heard a woman’s laughter, a voice that said “go home” and saw a figure crouching and holding its head before being “sucked” out of the room.

But placed in its historical context, perhaps the most horrifying aspect of the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum was the treatment of the patients there when mental illness and disease weren’t understood by the medical community and patients’ rights were more than 100 years from being sacred.



Historical

significance

In the spring of 1858, just a few years before the state of West Virginia was established, the Virginia Legislature voted to establish a facility for the insane in a remote part of the state.

A search committee was formed and toured various parts of the state. In addition to the obvious support of the community, which greeted the committee with a brass band and a parade of school children to the site, Weston was chosen as the site for the new asylum probably because of its “healthful” location near the West Fork River, water and coal supply, and its isolation from highly populated areas.

In her book, “A Short History of Weston Hospital,” Joy Gilchrist-Stalnaker describes Weston as the ideal site for this facility based on the Kirkbride Plan. A medical consultant in the design of the asylum, Dr. Thomas Kirkbride believed that complete isolation was ideal in the treatment of various mental defects.

“The Kirkbride Plan required that the facility be in a rural area far from cities,” Gilchrist-Stalnaker writes. “Patients were treated by ‘complete isolation,’ meaning that they would be housed among strangers, never to be seen by family or friends.

“Patients were not even allowed to receive gifts or mail,” she writes.

Work on the structure began in 1858, and groundwork was primarily completed by prisoners and slaves, newspapers of the time reported.

Blue sandstone was quarried from Mount Clare on the banks of the West Fork and hauled in by wagon and then later from the riverbanks in Weston itself. Stonemasons were brought in from Europe to craft the intricate designs on the stones of the building, and the immigrants brought some of their Old World superstitions with them.

On the exterior of the building, you can still see unnerving stone carvings of faces, which were intended to ward off evil spirits.

By the late spring of 1860, one story of the southern wing of the expansive building was under roof as the construction schedule went from the end of the building toward its center, where the distinctive 200-foot clock tower would eventually be built.

But by the following year, when Virginia seceded from the Union and Francis Pierpont was named governor of the Restored Government of Virginia, construction all but stopped. In fact, in June of 1861, Union soldiers marched from Clarksburg to Weston in the middle of the night, woke up a teller, and removed $27,000 meant for hospital construction from the Exchange Bank of Virginia at Weston at gunpoint.

Money intended to continue construction of the asylum went toward start-up cash for the new government, which eventually would be known as the state of West Virginia and admitted into the Union in 1863.

After several lawsuits between West Virginia and Virginia, reparations were made for public projects totaling about $14 million, and included compensation for the Weston asylum.

It’s not the only connection the hospital had with the Civil War. The vast grounds of the facility were used by both Confederate and Union soldiers, depending on which army was in “control” of the Weston community at the time. And many report that the completed parts of the asylum were used as either barracks or stables for the soldiers. Soldiers also raided supplies meant for construction.

But despite the continuing war between the states, the asylum officially “opened” in the fall of 1864 for nine patients, though it would be nearly 20 years before the structure was actually completed.

The substantial completion date of the hospital was 1882, at a total cost of $725,000 — more than $300,000 over the original budget in the late 1850s. At that point, more than 700 patients were housed in the building, which was four stories high and 1,295 feet long.

Walking through each ward of the entire building is a two and one-third mile jaunt. There were about 9 acres of floor space in the original structure.

There are 921 windows (all either barred or beveled with wrought iron), as the Kirkbride Plan required ample doses of sunlight to improve mental defects, and the cut-stone walls are 2 and a half feet thick. Additional acreage was acquired over the years, and auxiliary buildings were constructed, bringing the grand total to the ominous 666 acres.

Over time it became a completely self-sufficient facility, and included oil and gas wells, a coal mine, a water-treatment plant, a working farm, barns, an ice plant, a dairy and cemeteries — and patients were “employed” to work at these facilities and for other necessary tasks to keep the facility operating.

The south wing of the hospital was reconstructed in 1935 after a patient intentionally set a fire that ravaged that section of the hospital. Remarkably, no one was killed in the blaze, and the wing was rebuilt for $155,000 by the Works Progress Administration.



Progression

of treatment

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum is practically a case study in the evolution of the treatment of patients with mental illness.

“This hospital is so many things,” said Cathy Turner, the historical tour guide. “It’s connected to the Civil War, the very foundation of the State of West Virginia. It also reflects the progression of the understanding and treatment of mental illness. If you lose sight of who you were and where you were, you lose sight of where you’re going.”

Originally designed under the Kirkbride Plan, which was developed based on the Philadelphia psychiatrist’s theory of “Moral Treatment” for the mentally ill, the original building was developed to provide sunlight and fresh air to assist in the treatment of mental illness.

Isolation was key, as was patient privacy — the hospital was designed to treat 250 patients. However, at its population peak, there were between 2,500 and 2,800 patients in the 1960s housed there. Expansive rooms intended for other uses became “dormitories” housing row after row of beds.

The first log book used at the hospital lists reasons for patient admission and includes causes like grief, congestion of brain, feebleness of intellect, seduction and novel reading.

But by the turn of the 20th century, those within the medical community began to gain more understanding about the causes of mental disease and the human brain, and the treatment-by-building theory was debunked and doctors began to look for other methods of relief.

However, in the early 1900s, medical theories were tested on an experimental basis and the medical community did not have the sophisticated diagnostic testing of modern medicine. Doctors began to experiment with brain alteration and psycho-surgery— like lobotomies, which damages a portion of the brain to alter mood and personality.

Other treatments, like shock therapy and water treatments (iced or heated baths) began to gain prominence. When all else failed, containment and isolation were used to control the most unruly patients.

It wasn’t until the 1950s when doctors began to understand that some mental conditions were caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and prescription drugs were used to control symptoms of mental illness.

In her book, Gilchrist-Stalnaker refers to a newspaper interview with Mary Ryan, a 50-year staff member with the hospital who talked about treatment of patients prior to the turn of the century. Ryan described containing patients with “sleeves” or straightjackets, straps and cribs, “slatted affairs in which patients were placed in a prone position and were held on their backs by means of a lid which fit on the cribs.”

Ryan said these practices were abolished in 1893 when there was a change of leadership in the hospital, and staff instead sat with patients to restrain them.

On a recent tour of the building, guides pointed out shackle points where patients may have been chained to the walls of containment rooms.

In the late 1930s, responding to public demand, the medical community and health organizations began to survey asylums and the conditions mental patients lived in nationwide.

In 1938, representing the Mental Hospital Survey Committee, Dr. Granville Jones studied the Weston hospital and made recommendations for the improvement of the facility, which then housed 1,661 patients for various mental defects, epilepsy and drug and alcohol addictions.

West Virginia wasn’t without its advocates for the mentally ill. More than 10 years after the visit from Dr. Jones, Mrs. Charles Hoag of St. Albans told the Charleston Gazette that “more than 1,800 men and women were jammed into long, dreary dormitories, doubled up on tiny rooms intended for one, many existing in miserable depreciated quarters, which could never pass minimum inspection standards for domestic animals.”

But it wasn’t the hospital administration that the Charleston Gazette blamed for such deplorable living conditions. It editorialized that “it is the fault of the people of the state who refuse to furnish the funds for proper care of our mentally ill” and “there can be no valid excuse for the state to subject its unfortunate wards to inhuman indignities.”

By the 1950s, the message had been made clear to the leadership of the state, including a young state senator from Raleigh County, Robert C. Byrd. Byrd was among the state delegation who inspected the hospital in 1951 as it was going through a remodeling process after harsh public criticism in 1949.

The state administration was revamped in the 1950s as well, and eventually the facility came under the umbrella of the state department of health. Between the 1960s and ’70s, patients’ treatment and rights began to evolve — many believe it was the revolutionary novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” in 1962 and then later the 1975 movie version starring Jack Nicholson that changed the public perception of asylums and the treatment of mental illness.

By 1986, the state announced that it would build a new mental health-care facility in Weston, but it wasn’t until 1994 that the new facility was dedicated as Sharpe Hospital and the last patient at Weston Hospital was moved there.

E-mail Misty Poe at mpoe@timeswv.com.

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