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We drove away from The Greenbrier and along the roads of West Virginia, to the town of Weston.
Our destination: The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum, and if you’re thinking that’s a rather quirky place to stop, I would not disagree. But I’m afraid you’ll have to get used to that on our trips.
A little bit of history first: this was a psychiatric hospital that operated from 1864 – 1994. It was built in the Kirkbride Plan, which was a type of building designed based on Moral Treatment. Basically, this school of thought felt that the mentally unstable could be cured in part by living in beautiful, inspirational surroundings. I know, I tend to bring a lot of things back to King Ludwig, but I recognized this school of thought as being in place during the treatment of Ludwig’s insane brother, Otto, during the 1870s. He was sent to live in a palace that had been converted into an asylum for the wealthy insane.
We entered and bought our tour tickets, and since the tours only started on the hour, we had some time. The ground floor had a museum of sorts, where I learned various things about treatment of those with mental afflictions over the years of the asylum’s operations.
Fascinating fact: this is the place where Dr. Walter Freeman performed a large number of his lobotomy surgeries. If you’re “new” to the concept of lobotomies, you can read about them — although it’s pretty disturbing. Basically, it involved severing the connections between some of the brain’s lobes. Dr. Freeman contributed “the icepick lobotomy” type, and yep, it’s about as creepy as it sounds. I learned about lobotomies years ago, when I did lots of reading about the Kennedy family. I always felt so sad for Rosemary Kennedy — JFK’s “slow”, ornery sister. She couldn’t keep up with the achievements of the rest of the family, and she became difficult as adolescence hit. Then, while her mom was on a trip to Paris, her dad decided to have Rosemary lobotomized. He was hoping this would calm her personality, and it did, but not in the way he hoped. Rosemary was pretty much a zombie for the rest of her long life. She spent most of her life institutionalized, dying at age 86. Rosemary was one of Dr. Freeman’s most famous failures for the procedure. Rose Kennedy never forgave her husband for having the lobotomy done on Rosemary, telling a biographer, “It is the only thing I ever felt bitter towards him about.” Knowing their history, that’s saying something …
The hospital was originally designed for 250 patients, but over the years, that number was far exceeded. In the 1950s, over 2400 patients were housed there.
We learned that there were many more females than males over the years at Trans-Allegheny. Our guide told us that a reason for this could have been that husbands were allowed to commit their wives with no questions asked. Often, after such an incident, the husband showed up around town with a mistress. I had to think of Jane Eyre and perhaps-misunderstood Bertha. How many menopausal women ended up in attics or insane asylums over the years? It’s something to think about.
The building was in use as a hospital until 1994, which amazed me because 1994 doesn’t seem all that long ago! It was closed forcibly due to changes in treatment of the mentally ill. Reportedly, as late as the 1980s, unruly patients at the asylum were locked in cages.
The institution was slated for demolition, but has been purchased by a local businessman who hopes to restore it. I can’t even imagine the funding required for that, because the place is huge (in fact, it’s the largest hand-cut stone masonry building in the country, and the second largest hand-cut sandstone building in the world — only the Kremlin is larger). If you watch the show “Ghost Hunters,” it has been featured there.
Our 90-minute tour was interesting, but it focused on materials used in the building. I was really more interested in some of the stories of the patients, and how they had been treated here. For that, I think I’ll do a bit of research on my own. My daughter recommended I read One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I think I will.
For more money, we could have sprung for a longer and more-involved tour. For today, this was enough.