As scary as some of the asylum ghost stories may be, the history of the Trans-Allegheny is far more horrifying; and it is this horrific background that is the cause of so much paranormal activity.
When it was conceived, the Trans-Allegheny asylum was a big step forward in the treatment of mentally ill patients. The asylum was the brainchild of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride, a crusader for the mentally ill. He conceived of a facility that would provide patients with an abundance of light and fresh air which he thought were essential in the treatment of those with mental illness. He envisioned long hallways with 12-foot-high ceilings, and an abundance of windows to allow cross-breezes throughout the hospital. Dr. Kirkbride imagined spaces where patients would gather to socialize and eat. He also felt that patients should be allowed to roam freely around the hospital and grounds to help stimulate their minds and their senses, and to give them more control of their own lives.
Once plans for the hospital were underway, he ordered for the grounds to be landscaped in such a way that patients looking out windows would see only rolling hills and openness so that nothing would suggest that their hospital was also surrounded by gates to keep them locked inside.
The asylum was designed by Baltimore architect Richard Snowden Andres in a combination of Gothic Revival and Tutor Revival styles, and construction began in 1858. When it was completed, the hospital’s main building was nearly a quarter mile long and had the distinction of being one of the largest hand-cut stone masonry buildings in the United States. It was the second largest hand-cut sandstone building in the world, second only to the Kremlin in Moscow.
Prior to its opening, the name of the facility was changed from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum to ‘The West Virginia Hospital for the Insane’, and patients were first admitted in 1864. The hospital was designed to be totally self-sufficient, so it had its own farm, dairy, waterworks and, of course, its own cemetery. Naturally, the amount of land needed to make this possible was massive. By the time of its completion, it encompassed 666 acres in area and included 13 buildings. Interesting numbers!
As early as 1881 the asylum began to become overcrowded, housing 500 more patients than it was designed for. The hospital’s resources couldn’t keep up with the increased patient load, and conditions began to rapidly decline. Rooms intended for one person now held up to five. The farm and dairy compound designed for just 300 patients couldn’t meet the increased demand and patients began to become malnourished. As a result, their mental health issues worsened.
By 1938, the asylum was running at six times over capacity. Patients were running wild inside of the building because there weren’t enough staff members to contain them. By the 1950s, the hospital housed 2,600 patients--nearly ten times the number it was intended to care for.
A local newspaper, The Charleston Gazette, sent reporters to the hospital to expose its horrific conditions. Inside the walls of the facility they were shocked to find patients sleeping on the floor, and in freezing rooms because of lack of heat and furniture. The windows were covered with dirt and grime to the point where they allowed little light into the once bright hallways. Wallpaper was peeling and decayed, and some had been ripped off the walls by frantic patients.
Patients who were deemed “uncontrollable” were found locked in cages and in large wooden cribs in hallways, and bedrooms were only available for the more cooperative patients. Other cruel methods to help control the patients included ice water baths, bloodletting, and electroshock therapy.
Often, the treatments for mental illness were worse than the condition itself. One was insulin coma therapy in which patients would be repeatedly injected with large doses of insulin to produce daily comas. This wasn’t a method to control an unruly patient, it was thought to be an effective treatment for some mental illnesses. The theory was that drastically changing insulin levels lead to an altering of the electrical impulses in the brain. Although some doctors swore that patients who underwent the treatment had positive results, insulin coma therapy faded from use and stopped in the 1960s.
In the 1930s, the Trans-Allegheny asylum began giving lobotomies to many of its residents under the direction of surgeon Walter Freeman. His “ice-pick” method involved slipping a thin, pointed rod into a patient's eye sockets, and using a hammer to drive it into their brain to sever the connective tissue in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The damage done to these poor people was unimaginable. President Kennedy’s sister Rosemary was a victim of Dr. Freeman’s ice pick operation when she was just 23 years old. It failed, and she ended up spending the rest of her life in an institution.
Dr. Freeman performed over 4,000 lobotomies at the Trans-Allegheny, and hundreds of perfectly healthy patients were left with life-long physical and cognitive damage. This barbaric procedure also resulted in a number of deaths.
The Trans-Allegheny also had its share of gruesome murders. One night, two patients pulled another from his bed and tied him up with bed sheets, then hung him from the ceiling. The sheets didn’t hold, so they put his head under a metal bed frame, then killed him by jumping up and down on the mattress until his skull was crushed.
One would think that the hospital would have been closed down once such horrific conditions and medical practices were discovered. Not so. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the patient population began to decline due to changes in the treatment of mental illness, and the asylum finally closed its doors in 1994 after a new facility was opened in Weston.
The hospital and grounds remained vacant until they were auctioned off by the state in 2007. The winning bidder, Joe Jordan, an asbestos demolition contractor, got the 242,000 square foot building and the surrounding property for $1.5 million.
Places where tragedies occurred are often ripe with ghosts, so the Trans-Allegheny asylum is the perfect breeding-ground for paranormal activity. It is a storehouse of all of the negative emotions, abuse, and the confusion of madness, and anyone entering that space can pick up on those past impressions.
But what about ghosts? Spirits often stay rooted in places where they died a tragic or untimely death. Many don’t realize they have died, and so they live on in a sort of twilight dreamstate seeing images from their past, and images from the present which they don’t always understand.
When dealing with the Trans-Allegheny asylum, it’s important to remember what it is built out of--sandstone. There is something called ‘the stone tape theory’ which speculates that ghosts and other hauntings are analogous to tape recordings, and that mental impressions during emotional or traumatic events can be projected in the form of energy, "recorded" onto rocks and other items and "replayed" under certain conditions. Quartz is the mineral that holds the most energy, and sandstone is made up primarily of quartz. This might explain why the asylum is so haunted--the building itself is one, huge, 242,000 square-foot sandstone memory cell; and the memories it holds are misery, sorrow, and madness.
When the TV show Ghost Adventures visited the asylum, Sue Parker, a former hospital employee was interviewed for the episode. She said that she had an experience once while giving a tour of the asylum. She said, “I had a group of people on a tour, and we were walking down one of the hallways. When we got to one of the doors a woman who was on the tour said, ‘Oh my God, did you see that?’ I asked the woman, ‘What did you see?’ She just kept saying, ‘Oh my God, oh my God!’. I said, ‘Tell me what you saw’ and the woman said, ‘There was a lady dressed in a Victorian style dress with a high-neck collar. The dress fit her tight around the waist, then was wide at the bottom.’ The woman told the guide that this mysterious figure walked right up to her, almost face to face, and she just looked at her. Then, all of a sudden, she was gone.’
The Ghost Adventures team collected a lot of evidence during the investigation, the most compelling of which were the strange voices and noises that were picked up as they were filming. These included screaming, moaning, banging sounds, doors slamming, loud breathing, and grunting sounds. They also picked up a number of disembodied voices. One was a little girl talking, another was an adult male voice. At one point, their film equipment picked up a muffled conversation between two people coming from somewhere deep in the empty asylum.
In addition, their digital recorders picked up several clear EVP. These included the phrases, “Who are you?”, “You wanna fight me?”, “I don’t want it”, “Be quiet”, “I’m okay”, and “Zack and Nick, get out”.
Brenda Reed told a story about an experience she had while using the facility to hold a town festival. She said, “We were having a festival one day. It was after the place had closed for the day, and we were concerned that people might still be in the building. A couple of employees went to take a look around to make sure that it was clear. They came down and said that they had run into a gentleman on the second floor. They asked him, ‘What are you doing here?’. The man just looked down and said, ‘I’m looking for a way to get out of here.’ The man walked away, and when they went to find him, he had disappeared.”
Many spirits roam the halls of the Trans-Allegheny asylum. Some are angry, and many are confused. One spirit who seems to be very active is a little girl known as Lily. Many believe she still wanders the halls of the asylum where she lived and died.
Shelley Bailey, a local researcher, shared an experience she had with the little girl’s spirit when she and three other women tried to contact Lily by using a child’s rubber ball. “We asked Lily if she wanted to play,” she said, “and one of the ladies set a ball down on the floor. She set it directly in the middle of the floor. A few minutes later, the ball rolled all the way over to the wall. It went straight to the wall. No one else in the group touched it. The ball then bounced from that wall and rolled over to another wall. One of the women in the group picked up the ball and bounced it back to the wall, and it bounced back to her. We did this over and over again, we just kept bouncing back and forth.”
Psychic Tammy Wilson met with the Ghost Adventures team while they were filming at the Trans-Allegheny, and after doing a walkthrough of the facility she said that she connected with Lily’s spirit and had an idea why she haunts the building. She said, “She’s here because she doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to cross over, and I think she’s waiting for someone.” Who is Lily? No one knows for sure, but one theory is that she was a former child patient, or she was born to a female patient and died at the age of 9 at the hospital.
As for the other spirits who still roam the halls of the asylum, Tammy said, “I think that not knowing what to do, and wanting to be home but can’t be, is what holds them here.”
People often report a feeling of being watched throughout the asylum. One day a security guard was making his rounds, and when he got to the kitchen a feeling of anxiety suddenly overtook him. He said that he felt as if someone was staring at him. He saw movement near a doorway out of the corner of his eye, and as he turned to look at it he was shocked to see a human figure beginning to form. He described it as a grey, smokey shape roughly in the form of a woman wearing a dress. As he looked at it, he said that it felt as if a woman was watching him from the doorway.
Rebecca Jordan, operations manager of the Trans-Allegheny, insists that there are at least 7 spirits who haunt the asylum. Some make themselves known to visitors and paranormal investigators; others have interacted with her directly. Once while giving a tour of the facility, something reached out to her and made physical contact. “He laid his hand on my shoulder and squeezed,” said Jordan. “I was scared to death. The group in front of me was asking what happened to you? That was the last year I worked in the haunted house.”
The Trans-Allegheny asylum is open to the public, and there are several tour packages available. The ‘Heritage and History’ tours of the facility delve into the history of the treatment of the insane, medical procedures used at the asylum, and facts and features unique to the hospital.
Ghost hunters have a number of tour options, including daytime paranormal tours, flashlight tours, and even an opportunity to spend a night in the asylum. Ticket prices for the evening ghost tours and overnight investigations are pricey, but well worth it. After all, it’s not every day that you get to hunt for ghosts in the most haunted asylum in the United States.
The ways in which modern medicine understands and treats mental illness have come a long way from the days when the Trans-Allegheny asylum was up and running. If there is a silver lining in Trans-Allegheny's shameful history, it is that we can learn from the mistakes of the past in order to forge a better future for the mentally ill.
As for the ghosts, for now they’ll remain to roam the halls and occupy the rooms of the asylum; a place they knew as home, and where their suffering seems to continue to this very day. One day, perhaps, someone will visit the asylum not just to ‘hunt ghosts’, but to free these spirits and to reunite them with their loved ones. Until then, all we can do is pray for these poor lost souls, and for the souls of those who were, in many cases, unwittingly responsible for the horrors inflicted on so many innocent people at the Trans-Allegheny Asylum.