Historians at a Lewis County landmark go to great lengths to tell the story of the criminally insane, a history long kept behind locked doors.
“It all starts with a question,” says Rebecca Gleason, operations manager at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in Weston.
Each year, tour guides marshal legions of people through the state mental hospital–turned–historic attraction. They show off the compound’s many wards and wings, detailing the hospital’s history while providing a crash course on the evolution of mental health treatment.
Inevitably, someone asks a question their tour guide—or any of the tour guides—can’t answer. “You can’t fudge it. You can’t make it up,” Gleason says. So the staff makes the guest a promise—come back later, and we’ll have your answer.
The task of hunting down information about the asylum usually falls to Gleason. She digs around in birth, marriage, and death certificates at the state archives. She tracks down information about former patients and staff on sites like Ancestry.com. If she’s lucky, she’ll find some original records from the hospital’s 130-year operating history.
Sometimes, by the end of her research, she’s not only answered the original question, but tilled up a whole new chapter of the asylum’s story. That’s why, in addition to its standard 90-minute tour, Gleason and company have developed a spin-off tour focused entirely on the hospital’s history with the criminally insane.
“These People Were People”
It’s sad but true. For ages, people with mental illness were thrown in prisons or locked away in attics and basements.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that society at large finally began to realize this was inhumane and started transitioning these individuals to mental hospitals like the one in Weston, where people were treated like patients instead of inmates.
This step forward was not without its problems. Some of these patients actually needed to be kept behind locked doors, given their tendencies to hurt themselves or other people. So hospitals created special, secure sections for the “criminally insane.”
At Weston, these patients were kept in a few different sections of hospital over the years. Near the beginning of the tour, guides take guests to a building behind the main hospital, surrounded by razor wire fence that’s angled back toward the building so no one could climb out.
This ward was declared escape-proof when it opened in 1949. But, as Gleason says, “nothing’s escape-proof if you’ve got an imagination.” The first escape occurred within weeks of its opening.
Digging through the archives, Gleason found accounts of one patient who escaped three times in 10 years. Another patient, a dapper dresser whose looks evidently made it easy for him to blend in and slip away, asked authorities not to send him back. “I promised the guards this would be the last time,” he told them.
The tour also includes stories about the guards and orderlies who worked in the criminally insane ward. But, “the people love the patient stories the most,” Gleason says.
“It brings it home.”
Gleason saves the stories for the tour. She did say her favorite story is about Geraldine, a 19-year-old girl sent to Weston in 1956 after murdering her 58-year-old lover. “He’s the man I love, and he was cheating on me, and I warned him not to,” the femme fatale told reporters at the time.
Bringing characters like Geraldine to life in guests’ minds is important, Gleason says, because it helps them relate. “It makes them understand that these people were people.”
Stories, Still Unfolding
Even since launching the criminally insane tour, Gleason has continued to uncover bits and pieces of history about the facility and the people who lived and worked there. “There’s so much more information that I’d love to have in the tour. There’s so much more cool stuff we could tell if we had more time,” she says. That’s why, next year, the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum plans to add a longer, 90-minute criminally insane tour.
Although the hospital stopped taking most admissions in 1990, it continued accepting criminally insane patients until 1993. The extended tour will take guests to Ward D, the final place Weston kept this segment of its population.
Unlike other historic sites—where folks visit once and check it off their list—the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum’s ever-expanding tour options has guests returning year after year. “It gives them a reason to come back. That question they asked two years ago, we can answer it now,” Gleason says.
She’s not worried about running out of source material, because history is still walking through the door. Gleason has learned many of the facility’s documents were “liberated” when the place closed in 1994. “A lot of people were trying to grab a bit of history to keep and save,” she says. Those materials are now slowly finding their way back home.
Over the years Gleason has been able to obtain admission casebooks from 1891 and 1892, payroll documents for employees, and ward reports detailing everything that happened on a particular day, including which patients got into fights and which ones went to the dentist. She even came across a book of tests where administrators tested both patients and employees for syphilis.
Some of Gleason’s most prized artifacts are photographs. They’re few and far between, since cameras were largely forbidden in the hospital and the place closed long before smartphones existed. But the photos Gleason has been able to track down have proved essential in restoration efforts at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum.
“There isn’t a day that goes by I don’t learn something new,” she says. “I don’t think it will ever end.”
Historical tours at the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum run until November 5, departing at the beginning of each hour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Sunday. Reservations aren’t required—Gleason just recommends guests show up at least 30 minutes early.
Ghost tours are held year-round. Reservations are required for these tours.
Featured image courtesy of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum