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Snakebite and Bad Whiskey – Asylum Committal Reasons

By Staff | Aug 30, 2017

The early 19th century treatment of patients in early lunatic asylums was sometimes brutal and focused on containment and restraints. How could a person end up in such an institution against their will? Reasons for committal were varied back in the early days at West Virginia’s most noted mental asylum, The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum or TALA. Older folks who had no one to take care of them could simply walk into the hospital, sign some papers and stay there until they died. Family members would often be embarrassed about their mentally challenged family member and have them become a resident as well. Boys and young men who were caught masturbating could be committed. Children who had ailments such as smallpox, heart disease such as mitral valve prolapse, exhaustion or tuberculosis could be committed. In 1912, 12-year-old John Green was admitted and then died from epilepsy. He is buried in one of the asylum cemeteries. Teenager William Lee Gumm died of tuberculosis in 1933. He is also buried in an unmarked grave. These are just a couple of sad examples of misdiagnosed and unjustified committals. Below is a list of some of the reasons for committal that actually occurred at TALA from 1864-1889:


Bad company

Bad habits and political excitement

Bad whiskey

Bite of rattlesnake

Bloody flux

Brain fever

Business nerves


Congestion of brain



Death of sons in war

Deranged masturbation

Desertion by husband


Disappointed affection

Dog bite

Domestic trouble


Epileptic fits

Excessive sexual abuse

Fall from a horse

Feebleness of intellect

Fell from horse and war

Female disease

Fever and loss of lawsuit

Fever and jealousy

Fits and desertion of husband

Gathering in the head



Gunshot wound


Immoral life



Jealousy and religion

Kick of horse

Kicked in the head by a horse


Liver and social disease

Loss of arm

Marriage of son

Masturbation and syphilis

Menstrual deranged

Mental excitement

Milk fever

Moral sanity

Novel reading


Opium habit

Over action of the mind


Over study of religion

Overtaxing mental powers

Parents were cousins

Periodical fits, tobacco and masturbation



Religious excitement


Rumor of husband murder

Seduction and disappointment

Self-abuse and Severe labor

Sexual abuse and stimulants


Snuff eating for two years

Softening of the brain



The War

Time of life


Uterine derangement

Venereal excesses

Vicious vices in early life

Women trouble


In the early 1800s, wives and daughters were often committed for not being obedient enough to their husbands or fathers. Women were expected to be homemakers and not much thought was given to their education. If a woman spoke out and went against the ‘norm’, she could be committed.

I first became aware of this a couple of years ago. I was visiting a courthouse and noticed the term “lunacy” on many of the women’s admission forms. Shockingly enough, a woman could be quite often divorced for reasons of lunacy. Her husband would put her in the asylum and then conveniently file for divorce. New wife, new life.

Men were committed for various reasons as well. This one chanced to be the very first male admission to TALA in 1864. He was the 12th admission at the asylum and was admitted for melancholia and sunstroke. Sunstroke! He was just 53 years old. A 38-year-old merchant from Mason County was admitted later that year for “The War” and probably suffering from what we now know as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. In the same year you have another male being admitted for masturbation at age 28 in February of 1864. He was a cabinetmaker from Virginia and apparently had been spotted doing the “evil act of masturbation,” which caused his Acute Mania. Even the man who initiated the Boy Scouts had his view. Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout movement said that if masturbation (which he described as “beastliness”) became “a habit, it quickly destroys both health and spirits; he becomes feeble in body and mind and often ends in a lunatic asylum.”

When children were committed, often times the families, probably due to embarrassment, would tell others they had died. Some children were committed for being an unwanted pregnancy, for disobedience or illness such as Down Syndrome or autism. As late as 1958, we have a stillborn being birthed at the hospital, only to end up buried in one of the hospital cemeteries that sit back behind the main hospital building. “Little Crookshank baby” was born on Nov. 30, 1958 and went to be with the Lord, a much better place to be than the asylum.

Our history of psychiatry in this nation as in other countries, is a dark history. What a long way we have come.

Sherri Brake is a paranormal researcher, author and Haunted Heartland Tour owner. You may email her at SherriBrake@gmail.com or visit her website at www.HauntedHistory.net