Western State Lunatic Asylum opened its doors in 1828 its first two patients were men suffering from religious excitement and excessive study. One left a few months later, the other stayed there until his death 1852. They represented the harsh division of patients, those that could be cured and the others that were there for life.
The Asylum’s first superintendent Francis Stribling believed in “moral therapy”, treat the mentally ill with respect and they will in turn respect themselves. The original buildings reflect the time when psychiatrists believed that architecture could cure mental illness. The designer of these buildings, Thomas Blackburn, was President Jefferson’s personal architect. It was said at the time that the hospital’s Pleasure Garden was so beautiful that the town’s people would all come and picnic on its lawns. Stribling didn’t like the town’s young men cavorting about with his female patients, and so he erected a fence to keep the town’s people out.
Things began to get a bit darker at Western State Hospital under its new superintendent, Dr. DeJarnette. DeJarnette was a firm believer that mental illness was hereditary, therefore the “feeble-minded” and “sexual promiscuous” needed to be sterilized. Over the course of the next 40 years, 1,205 sterilizations were performed at Western State mostly to teenagers and young adults. He performed 649 of them personally.
DeJarnette did not embrace the moral medicine that his predecesor had practiced. Instead he would have patients bound to their beds for hours at a time, induce insulin comas where a patient would be given an overdose to cure them of their addictions and suicidal thoughts. And of course electroshock, a procedure that caused such violent spasms as the current jolted through your body, that patients were known to break vertebrae and limbs.
A few years later in 1954, the hospital was averaging nearly 25,000 procedures a year on some 2,700 residents including one of the most horrific procedures at the time, the transorbital lobotomy. The so-called “ice-pick” lobotomy was popularized by Dr. Walter Freeman, a man who would perform the procedure on as many as 20 patients a day in the Virginia during a 12-day tour he dubbed “Operation Ice-Pick.” The procedure which he taught to many psychologists at the time involved inserting an 8 inch orbitoclast into a patient’s eye-socket then breaking through the skull and into the brain cavity with a metal hammer. Then the psycho-surgeon would attempt to sever the connections between a patients frontal lobes blindly, usually while the patient was either awake or semi-conscious thanks to receiving a dose of electro-shock. Patients would lose all their creativity and become docile human sacks at best, hemorrhage out at worse.
There are almost 3000 people buried in the cemetery at the Old Western State Mental Asylum. It is the final resting place of confederates, union soldiers, veterans of WWI and WWII as well as Korea and Nam. Some died of old age, some of suicide, many from psychiatric experiments, and more from pseudo-science like eugenics and psycho-surgeries. The most striking feature of the cemetery is the rows and rows of unmarked graves. At the time for patient confidentiality numbers were painted on the graves in place of names. The hospital has been closed for over 40 years, and at this point not a single number remains on a grave. Leaving thousands of dead mental patients rotting away in unmarked graves.