Haunted Asylums: Imagining Scary Ghosts

Joe Nickell

In the Middle Ages in Europe, the mentally ill—or those considered so—were kept in various settings, ranging from benign monasteries to “fools’ towers” where apparent madmen were housed. In London, the Priory of Saint Mary of Bethlehem evolved into a hospital (now six centuries old) that cared for the poor and aged and “lunatic.” Bethlehem, often shortened to Bethlem, yielded its derogatory nickname Bedlam. Synonymous with “madhouse” and “turmoil,” it became infamous for unenlightened “treatments” of the mentally ill.

The nineteenth century—coinciding with the development of alienism, now known as psychiatry—saw the increased growth of institutions intended for the housing and medical treatment of the “insane.” Treatments included pseudoscientific approaches such as phrenology and freezing baths and even the institutionalization of women, who could be committed by a male for simply being considered obstinate. In 1887, journalist Nellie Bly (Elizabeth Cochran Seaman, 1864–1922) skillfully feigned madness to be committed to New York’s Blackwell Island asylum. From that undercover role, she penned an exposé that sparked significant reforms (DeMain 2011).

To this background of the pathetic, the irrational, and the bizarre, add the otherworldly concept of ghosts, and we see why “haunted” asylums have become popular visiting places. They particularly attract so-called ghost hunters—wielding equipment that does not detect ghosts but yields various glitches, interpreted with knowing looks as spirits. Such places also lure the general public, seeking what they expect to be spine-tingling thrills. I have investigated three of these, two accompanied by my wife, Diana, who, with tragic irony, is herself waging a valiant fight against dementia. Here is some of what I found.

Haunted Buffalo Asylum

Among Western New York’s allegedly most haunted sites stands the architecturally acclaimed H.H. Richardson complex, begun in 1871 and opened in 1880 as the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane.

     Its two 185-foot towers rose from a four-story structure originally flanked on either side by five stepped wards; its female wing was completed in 1895. Based on the humanitarian philosophy of Dr. Thomas Story Kirkbride (1809–1883), one of the foremost insanity theorists of the day, the asylum was intended to provide curative hospitalization for the mentally ill.

Kirkbride was a physician who advocated for the mentally ill. In 1854, he published his influential treatise, On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangement of Hospitals for the Insane with Some Remarks on Insanity and Its Treatment. (It was republished in 1880.) While his ideas met with mixed responses, after his first wife died Kirkbride showed remarkable faith in the efficacy of his treatments; he married one of his former patients (“Kirkbride” 2019).

Crowded by a surge in inmates, the asylum’s occupancy was eventually exceeded by the thousands. In 1927, half the grounds were lost to a college, and more was claimed by modern buildings in the late 1960s. In 1974, patients were transferred to the new Buffalo Psychiatric Center. From then (until a preservationists’ lawsuit in 2008 brought $100 million in state rehabilitation funds), the old Richardson complex was abandoned and fell into decline and disrepair (“Buffalo State Hospital” 2017). (It has now been restored as the eighty-eight-room Hotel Henry Urban Resort Conference Center, which Diana and I have explored—see Figure 1.)

Figure 1. Restored as a hotel, the old Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane is still popularly haunted. (Photo by Joe Nickell.)


During its long abandonment, it became a spooky place. According to Weird New York (Gethard 2005, 250–251): “Not surprisingly, rumors abound that the castlelike structure is haunted by the ghosts of former patients who died there. They are said to roam the grounds frequently and to love most of all the tunnels that lay beneath the buildings, connecting them.” Moreover, the “mentally disturbed” are sometimes held to have “a greater tendency” for hauntings because “they have higher functions of the unconscious mind,” according to Buffalo ghost walks guide Mason Winfield (Sullivan 2016).

Or as I suspect, people simply imagine them to be especially scary ghosts.

I have traced the abandonment-creates-haunted-place phenomenon many times before. A site without an apparent ghost becomes dark, neglected, run down, taking on the semblance of a still from a Hollywood movie.

The eerie aspect prompts whispers of ghosts, and in time lurid lore develops. With it come dares to explore the “haunted” place, and pranksters may even await those who accept the challenge. In any case, their own flashlights may spark reports of fabled ghost lights. Ghost hunters will record “anomalies” that they themselves may inadvertently cause, and reporters cannot be far behind, collecting stories for Halloween publication.

In Western New York, for example, I encountered this phenomenon at the once-dilapidated mansion of Bellhurst Castle in Geneva, which enticed youth into making it a sort of ghostly playground; the old octagon house now at Genesee County Village in Mumford, which only acquired ghost stories after it fell vacant; and the Van Horn Mansion at Burt, which attracted its first ghosts during a period of abandonment between 1967 and 1970 when, said a volunteer at the historic house, “it did look spooky” (Nickell 2012, 92–93; Winfield 1997). (I was quoted explaining the dynamics of this type of ghost creation in a brief article on the Richardson complex for Buffalo Spree magazine, written by skeptical colleague and artist Bruce Adams [2017].)

A young woman who once broke into the deserted Buffalo asylum with friends described it this way: “It looked like someone snapped their fingers and everyone disappeared,” leaving behind old medical contraptions and moldering hospital beds.

They saw no ghosts, but it was “really dark” and as a floor partially caved, they started running. “When we saw a sign for the morgue I said, ‘Screw this! I need to get out!’” She said she was overwhelmed by fear. “All I can remember were my emotions. I wanted to die.” On the other hand, one man who explored there said he felt completely welcome (Constantine N.d.).

Yet again, considering the differences in people, hotel developer Dennis Murphy has spent an impressive amount of time there—during both day and night—but he has not had a single ghostly experience (Fink 2016). That seems to me a very telling fact.

Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum

Unlike the Buffalo State Asylum, now a classy hotel and thus but a shadow of its darker days, West Virginia’s Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum (TALA) in Weston offers a real step back in time (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. West Virginia’s Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum offers a real step back in time—with alleged ghosts. (Photo by Joe Nickell.)


At almost a quarter mile long, it is among the largest buildings of hand-cut stone in the United States. Construction began in 1858—as with the Buffalo asylum, again following consultations with Thomas Story Kirkbride, at the time superintendent of the Pennsylvania Hospital for the Insane. The initial construction was done by prison laborers, and the facility opened in 1864 (“Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum” 2019).

Although it was originally designed to house just 250 patients “in solitude,” by the 1950s overcrowding had reached more than ten times that number. The asylum also had poor sanitation, insufficient lighting and heating, and other problems. After a new psychiatric facility was built, the old asylum was closed in 1994. In 2007, the historic building was auctioned off, and soon evening ghost hunts and tours were being offered. An advertising brochure we obtained on our daytime tour of TALA on September 3, 2017, stated: “Thousands have been committed and unfortunately died at the Asylum. Decide for yourself if they are still occupying the historic wards and treatment rooms” (“Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum” 2017).

We took the expansive “historic” tour ($30 each) that lasted an hour and a half and wound through four floors of patient rooms, the apothecary, the morgue, and elsewhere. Sometimes I amused myself by surreptitiously dropping back and producing “orb” photographs. (Many ghost hunters consider this feature evidence of the paranormal. However, the appearance of radiant spheres hovering in space simply results from the camera’s flash rebounding off specks of dust, droplets of moisture, or the like [Nickell 2012, 103]. I make such photos deliberately by first scattering dust in the air.)

Like ghost hunters everywhere, those who “investigate” at TALA are on a fool’s errand. Based on glitch-prone equipment that does not, in fact, detect ghosts, their quest is another pseudoscientific hunt for anomalies. In addition to orbs, the ghost buffs report “unexplained lights, ghostly footsteps, eerie voices, [and] the unshakeable feeling of being watched” (McCormick 2016). The word unexplained is instructive, because this is an example of the logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance” (“we don’t know what caused something; therefore, it was a ghost”). One cannot draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. Besides, an unexplained event may not be unexplainable, after all (Nickell 2012, 269).

Moreover, as with the previously discussed Buffalo State Asylum, TALA appears to be yet a further example of the abandonment-creates-haunted-place phenomenon. Before its closure in 1994, there were few, if indeed any, recorded accounts of the place being haunted. But after it became abandoned, dark, neglected, and run-down, it was just the kind of place to invite whispers about ghosts—its spookiness enhanced by folklore about the tormented former patients.

If that were not enough, the “investigations” by such TV shows as Ghost Hunters (in 2008) and Ghost Adventures (in 2009) did the rest. The latter was a “live televised seven-hour investigation on Halloween Eve”—just the kind of hype and hucksterism to hustle and hoodwink haunting aficionados. Hence, we learn that:

The lonely spirit of a young girl named Lily wanders the halls, looking for a playmate. She makes herself known to visitors in several ways, including interacting with a menagerie of toys set out in the room dedicated to her memory. But Lily isn’t the only child at TALA—ghosts of many of the hospital’s younger residents haunt the upper floors, sometimes following visitors throughout the building, even following them home. (Olsen 2016)

According to ghost hunter/writer Eric Olsen (2016), “Lily’s life story is ambiguous at best.” She came to life—so to speak—on a 2010 episode of Ghost Stories when a self-claimed “psychic” named Tammy Wilson “discovered” the alleged child. Yet so-called psychics are often characterized by fantasy-proneness (Nickell 2012, 120–121). Soon, others were encountering Lily or “Lilly,” but that is attributable to the power of suggestion (Nickell 2012, 352–353).

Other “versions” of Lily’s story (what folklorists term variants and cite as evidence of folkloric dissemination) have been given. Indeed, one intentionally fictional story raced across the internet, mistakenly termed a “historical account.” Olsen (2016) asks rhetorically: “Where is the truth, if any, in Lily’s story? Are there slivers of fact intermingled with these elaborate accounts? Did she die there? Did she ever live there?”

“Lily” is as unlikely to be real as any of the other “ghosts” at this or any other site. Ghost hunters and raconteurs notwithstanding, science has never authenticated a single ghost.

Alcatraz Hospital

Although not an asylum per se, Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary nevertheless served that purpose for many of the incorrigible prisoners and the criminally insane who were incarcerated there. Located on a small, stark island in San Francisco Bay, it was converted from a fort to a maximum-security prison in 1933 and remained a foreboding place until it closed in 1963. It is now a national park.

Figure 3. Alcatraz Hospital was located in the infamous maximum-security prison that housed incorrigibles and the criminally insane. (Photo by Joe Nickell.)


When I arrived there with investigator Vaughn Rees in 2010, I already had a connection to the place. As a boy of eleven, I used to see in my hometown of West Liberty, Kentucky, the man who would become, in 1962, the only one ever to escape from “The Rock” and unquestionably reach the mainland alive: John Paul Scott. (In early 1957, Scott, his brother, and another man had attempted a nighttime bank burglary in an adjacent county, and Scott was shot twice in the process. The trio fled after wounding the sheriff in the knees with a spray of submachine-gun fire, and I still vividly remember news of the manhunt that ended with the gang’s capture.)

Scott, who had been a lab technician in our town’s hospital, apparently went on to work at the Alcatraz hospital as well. For his planned escape with a fellow prisoner, Scott secretly improvised life preservers by stuffing prison shirts with inflated rubber gloves stolen from the infirmary! (Nickell 2012, 142–143.)

Throughout the prison’s use, a fully functioning hospital was housed within. According to an old Bureau of Prisons Bulletin (quoted in “Inside Alcatraz” 2014):

The Alcatraz Hospital, adjacent to the main cell house, is equipped with modern x-ray and physical therapy apparatus, operating theater, laboratories, and dental unit, and contains words and individual rooms for the treatment and convalescence of inmate patients. It has been certified by the American College of Surgeons and compares favorably with the up-to-date hospitals and clinics in the free community.

The hospital was staffed by a general practitioner. Other needed physicians, nurses, etc., were brought to the prisoners, rather than the other way around, to eliminate the chance of escape.

In addition to the several hospital ward cells (each of which could hold up to six men), there were two psychiatric observation rooms—which inmates derisively called “bug cages.” Mental illness was far from rare:

The number of prisoners who became mentally ill during their time on Alcatraz is hard to pin down: the official estimate of Warden James A. Johnston was two percent, but former inmate Jim Quillen said it happened “a lot more than that—all the time.” Many aspects of life on Alcatraz could drive inmates over the edge: the monotony, the lack of privacy, the threat of violence, even the knowledge that San Francisco and freedom were so close but impossible to reach. However, some prisoners also tried to fake insanity, hoping for a chance to be transferred to another institution—anywhere other than Alcatraz. (“Inside Alcatraz” 2014)

Of course, claims that Alcatraz is haunted (Vercillo 2008; cf. Nickell 2012, 141–146) extend to the hospital—even though it has generally been closed to the public. For sharing my knowledge of John Paul Scott, I was generously extended a special privilege—a young volunteer fetched a huge batch of keys and took Vaughn and me into that area.

Sounds of supposed trespassers in the hospital have reportedly caused park rangers to rush there, only to find the area deserted (Vercillo 2008, 70), the implication being that ghosts were responsible. However, sounds travel, and their location can be mistakenly perceived, as rangers well know. Despite rumor and hearsay, most of them do not claim ghost experiences at Alcatraz (Nickell 2012, 144). The assertion by Rosemary Ellen Guiley (2000, 3) that “Men’s voices have been heard in the hospital ward” fails to inspire confidence, because, if there were a credible source, why use the passive voice, which aids in concealing the source?

Vercillo (2008, 70) suggests that the various sounds may be from “the ghost of Robert ‘Birdman’ Stroud”—the amateur ornithologist played by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 movie The Birdman of Alcatraz. After his notoriety originated at Leavenworth Penitentiary and became a nuisance to officialdom, Stroud was transferred to Alcatraz in 1942. According to “Inside Alcatraz” (2014), Stroud was “a hypochondriac as well as an extremely disruptive inmate” who once incited a riot in cellblock D. He did spend eleven years confined to the hospital infirmary to separate him from the general population.

Some reportedly claim to hear “the distinctive whistling birdcall” the Birdman allegedly made (Vercillo 2008, 70), but how would anyone know what that sounded like? The claim is effectively refuted by the fact that Stroud never kept birds at Alcatraz. He left Alcatraz in 1959 and died at a medical center in Illinois in 1963. There is apparently no recording of such a call, so while “some say” they hear it, and Vercillo insists that “the cries of living birds on the island can’t cover” Stroud’s call (2008, 70), reasonable people will not be convinced by such uncorroborated assertions—apparent fakelore. On my visit to where Stroud lived, I neither saw nor heard any ghostly activity.

I discuss other ghost claims at the old prison in my book The Science of Ghosts (Nickell 2012, 141–142). The alleged spirits of Alcatraz are no more real than those at the Buffalo State Asylum or the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Superstitious belief, romantic attitudes, and imagination all play a role in supposed hauntings. While some persons report experiencing ghostly dramas, they are imaginings of this world—not another one.



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  • ———. 2019. Available online https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Trans-Allegheny-Lunatic-Asylum; accessed June 26, 2019.
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  • Winfield, Mason. 1997. The Octagon House. In Shadows of the Golden Door. Buffalo, NY: Western New York Wares, 56.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and “Investigative Files” Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC’s Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.