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TALA Tales: The Tragedy of Karl Kunst

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Superintendent’s Office
WV Hospital for the Insane
Source: WV History on View

The Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum. Weston State Hospital. West Virginia Hospital for the Insane. Whatever name you choose to call it, West Virginia’s massive hospital  building is no stranger to death and tragedy. However, the patients committed to its halls aren’t the only ones at risk for being taken too soon. Sometimes the staff are at the heart of TALA’s tragedies…and sometimes, it’s the staff’s FAMILY.

Around 8pm on November 2, 1904, G. Karl Kunst was found dead in his room at the State Hospital for the Insane. Upon hearing a gunshot, Kunst’s parents, including his father, Dr. A.H. Kunst, superintendent of the hospital, rushed in. Karl was found fully dressed, lying on the side of his bed, dead from an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the temple. He was 28 years old. 

Interestingly, while The Fairmont West Virginian, dated 03 November 1904 explicitly states the cause of death to be a suicide, it is recorded at the WV State Archives as being ‘accidental’. Did Karl take his own life on purpose, or was the ‘accidental’ designation simply for the family’s peace of mind and societal pressures?

At the time of his death, Karl was a Colonel on Governor White’s staff, and well known and seemingly well-liked by many. He had served as First Lieutenant with the Second West Virginia Volunteer Infantry during the Spanish-American War. In February of 1904, it was noted in local papers that Kunst, a strong Republican with many Democratic friends, would have made an excellent political candidate, and could run for public office that year, although it doesn’t appear he did. But, Karl was no stranger to tragedy.

On Christmas Day, 1889, Karl, who would have been about 14 years old at the time, joined several other boys for some target practice in West Weston. In a tragic accident, the gun Karl was holding discharged, striking four year old Guy Davis in the head. The little boy miraculously held on a full day before succumbing to his injuries. Guy was the son of Henry M.L. Davis, farmer for the WV Hospital for the Insane. Karl was described by the WV Argus, 09 January 1890 edition as being “prostrated from the effects of this sad accident.” Assuredly, it was a dark day for people of Weston, and especially the families associated with this tragedy. 

No one really knows for sure what victims of suicide are ever really thinking leading up to their decision to end their lives.  In Karl’s case, it could have been lingering guilt from his involvement in a young boy’s death. It could have been PTSD from his service in the war. It could have been anything or nothing. It’s sadly ironic, however, that Karl’s own father was the superintendent for the state hospital AND he lived on-site of the facility, yet was unable to get the mental health treatment needed to prevent this tragedy. 

*A new suicide prevention lifeline rolls out on July 16, 2022. Call or text 988 to be put in contact with trained counselors to help you or a loved one through a tough situation.*

Want more information on the everyday lives (and deaths) of the patients of Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum? Check out my collection of posts, linked below:


The Fairmont West Virginian
03 November 1904

WV Argus
09 January 1890


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