Guest Column: Central State Hospital – the unknown dead in my backyard, rethinking mental health & life

Central State Hospital, Milledgeville, Georgia

by Edward Reid

Years ago, any number of parents in Georgia would threaten their children that they would send them away to Central State Hospital if they were naughty.  That could scare them into behaving.  Rumors would trickle out the asylum about those that were “mad” and “crazy,” but perhaps they were not mad or crazy at all; they were just labeled that way by society.

Maybe mom was just too depressed, and dad had a younger lady on the side, and he didn’t know how to get out of the marriage.  He could get a diagnosis, and off she would go to State Hospital.  Uncle Jim had a drinking problem and would not act right in social situations, out of control.  Perhaps a trip to the State Hospital would clean him up.

The problem with these “assessments” and “trips” is they were not always given the correct diagnosis, and often those that became patients never went home.  Those were different times, but that doesn’t make it any different or less significant. It doesn’t mean that just since that was “a long time ago,” those people did not suffer any less. 

The record of the first patient came to Georgia’s first insane asylum on December 15, 1842, chained to a horse-drawn wagon. Tilman Barnett, described as violent and destructive, diagnosed as a “lunatic, ” never left. Like him, many followed in his footsteps, similar to a life sentence, but often these patients probably didn’t know how long the sentence would be.

Then there was a record of Barnett, a 30-year-old farmer from Bibb County.  He died six months later of a malady termed “maniacal exhaustion”.  He became the first patient and the first casualty in the long and often dark history of one of the nation’s most notorious mental institutions, known now as Central State Hospital.

At least Barnett had a name, unlike the thousands that are buried anonymously.  The dozens of acres hold the graves of more than 25,000 patients.   It is one mass common grave.  Many had been forgotten or shunned by their families.  You may have heard of some of these in your family history?  Or perhaps there are hidden family secrets.

The hospital ran a mortuary and even employed carpenters whose sole job was building caskets. For more than a century, the hospital buried its dead beneath small metal stakes; each was identified with simply a number corresponding to a patient’s file. Not even a name to mark a life. No dates of birth or death. Nothing.  How sad that a life had passed and nothing remained but a number.

In time, thousands of Georgians were shipped to the hospital for unspecified conditions or disabilities that did not warrant classification of mental illness, with little more of a label than “funny.” The hospital outgrew its resources, and by the 1950s, the staff-to-patient ratio was an unbelievable one to 100. Doctors at that time had complete control and wielded the psychiatric tools of the times.  These included lobotomies, insulin shock, and early electroshock therapy. 

Some other far less sophisticated techniques included children being confined to metal cages, adults being forced to take steam baths and cold showers, confined in straitjackets, and treated with douches or “nauseants.”

“It has witnessed the heights of man’s humanity and the depths of his degradation,” Dr. Peter G. Cranford, the chief clinical psychologist at the hospital in 1952, wrote in his book, But for the Grace of God: The Inside Story of the World’s Largest Insane Asylum.  Then in an investigation in 1959, it was revealed that out of the 48 doctors employed in one of the wards, none were psychiatrists.

We may think of things like this in other countries, but not our country, the United States.  How can that be? Experiments and identifying people just with numbers sound similar to Nazi Germany? What is worse is the graves became such a nuisance, an inconvenience for the lawn workers; when mowing, they pulled them out and threw them into the woods. Over a thousand of those markers were later found in the brush; these people, so bothersome for yard worker, they found their way into the woods. 

The evolution into madness actually began on November 4, 1834, when the General Assembly convened in Milledgeville. At that time, it was the capital of Georgia. Governor Wilson Lumpkin made an impassioned plea for “the lunatics, idiots, and epileptics.”.  “Every government possessing the means should without hesitancy provide suitable asylums for these most distressed and unfortunate of human beings, ” Lumpkin said.

Three years later, the legislation was approved, and construction took five years.   In November of 1842, the Georgia Lunatic Asylum opened in the tiny community of Hardwick on the outskirts of the capital. Six weeks later, a Milledgeville newspaper reported that a “sad procession” had brought the first patient, Tilman Barnett, the patient mentioned, chained to his wagon by his wife and other relatives.

Some of the hospital’s admissions registry shows after this: Samuel Henderson, 47, a farmer from Cobb County driven insane by “religious study, ” spent his final 11 years at Milledgeville. Juliana Mayer, 23, a “pauper, lunatic and epileptic” from Savannah, troubled by “disappointed affection, ” died of consumption after 9 1/2 years. Daniel Ashmore, 30, of Liberty County, arrived “demented” from “intense application to study” and died in his sleep four years later.

Diagnoses like this today would sound absurd and criminal, yet in that period, they were familiar.  Samuel Henderson, “insane by religious study”?  Perhaps he was overexcited about religion, and the family didn’t know what to do with him, so they sent him to the asylum to be condemned to death.  At a different period and in other circumstances, this may have been an influential preacher or theologian.

Juliana Mayer, only 23, “pauper, lunatic, and epileptic”.  Could this be she was born on the wrong side of the tracks, poor and uneducated, possibly bipolar or suffering from depression or a mental illness, and on top of that, seizures? She would make it until 32 and then die of consumption locked away.  I am sure she probably did not have a decent life considering how mental illness was treated at that time.

Daniel Ashmore, “demented from intense application to study”…  A man who was maybe worn out from his involvement in his studies?  So, the cure for that is to send him off to a lunatic asylum? Perhaps the family that sent him there did not realize that this would be the outcome?  Or maybe it was his decision, but he did not know what he was getting himself into?

Let’s consider other individuals that I think, because of their families influence and resources may have easily ended up in a place like Central State Hospital. Individuals like William James, the father of psychology and the founder of pragmatism, or poets like Emily Dickenson.  At one point, James contemplated suicide, which changed his outlook on life and how he viewed the human condition.  Emily Dickenson was a recluse who did not leave her house, but her father was an influential lawyer, and sending her to an institution would not bode well for his reputation.  If things had been different, we would not have the masterful and wonderous poetry of Dickenson that we do have.

“To die — without the Dying
And live — without the Life
This is the hardest Miracle
Propounded to Belief.”

There are tens of thousands of tragic stories like the ones I mentioned, tens of

Central State Hospital, Grave Markers serving as representative of bodies

thousands of possibilities.  Tens of thousands of William James’s and Emily Dickinson’s. Unfortunately, the details and many of the outcomes will go unknown.  Like the mass graves containing the remains of patients that once had names, the hospital itself is a mass site of injustice and stories of inhumanity.

On another note, it is odd and sadly ironic that we celebrate some people in the United States and often worldwide and forget others in all walks of life  25,000 people in the numbered and unnumbered graves.  There are conditions as to why we remember some people and ignore others.  Perhaps sometimes this value system is even distorted and, in a sense, demented.  The question that haunts the mind – who and what matters?

There is an angel statue as a memorial for the dead that have names at Central Hospital.  The monument was erected by members of the Georgia Consumer Council, some former patients, after working with volunteers to restore the overgrown cemetery beginning in 1997. What else remains but a jarring emptiness spilling over with ghost stories. It is a remnant and a marker to a not-so-distant past when we were silent as our citizens were shipped off and subjected to brutal and inhumane torture and we blocked them out of our minds…but for the Grace of God.


Article: “Asylum: Inside Central State Hospital, once the world’s largest mental institution” Doug Monroe February 18, 2015.