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The Whispers

Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia has a vast and complex history. Learning about that history will leave you forever changed. You have been warned.

Driving home from a weekend getaway with my daughter, I glanced over as she grabbed a makeshift pillow and settled in for a nap. And I…I was thankful. Thankful to have the entire one-and-a-half-hour ride back home to make sense of the thoughts churning in my head.

I turned the radio down low. But the whispers…those would not quiet.

Whispers through time. Some inherently, wonderfully good and others coated thick with evil.

The enormity of history, medical and social issues, and every different side of one too many issues over the past 150 years were simultaneously stewing, cooling, and coagulating internally. They echoed and swirled, competing for attention, and all I could do was try to process this complex history.

You see, we had gone to Milledgeville, Georgia. Our final outing before we left was a two-hour trolley tour of Central State Hospital.

Some of you may know the name. At its founding its name was the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum.

And so it begins.

Imagine a place where there were no restraints, no chains, or alternate means of shackling. No matter how you were brought to the facility, if you were restrained—once you arrived those restraints were removed. The focus was on rehabilitation and release, not institutionalization. Staff members took their meals with patients, sitting at the same table--building relationships and a sense of camaraderie and safety. The facility itself was built with beauty in mind. Moldings were intricately carved. The guiding theory was that if you were in a place of beauty, you were more likely to heal.

That is what mental health treatment should be.

And it was, for a time.

In Georgia, in 1842.

That is not a typo.

It took care of its patients during the Civil War, when it faced dire financial straits, the supply lines were cut, patients were starving, and General Sherman came to town. The superintendent, Dr. Thomas A Green, convinced or cajoled Sherman into giving them Union rations. Rumor has it Dr. Green threatened to release all patients if rations were not given. Whether the threat was true or not, Sherman spared the facility, gave them rations, and proceeded on to his scorched earth “March to the Sea”.

In the 1950s, Governor Vandiver’s wife Betty visited the site and was shocked that there was not a church for the patients to attend. She took it upon herself to run a capital campaign for a Chapel of All Faiths, which was constructed in 1963. Aptly named, the single building had a large center portion for Protestant faiths, a separate wing for a Catholic chapel, and another wing for Jewish and Muslim worship.

Farmland, orchards, greenhouses, baseball fields, swimming pools, an auditorium, music therapy, and even a putt putt course were on the grounds.

Electric shock treatment and lobotomies, once cutting edge, were performed here. So were hysterectomies and forced sterilizations.

Overcrowding had long been an issue. Superintendent after superintendent asked the state for money and resources—buildings, staffing, supplies. They would occasionally get funds for a new building, but not more staff.

All it took for a woman to be committed were the signatures of two men and a statement naming her ‘broken’. That’s it…two men who did not have to be medical professionals. An abusive husband could have his wife sent away by signing a document and finding another man to sign as well. Because patients were triaged and staffing was inadequate, only those who arrived as a threat to others or themselves were given an initial examination. It could take a year for a wrongly committed woman to be given an initial examination and released.

At its peak, there were 13,000 patients with one orderly/nurse for every 100-150 patients, and one physician for every 200-300 patients. It was the largest institution in the nation, and depending on who you speak to, was also the largest in the world.

We all know the consequences of overcrowding and insufficient staffing…neglect, abuse, and death.

Decades of pleas from the superintendents may have gone unanswered, but in 1959 John “Jack” Nelson, an Atlanta Constitution reporter, began an investigation that forced the state to take notice. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting. His findings were scathing, deplorable, and reverberated across the state.

The State of Georgia opened its wallet and moved to open hospitals across the state. At the same time, the push for deinstitutionalization was growing. Up to that point, Milledgeville was the only mental health institution in the state.

The cemeteries punctuate that sentence; 25,000 patients were buried here.


Prison labor was tasked with mowing the grounds of one of the cemeteries. Instead of headstones, numbered metal markers were used to identify each burial spot, corresponding with records to identify who was where. It was difficult to mow between the markers, so the prisoners pulled up the markers and threw them into the woods.

Only 2,000 of 10,000 lost markers have been found. And the identifying records have been lost.

A memorial consisting of the 2,000 located markers and a life-sized angel statue serves as a guardian and perpetual reminder.

Generation after generation after generation of families worked for the hospital. A culture of caring that included checking out patients on Thanksgiving and Christmas and bringing them into their home. The majority of an entire community dedicated to patient care.

Superintendent pleas and a newspaper investigation was the beginning of the end. What was once a 20,000-acre tract is now 2,000. Over two hundred buildings dot the sprawling campus, mostly abandoned, and left to the elements. Buildings are fenced off as they fight on the losing end of a battle with time itself. Roofs have collapsed and windows are broken in what once were beautifully crafted buildings, visual scars of the hope and despair that inhabited and plagued this place.

There are roughly 180 people still being served, referrals from the justice system to determine competency for trial.

The hospital does not entertain ghost hunters as those they are still serving suffer from hallucinations and delusions. It would be traumatic, insensitive, and tone-deaf to have ghost hunters walking around while trying to help those with severe mental illness.

Back in the car, my mind continued swinging like a pendulum. The complex history flooded my senses, attempting to process all of this and much more not included here.

Because this is an inspirational blog and not a travel blog, there are many, many lessons. Over 150 years’ worth, but here is a start.

  • On the initial 1842 treatment protocol: Sometimes we get it right the first time.

  • On Dr. Green, the superintendent, standing up to General Sherman: Never underestimate a non-profit leader or care-provider.

  • On the Chapel of All Faiths: When you see something that needs to be done, roll up your sleeves and get it done.

  • On the overcrowding: When pleas go unanswered, you must find a bullhorn.

  • On the neglect, abuse, and death: As much as we would like to go marching into the past and change it, we can’t. Look around and never turn a blind eye. Ever.

  • On the investigative journalism: The power of the pen is vastly underappreciated.

  • On the State of Georgia’s reaction to the expose: Do not wait until a building is engulfed in fire to begin pouring water on it.

  • On the cemeteries: 25,000 people…our hearts need to grieve and resolve to do better.

  • On the memorial: It is never too late to attempt to restore dignity.

  • On the generations of workers: When we seek help for one thing (overcrowding/abuse), at times the appropriate remedy (more hospitals/deinstitutionalization) has unforeseen consequences (massive job losses/economic downturn/abandonment).

  • On the abandoned buildings: As difficult as it may be to watch, in the end to dust we all return.

And one more thing. As to the ghost hunters, we do not need to know if there are ghosts there.

The history itself whispers to us.

I thought a one-and-a-half-hour drive would allow me to make sense of what I had seen and heard.

It wasn’t.

The whispers are still there.

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