Milledgeville's Central State Hospital Changes Role, Decays from Disuse

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Posted: March 10, 2012 By: Doug Richards Source:


MILLEDGEVILLE, Ga. -- Built in 1893 it was the building for "white convalescent females," said the spokeswoman for Central State Hospital, speaking into a microphone at the front of a tour bus.

The tour bus ambles through a state property that's huge and contradictive. High profile, yet guarded; beautiful, yet haunted.

"Contrary to what most people believe this is a hospital building, it's not a jail," she says, as they pass a building surrounded by barbed wire.

It is Central State Hospital in Milledgeville. At its height, this was state of the art, the world's largest mental hospital. In its earliest parlance, it was the Georgia Lunatic Asylum.

Its heyday was the mid-20th Century, when psychiatry was informed by grainy films, and riddled with now-discredited science.

"This was on the verge of the time that people understood mental illness was not God punishing you or witchcraft or things that had been thought for hundreds of years before," Brown said of the Asylum's founding in 1842.

The campus is sprawling and mostly empty. Huge old hospital buildings with segregation-era labels like "white male receiving building" are rapidly decaying from disuse. The empty buildings are gothic, moldering monuments to a time when this place housed and treated the desperately ill - and filled other, less noble purposes.

"And there were stories about men who got tired of their wives and became nuisances. Well, send her out to Central State," said longtime resident Katherine Fuller. She regularly leads tours through Milledgeville's historic sites.

"And that happened. If a woman was just a little too assertive... send her to Milledgeville. Those kinds of things happened, all too frequently. That's why I say there are aspects of the haunted here. People who in many cases were perfectly sane but inconvenient," said Fuller.

The empty buildings also represent a still-controversial measure of progress. The mentally ill are no longer chronically institutionalized.

"In a perfect world, we would be working ourselves out of business. And we would be helping people to move back into the community and be productive citizens," said Central State CEO Marvin Bailey.

Yet some cannot. John Calvert is 33. His father says he has the mind of a four year old. He's lived in a nursing home at Central State for the last 11 years.

"If you didn't have this facility, what would life be like for you?" we asked Vaughn Calvert, John's father.

"Well, it would have been tough for us eleven years ago. I don't know if our family would have held together," he answered.

"We'd like to keep things like they are," saying that his son would be happy spending the rest of his life at Central State.

Calvert is one of about six hundred clients of Central State Hospital, folks rarely seen outdoors here. A few patients are barely visible in a 1975 film recently discovered in CSH's archives and obtained by 11Alive News.

Central State is a facility with a mission that continues to shrink in light of tight money and evolving psychiatric practices. One of its newest and highest-profile buildings houses its maximum-security forensics unit. It holds criminal defendants judged not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial. They were once called the criminally insane.

The forensics unit, surrounded by barbed wire, also houses criminal defendants ordered by judges to undergo psychiatric examinations.

"Central State Hospital is a haunted place to me," said Fuller.

The bus tour was filled with folks who want to see Central State Hospital's history and facilities preserved.

"Beautiful campus. When you think that there were 13,000 people who were here often against their will, in the middle part of the 20th Century, most of whom didn't leave this place; and you see all the beautiful buildings that are in ruins, I feel like it's almost a ghost haunted place. That needs attention," said Fuller.

Their tour capped with a stop at the museum - where one could view the sturdy construction of the straitjacket - the tools of lobotomy, the instruments of electroshock therapy.

"We don't use electroshock anymore," Brown said. She says some private mental hospitals around the world still use it.

Central State Hospital's history is noble yet tainted. Its role in the 21st Century is unclear.