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Central State Hospital

“Edmund’s sick,

Edmund’s ill,

They’re going to take you

To Milledgeville.”


Central State Hospital, known as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum, Georgia State Sanitarium, and Milledgeville State Hospital, opened its doors in December of 1842 as the state’s first psychiatric hospital and was once the world’s largest asylum. The hospital was built over the Native American settlement Oconee Town, which was used as a neutral ground for tribes to trade, negotiate peace treaties, and hold special ceremonies, including burials. Some say it was built over some of the burial mounds, which have disappeared over the years. By the 1960s, the hospital included 200 buildings and a 1,750-acre campus, serving 12,000 patients. In 1842, the hospital’s first patient, Tillman Barnett, was brought over from Macon. He arrived via horse and buggy but wasn’t actually allowed to ride in the buggy with the rest of his family. He was chained to it and forced to walk the entire distance to Milledgeville. Six months later, he died from “maniacal exhaustion” caused by the walk. This was just the beginning of many deaths to take place at Central State Hospital. Of the first 50 patients, 29 died without ever leaving. Records list causes of death as dysentery, chronic diarrhea, convulsions, and "general paralysis." Just 8 of the first 50 were pronounced "cured."


In the many years that followed, thousands of Georgians were shipped to Milledgeville, often with unspecified conditions, or disabilities that did not warrant a classification of mental illness. Some examples are “intemperance,” “religious excitement,” “domestic issues,” “unhappiness,” “ill health,” and “jealousy.” Doctors would use questionable techniques to treat patients, such as lobotomies, insulin shock, sterilization (Began in 1932. Didn’t end until 1963, after the sterilization of 3,300 people, the fifth highest total of any state), and early electroshock therapy—along with far less sophisticated techniques: Children were confined to metal cages; adults were forced to take steam baths and cold showers, confined in straitjackets, and treated with douches or “nauseants.”


Naturally, the hospital ended up outgrowing its resources. It was a cycle: good intentions, not enough money, poor psychiatric and medical treatment, too many patients with too few caretakers, abuse and neglect, exposure and scandal, and, eventually, high-minded but fleeting reforms. The hospital held an average of 2,880 patients a day in 1904. By the 1950s, the staff to patient ratio was a sad 1 to 100. With these numbers, patient mistreatment and violence were rampant. In 1950 alone, three patients died nearby after escaping, one hanged himself with a bed sheet, and a patient beat another patient to death. Dr. Peter G. Cranford, chief clinical psychologist for the hospital in 1952 and author of But for the Grace of God: The Inside Story of the World’s Largest Insane Asylum, witnessed a patient in the maximum-security unit vomit on the floor, followed by two employees ordering him to clean up the mess with a towel - and then forcing him to eat the towel. The patient ended up choking to death. In 1959, Atlanta Constitution reporter Jack Nelson did a story exposing the abuse and neglect going on at the hospital. Nelson witnessed a nurse perform major surgery without a doctor’s supervision, a physician using experimental drugs on patients without their consent, and other instances of gross incompetence on part of the staff. He uncovered the fact that there was not one psychiatrist employed at the hospital, a quarter of the doctors on staff had histories of alcohol or drug abuse, and the staff physicians had been hired directly off the hospital wards after they had received psychiatric treatment themselves. Hospital officials denounced the articles as the work of "communist-loving" journalists. But Nelson's reporting, which won a Pulitzer Prize, spurred numerous reforms. By the late 1960s, other mental health facilities were being built around the state, causing the hospital to decline as thousands of patients began to be shipped off to other hospitals. Only a few hundred patients remained at the start of the 21st century. But the abuse didn’t stop there.


In 2007, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that as many as 136 state hospital patients had died under suspicious circumstances during the last five years. Forty-two of those patients were at Central State. Some choked to death while eating without supervision. One died while hospital employees restrained him face down on the floor. Others died from poor or even nonexistent medical treatment. The newspaper also found more than 190 instances in which the state confirmed patient abuse by hospital employees. One Central State case evoked an episode from nearly five decades earlier: A patient alleged that an employee forced her face to the floor where she had vomited, then yanked her away by the neck. The patient was 10 years old. These allegations led to the US Department of Justice to open a civil-rights violations case. To avert a possible federal takeover, the state eventually agreed to widespread changes, including more money for patient care, in and out of institutions. In 2010, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities announced the closure of the hospital, minus a few buildings that would become the state’s treatment and custodial center for justice system referrals and commitments.


Today, metal stakes in Cedar Lane Cemetery memorialize the 25,000+ patients buried in unmarked graves throughout the hospital grounds. With a death toll that high and after all the suffering that people experienced there, it is expected that some hauntings have been reported. One of the most famous hauntings associated with Central State Hospital is the story of a former patient who is said to wander the grounds, still searching for something that was lost during their time at the hospital. The apparition is often described as appearing confused and disoriented, as if trapped between two worlds. Visitors have reported eerie encounters with this lost soul, describing moments of inexplicable sadness and a feeling of being watched. Some even claim to have seen the figure vanish into thin air, leaving behind a lingering sense of melancholy.


Another well-known ghostly presence is that of a nurse who allegedly met a tragic end during her time at Central State Hospital. Visitors have reported hearing faint whispers and the sound of footsteps echoing through the hallways, attributed to the nurse’s restless spirit. There have been accounts of visitors feeling a gentle touch on their shoulder or a soft breeze brushing past them, believed to be the nurse’s way of reaching out from beyond the grave. Her presence is said to bring a sense of calm and comfort to those who encounter her.


The spirit of a Native American chieftain is also said to walk the halls of the Powell Building. He has been said to appear on the 4th floor. Perhaps there to remind us of what was there before the hospital? Others have reported hearing disembodied voices, feeling sudden drops in temperature, and even witnessing objects move on their own. One visitor described their experience of waking up in the middle of the night to find a figure standing at the foot of their bed, only for it to vanish moments later. Other visitors have shared similar stories of unexplained apparitions and eerie occurrences during their time exploring the hospital’s abandoned buildings. Psychics and paranormal investigators have also ventured into Central State Hospital, conducting investigations and gathering evidence of the supernatural. Some claim to have captured ghostly voices on audio recordings, while others have documented strange anomalies in photographs.

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