In 1873, the General Assembly of the State of Tennessee realized the need for a hospital for the mentally ill. Although several sites were considered, the plan remained dormant. Twelve years later, in 1885, the plan to build a hospital was revised. A former plantation owned by General Calvin Jones was selected and purchased by the State of Tennessee. The 1,140 acre site would provide a quiet, relaxed setting in a country atmosphere.
The asylum was designed by the McDonald Brothers Architectural Firm of Louisville, Kentucky. It was modeled after the Kirkbride Plan. This was an architectural design meant to have a curative effect for the patients, which included open spaces and natural light. The facility officially opened on November 22, 1889. The hospital served 21 counties of Tennessee and accepted 156 patients from an overcrowded Nashville hospital upon opening.
The design consisted of a center section for administration with patient wings staggered on each side in the shape of a bat wing. Male and female patients resided on opposite sides and the more uncontrollable patients were typically placed in wards farthest away from the center administration section. The Mental Asylum would be the last state mental hospital to ever be built in Tennessee and it was also the least funded.
The name of the hospital was changed in 1919. Four years later, the hospital began operating under the Department of Institutions and remained under their guidance until 1953. The institution’s patient population grew from a few hundred in the late 1890s to over 2,300 in the 1960s.
The hospital housed all types of individuals. Ranging from murderers and rapists, to people suffering from depression, and even some just considered promiscuous. During this time period, a lot of people were committed for legitimate and illegitimate mental conditions.
Patients were crowded into large dormitories with little privacy. With so few doctors and staff, patients became ‘warehoused’ for decades. Due to severe staff limitations, patients were fortunate to see a psychiatrist for 10 minutes a week. Treatments performed here included hydrotherapy, insulin shock therapy, lobotomies and electric shock therapy to name a few.
The system for securing financing for patient care limited the operating budget. State agencies agreed to only pay for one patient out of a population of one thousand. Hospital superintendents had to engage in deficit spending to keep the hospital operating.
The institution once had a very unfortunate connection with Georgia Tann, who operated the Tennessee Children’s Home Society, an adoption agency in Memphis, Tennessee. Tann used the unlicensed orphanage as a front for her black market baby adoption scheme. Children born to patients at the Mental Asylum would be placed for adoption with a false background for as little as $7. Many children were sold to pedophiles or for slave labor. It is believed 5,000 families were displaced due to Tann’s adoption practices over 30 years.
Backed by local judges and politicians, Georgia Tann made millions from the 1920s to the 1949. Children at her orphanage were starved, beaten, and molested. During a four month span in 1945, 50 children died while in her care prompting an investigation by authorities. Not until her death in 1950, due to cancer, did the real story of her famous career come to light.
Class action lawsuits during the 1970s exposed the poor living conditions and widespread abuse of patients institutionalized across the United States. The advent of modern psychotropic medications and outlawing unpaid patient labor helped dwindle the overcrowding. Newly developed antidepressants were used to treat depression and a few other disorders. New psychiatric medications made it more feasible to release people into the community.
Many early records of admission and death certificates have been lost. Patients that died at the asylum were buried in unmarked graves behind the facility. Today, the asylum maintains care of about 250 patients and has 700 employees.