On November 4, 1834, the general assembly convened in Milledgeville, then Gov. Wilson Lumpkin made a plea on behalf of “the lunatics, idiots, and epileptics.” Georgia legislators passed a bill in 1837 for the creation of a state-operated insane asylum. The Georgia State Lunatic Asylum opened after five years of construction in 1842. Over the years, the campus went through several name changes including; Georgia State Sanitarium, Milledgeville State Hospital, and Central State Hospital.
The first patient was a 30-year-old farmer from Bibb County named Tillman Barnett. He was admitted to the Georgia State Lunatic Asylum in December 1842, chained to a horse-drawn wagon by his wife and family. Barnett was described as violent and destructive. Unfortunately, he died of “maniacal exhaustion” before the following summer. He became the first casualty in the long and dark history of one of the nation’s most notorious institutions.
Care of the patients was based on an “institution as family” model, which asserted that hospitals worked best when they resembled extended families. One of the physicians in charge at the time would eat with patients, and abolished using chain and rope restraints allowing them to roam freely. Many of whom were veterans of the Civil War who were unable to be cared for by their families.
By the 1870s, patient to physician ratio was a miserable 112 to 1, a number that would not change for over a century. Black patients were admitted after the Civil War, but were segregated to their own buildings until the 1940s.
The Jones Building served the surrounding community and asylum patients for 50 years. A quad of pecan trees sits in the middle of the sprawling Central State Hospital campus.
The Jones Building was a general purpose hospital that opened in 1929. The hospital served patients as well as the surrounding community, before closing in 1979. The Central State Hospital campus was once the largest insane asylum in the United States, some say even the world. At its peak, there were over 12,000 patients. Many of the patients became staff over time and helped run the asylum. The campus was its own town with a school, church, fire and police departments. Central State Hospital even had its own power, water, and steam plants.
As parts of Central State Hospital were closed, some buildings were converted into state prisons. The buildings that house Rivers State Prison were constructed in 1937 and converted into a prison in 1981.
The prison made up for the jobs that were lost, however the buildings were not efficient as prisons and were eventually shut down. Rivers State Prison held 1,100 medium security inmates and closed in October 2008.
Today, Central State Hospital encompasses 1,750 acres with 200 buildings in various states of decay, including a pecan grove, and historic Cedar Lane Cemetery. In 2010, the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Development Disabilities announced the hospital would no longer be accepting new patients, and portions of the facility would be closed. As of 2016, the facility offered short-stay acute treatment for people with mental illness, residential units and programs for people with developmental disabilities. Several hundred employees still work at Central State Hospital, and 21 patients remain in their court-ordered care.
Milledgeville served as Georgia’s capital from 1804 to 1868. Much of the countryside was developed by slave labor for cotton plantations, which was the major commodity crop of the South. Skilled black carpenters, masons, and laborers were forced to construct most of the magnificent antebellum homes in Milledgeville.
Milledgeville is home to dozens of historic homes. Some have been restored while others are still waiting on their turn. Many of these antebellum homes were constructed in the mid to late 1800s. A portion of the town known as the Milledgeville Historic District was formed and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.
The Rockwell Mansion was built in 1838. The home features steep wooden front steps and large columns, with a view of the Oconee River and the city of Milledgeville from the upper windows. Samuel Rockwell was the 7th generation of Rockwells in America. Born in 1788 in Albany, New York, he moved to Georgia from Maine in 1834. The house was built by an architect who Rockwell brought with him from Maine. Rockwell was a prominent attorney and a member of the Georgia Militia. He served as a General in the Indian War of 1836. He was also on the building committee for the first buildings at the Georgia State Lunatic Asylum. Samuel Rockwell died in August 1841 in his home.
After his death, the Rockwell mansion was sold to Hershel V. Johnson, who later became Governor in 1853 and used the residence as his summer home. It wasn’t unusual back then for citizens to own businesses and homes in Milledgeville and also have another summer home nearby. The mansion was home to numerous merchants and farmers throughout the years.
In 1969, the Henry DuPont Winterthur Museum in Delaware felt the house to be of such architectural importance that they removed the dining room woodwork and sliding doors. The room was reassembled to create a “historically accurate” room known as the Georgia Room in their museum. Over the last 15 years the Rockwell mansion has fallen into disrepair, however the current owners are in the process of a renovation.