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. He also 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 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. The campus was its own town with a school, church, fire and police departments by the 1950s. Central State Hospital even had its own power, water, and steam plants.
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.