Central State Hospital

Milledgeville
A sketch of the Georgia State Lunatic Asylum when it opened.

On November 4, 1834, the General Assembly convened in Milledgeville, and then Governor Wilson Lumpkin made a plea on behalf of “the lunatics, idiots, and epileptics.”  In 1837, Georgia legislators passed a bill for the creation of a state-operated insane asylum. After five years of construction, the Georgia State Lunatic Asylum opened in 1842. Over the years, the campus underwent several name changes including; Georgia State Sanitarium, Milledgeville State Hospital, and Central State Hospital.

Tillman Barnett, a 30-year-old farmer from Macon, was the first patient admitted to the new asylum in December 1842. He was brought to Milledgeville chained to a horse-drawn wagon by his wife and family, described as violent and destructive. Unfortunately, Barnett died of “maniacal exhaustion” by the following summer. Tillman Barnett became the first casualty in a long and dark history of one of the nation’s most notorious institutions.

Central State Hospital
A 19th century photo of the Powell Building (courtesy of Georgia Archives)

Patient care at Central State Hospital was based on an “institution as family” model which asserted that hospitals worked best when they resembled an extended family. Head physician Dr. Thomas Green abolished chain and rope restraints, allowing patients to roam freely. Many of the patients were Civil War veterans who were unable to be cared for by their families. Black patients were admitted after the Civil War but were segregated to their own buildings until the 1940s. By the 1950s, Central State Hospital was the largest insane asylum in the United States, some say even the world. Over 12,000 patients were housed on the grounds. The asylum campus became its own town; complete with fire and police departments, a school, a church, and its own power, water, and steam plants.

Thousands of people were sent to Milledgeville, often with unspecified conditions, or disabilities that did not warrant a classification of mental illness. The hospital outgrew its resources and the patient-physician ratio was a miserable 100:1 in the 1950s. Many patients were subject to inhumane treatments including lobotomies, insulin shock, hydrotherapy, and early electroshock therapy along with far less sophisticated techniques. Children were confined to metal cages. Adult patients were forced to take steam baths and cold showers. Some were confined with straitjackets and treated with douches.

In 1959, the Atlanta Constitution’s Jack Nelson investigated reports of a “snake pit.” Nelson discovered that the thousands of patients at Central State were served by only 48 doctors, none a psychiatrist. To make matters worse, some of the “doctors” were actually patients who were hired off the mental wards. The series rocked the state. In the wake of the scandal, asylum staff were fired and Nelson won a Pulitzer. The state, which had ignored decades of pleas from hospital superintendents, began to provide additional funding. By the mid-1960s, as new psychiatric drugs allowed patients to move to less restrictive settings, Central State’s population began to steadily decline. A decade before the national movement toward deinstitutionalization, Georgia governors Carl Sanders and Jimmy Carter began emptying Central State in earnest, sending mental patients to regional hospitals and community clinics, and people with developmental disabilities to small group homes. However, this approach has been riddled with its tragedies, such as homelessness and drug abuse.

A 1999 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in a Georgia case allows patients with mental health problems to choose community care over institutionalization if a professional agrees. Following a 2010 agreement with the federal government, Georgia will move all mentally and developmentally disabled patients to community facilities. The same year Central State stopped accepting new patients. As the asylum buildings were vacated, four were converted into prisons. One prison remains on the property today. In a separate facility, the Cook Building houses 179 forensic patients (who have been found by courts to be not guilty by reason of insanity or incompetent to stand trial). Today, roughly a dozen patients remain at Central State, all elderly people awaiting alternative placements. The Central State Hospital Local Redevelopment Authority was created in 2012 by the state to revitalize and repurpose the property. Led by Milledgeville native Mike Couch, the authority has worked with real estate experts to develop a plan for reusing the property for businesses, schools, and recreation. By the end of 2015, the state Department of Behavioral Health and Disabilities, which operates Central State, will occupy only nine buildings.

Central State Hospital
The Powell Building is the oldest surviving building at Central State and was designed to resemble the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. The building was originally named the Center Building but was renamed after Dr. Theophilus Powell who served as superintendent from 1879-1907.
Central State Hospital
Patient wards are located in the wings and the central structure housed administration offices.
Central State Hospital
A patient wing inside of the Powell Building. Each door has these unique “bubble windows” that gave staff an unobstructed view inside the room. Over the years, the windows have slowly disappeared. Today, there are only two left in the patient wings.
Central State Hospital
Central State Hospital
Once admitted, patients who needed calming were placed in a special blue-colored room, if the soothing color was not enough, they would be chained to a chair in the corner.

Central State Hospital

Milledgeville
A quad of pecan trees is located in front of the Jones Building which has been decaying since the 1970s.
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Georgia’s state seal is on the facade of the vast and imposing Jones Building, a general-purpose hospital that served the asylum as well as the surrounding community of Milledgeville.
Central State Hospital
The interior of the Jones Building has been used for filming TV shows and movies like The Originals, a Vampire Diaries spin-off. The ornate plaster trim at the main entrance has disintegrated over the years from heat and humidity.
Central State Hospital
A row of autoclaves were once used to sterilize medical equipment. The square doors were coolers for patient remains.
Central State Hospital
A nurses’ station inside the Jones Building.

Central State Hospital

Central State Hospital
Morgue drawers sealed with iron doors once held the corpses of patients in the basement of the Jones Building. Today the building is collapsing from the top down, and falling debris covers the morgue floor.
Milledgeville
The White female convalescent building was erected in 1883. The back portion of the building was torn down and a modern auditorium was erected in its place in 1949. The front portion was saved because it has a cornerstone inscribed with the hospital’s original name, Georgia Lunatic Asylum.
Central State Hospital
The Green Building opened in 1947 and housed schizophrenic patients who were likely to never leave. The building was in use for 30 years before it was closed and given to Baldwin County. It was last used by the Department of Children and Family Services and Head Start for gifted students and adult literacy.
Central State Hospital
Constructed in 1884, the Walker Building housed white male convalescent patients until it closed in 1974. Recently, the exterior was used in the opening credits of The Walking Dead.
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The Binion Building housed those deemed by the courts to be criminally insane.
Central State Hospital
The Brantley Building housed nursing staff and was once a certified nursing school. The school taught over a 100 female students to become nurses. At the corner of the Brantley Building was a light pole known as the “hang out” for many single men. Many first dates started at the light pole.
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These buildings were constructed in 1937 and converted into Rivers State Prison in 1981.
Milledgeville
As parts of Central State Hospital closed, several buildings were converted into state prisons. These prisons made up for the jobs that were lost, however, the buildings were not efficient and were also later abandoned. 
Milledgeville
Rivers State Prison held 1,100 medium-security inmates. The prison abruptly closed in October 2008.
Milledgeville
A guard tower overlooking one of the abandoned prison buildings.
Milledgeville
Some 2,000 iron markers at Cedar Lane Cemetery commemorate the 25,000 patients buried throughout the hospital grounds.
Milledgeville
The original markers, with numbers instead of names, once identified individual graves but were pulled up and tossed in the woods by unknowing prison inmates to make mowing easier.

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For more photos of Central State Hospital and other locations from across Georgia, check out my books Abandoned Georgia: Exploring the Peach State and Abandoned Georgia: Traveling the Backroads.

28 comments

  1. Really cool piece! (Saw your post in the community pool) There was an abandoned asylum not too far from where I grew up that I and others visited many times in our teen years. There is definitely a unique appeal and draw to those kinds of places.

    -John

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Rockwell Mansion has been partially restored, and is on the market for $350, 000. I grew up in Milledgeville, now live in Atlanta, so that price seems like a steal.

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      1. It’s a steal, but you have to have VERY deep pockets to restore them as they should be done. No mass produced overseas crap can be used and real craftsmen should be doing it.

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  2. I’ve actually seen all these buildings myself while i was at a military school in Baland circle which is the entrance to the lunatic asylum . We were told that all the abanded prisons and hospitals, and mansions were haunted

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My grandmother died there. During her child bearing years she started loosing her hearing and became completely deaf. No one could communicate with her and she was always lost. Her family put her there because nobody took time to try to help her learn to communicate. Mother said she wasn’t crazy, only deaf . So sad, very sad.

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  3. After I initially left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a comment is added I receive four emails with the exact same
    comment. Perhaps there is a way you can remove me from that service?

    Cheers!

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  4. I graduated from Georgia College in 1990. Part of my teaching degree was to log so many hours at Central State. I could not tell the staff from the insane. I even played checkers with a man that had killed his brother. I will never forget going there…

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  5. The reason I have family in Milledgeville is a few decades ago, on my mom’s side we had somebody who got shorted on their paycheck and took an axe to the boss’ house, broke down the door and killed him with said axe. He was sent to Milledgeville Asylum. Even after being deemed fit to leave, he chose to stay as a janitor there, as he was afraid he’d kill again. It’s neat to actually see it.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. My Aunt worked in one of the buildings that has been repurposed at Central State. Specifically, she worked in the giant kitchen that is right across from the original morgue. Her back dock looks over most of the grounds there. Also, back in the 80s, my uncle worked in the hospital itself. They had all sorts of people who were confined there, but one of the worst, at least for him, was a patient that was bed-bound obese. She also was HIV positive, and would attempt to bite anyone who attempted to move her. It would take at least 8 guys to get her moved from one point of the hospital to another for various doctors. It was not a great job.

    Finally, my aunt and uncle obviously live in Milledgeville. They have four daughters, and my uncle would get scared out of his mind when they were teenagers every morning. Their hair dryers had the same tone as the alarm for an escaped prisoner from the hospital.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I was once an inmate at Rivers in the 80s. The place was so primitive. Basically, not fit for human beings, but that’s what is expected from a state like Ga. They still have slavery, it’s simply instituted via the prison system. They should have torn that building down decades ago. Most of the crime committed there was by the administration. I discovered the warden at the time was using inmate labor for pay he received. I was there for years, and got a check for $25 minus tax. The eating area only held about 15 people at a time, it rained inside, only 3 people could use the toilet at a time, and you sat, side by side. The place was full of bugs, due to window problems. If it was meant to be a place for lunatics, by the time you left, you’d fit the bill. Tare that mother—— down.

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  8. In the 1940’s. there as a young girl who lived near us who was committed to this hospital . She never returned home. When they closed the hospital she was declared unfit for any type of rehab. Maybe she remained until she died. Gerri

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