Sweetums and I have toured three abandoned asylums (actually, Bryce is no longer abandoned and is being renovated) and I have driven through the grounds of a fourth. While it’s true they are creepy, they also have amazing histories. When “insane asylums” were first built, most operated with the theory that the mentally ill needed beautiful, restful, pastoral surroundings, as well as some productive activity, to restore their health.
The facilities had gorgeous, park-like grounds and most operated farms where patients could help cultivate vegetables they would later eat. At Central State Hospital in Milledgeville, Georgia, a large pecan grove in the center of several brick dorm buildings gave patients a place to play games and “take air.”
In the 1960s and 1970s, most of these old hospitals, by then more than 100 years old, had become overcrowded and understaffed causing patient care to became substandard. Lawsuits filed by patients or families led to the abolition of farm work, and eventually to the farms themselves. More lawsuits followed, claiming abuse and poor treatment. Eventually, mental hospitals began to close as states transitioned to use of community care centers for the mentally ill.
In Alabama, I’ve visited Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa, opened in 1861 as the Alabama Hospital for the Insane; Searcy Hospital in Mt. Vernon, opened in 1902 on the site of an 1828 arsenal as the Mount Vernon Asylum for the Colored Insane; and Jemison Center in Northport, which opened in 1939 as a hospital for black patients.
Below are links to two of my many stories and photo galleries on AL.com:
Last weekend, Leah Nattes, a reader on my Kelly Kazek’s Weird South Facebook page sent me some amazing photos of the oldest hospital in South Carolina, which is largely abandoned, with only a handful of buildings housing the remaining patients.
After seeing Leah’s haunting photos, I asked if I could post them so all of you could see them. Be sure to follow her on Instagram @thedecayingsouth. She said she was amazed at all the things left behind and you will be, too.
I looked up a little history to share, and added three historical photos at the top of the gallery below.
About the South Carolina asylum
The facility in Columbia, South Carolina, was the second state-run mental hospital to be built in the U.S., after Virginia’s. Called the South Carolina Lunatic Asylum, it was built between 1822 and 1827.
The state’s Department of Mental Health website says, “According to legend, when Colonel Samuel Farrow, a member of the House of Representatives from Spartanburg County, traveled to Columbia to attend sessions of the legislature, he noticed a woman who was mentally distressed and apparently without adequate care. Her poor condition made an impact on him and spurred him on to engage the support of Major William Crafts, a brilliant orator and a member of the Senate from Charleston County. The two men worked zealously to sensitize their fellow lawmakers to the needs of the mentally ill, and on December 20, 1821, the South Carolina State Legislature passed a statute-at-large approving $30,000 to build the S.C. Lunatic Asylum and school for the deaf and dumb.”
The facility was also used as a POW camp during the Civil War. “Although the Confederate Army did not get the asylum, the grounds were used as a prison camp for Union officers from October 1864 to February 1865,” the website says, adding, “… late in the war, the asylum became a refuge for many Columbia residents when the city burned during Union General William T. Sherman’s occupation in February 1865.”
The oldest buildings at the site have been name National Historic Landmarks and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.