(ODD)yssey, Blog Post

Our odd travels collection includes bricks from the 1800s that were part of ‘haunted’ insane asylums

After writing about the fun ways we display our refrigerator magnets from our travels, I promised to tell the story of two bricks in our collection. They come from “haunted lunatic asylums” in Alabama. (Note: They were obtained legally. Please do not trespass or take anything from these sites. Also, I use the words “insane” and “lunatic” as a reflection of terms that were popular at the time.)

The bricks came from Alabama’s two most infamous mental hospitals, which were closed in 2012 and left abandoned: Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa and Searcy Hospital near Mobile. I visited and wrote about both sites and their long histories for AL.com. I’ll link a few of the stories below. They began as cutting-edge institutions to help people — albeit in segregation — get relief from mental illness. They eventually became overcrowded and Bryce was the subject of lawsuits in the 1970s.

When I visited Bryce in 2016, the original 1861 institution, then known as the Alabama Hospital for the Insane, had been gutted to its brick exterior walls to be preserved and rebuilt as part of the performing arts center for the University of Alabama. The original building included the main administration building with three wings on each side. The main building and two wings on each side were saved, while the third wing on each side was demolished. That is where our Bryce brick came from. It was given to my husband and me that day of our tour. (Interesting note: At one point, Bryce had so many additions, it was listed by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not as having the world’s longest roofline. All those additions were also demolished when it was purchased by the university.)

Plans at the time included adding a museum of mental health in the building upon its completion. I need to check and see if the building is finished and if the museum is still planned.

We later visited the abandoned Searcy site — also with permission; it is fenced and guarded 24 hours a day — and we were given a brick with remnants of white paint from the original 1832 tower for what was then an arsenal. The site, located at Mt. Vernon, was one of the nation’s original 14 arsenals and is one of only two with surviving original buildings. It was later used as barracks and became the Mt. Vernon Hospital for the Colored Insane in 1901. It was eventually renamed Searcy for the doctor who was its first supervisor.

Both sites have been rumored over the years to be haunted, both because they were asylums and because of their age. There is, of course, no real evidence of hauntings. Still, the sites are pivotal to Alabama history. One, Bryce, has been saved and preserved. The second, Searcy, remains abandoned and in a state of collapse. The 13 original arsenal buildings on the site are in danger of being lost.

Click here to read one of my Bryce stories and see Sweetums’ photos.

Click here to read the Searcy/Mt. Vernon stories and see Sweetums’ photos. Here are photos from a reader.

Click here to read about artifacts preserved for the mental health museum I mentioned above.

As for the bricks, they are set on a bookshelf in my library, reminding me of the importance of our state’s history.

The top brick, with paint, fell from the main tower at the abandoned Searcy Hospital site. The tower was built in 1832 as part of an arsenal at Mt. Vernon. I have no idea if the brick is also that old. The bottom brick is from Bryce Hospital in Tuscaloosa. It was built in 1861. (Photo by Kelly Kazek)

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