Bats in the Belfry

Mississippi State Insane Asylum, 1855-1935, now the site of University Medical Center.

“When we were living in Jackson the State Insane Asylum was on North State Street where University Hospital is today. Bama had a cousin, Willie Brooks (a woman) who had lost her mind and was at the asylum. Mama and Bama would go out to see her, and one time we went with them. Most of the patients were behind bars in this terrible old building, and I was just glad to get out of there. I remember they asked Willie what they gave them to eat, and she said nothing but grits. We would ride past the asylum when we were out riding on Sunday afternoon, and you could see the patients peeping through the window bars. Sometimes one of the men would be out working on the grounds. While we were in Jackson they began building the new facility at Whitfield, one which I am sure was a big improvement over the one on State Street.”

Interesting sidestep that Sara does on this issue of family mental imbalance: Willie Brooks is Bama’s cousin and apparently had escaped any genetic link to the remainder of the family. Bad news: If your grandmother has a relative, you have a relative, and there’s just no dodging that. I wish she had delved more on the story of Poor Willie, but that tale has drifted away forever.

The asylum must have been overwhelming for little girls in 1930. The main building was almost 80 years old then, and it was just the central core of a massive complex that stretched from North State Street all the way to the current sites of St. Dominic’s and the Mississippi Highway Patrol headquarters. For the sake of brevity, I’ll quote myself from Lost Landmarks of Mississippi:  “By the end of the [nineteenth] century, almost twelve hundred patients were crowded into the main building, numerous wings and accessory buildings of the State Insane Asylum. One hundred ten employees scurried about the complex, and a training school for psychiatric nurses was added. [State Historian] Dunbar Rowland describe the impressive campus: ‘This institution is situated on rising ground two miles north of the capitol, the building crowning a slope of beautiful lawn several acres in extent. The main building consists of an imposing center, four stories in height with handsome facade of columns. On each side are wings, three stories high, connected by smaller four story divisions, two on one side and three on the other. Behind the main building are the annexes for colored patients, two for male and two for female patients. These buildings are of plain, architectural design, but very comfortable and substantial.’ An insurance map of the era shows a huge circular pond, burial grounds, coal sheds, bake shops, print shops, carriage houses, and a variety of other outbuildings scattered around the campus.”

A few years before the Evanses made their Sunday drives through the asylum grounds, money had been appropriated for a new complex in Rankin County, to be named, as was Sara’s school, for Governor Henry Whitfield. Patients would not be moved until the mid-1930s, leaving the massive complex on North State Street eerily empty. I had a friend in Tupelo who was a Millsaps College student during the ’40s, and he told of excursions through the dark halls and into the tunnels that connected the various buildings of the asylum. Those tunnels were blamed for all sorts of structural challenges evident in the UMC hospital where I trained in the 1970s. Doors wouldn’t shut properly and there were very strange slopes along basement hallways. And, of course, we believed every creepy story which longtime employees told of specters roaming the grounds of the former lunatic asylum. It made for entertaining diversion from the grind of medical school.

One has to hope that life was better for Cousin Willie and her fellow patients after the move to Whitfield. I did a Psychiatry rotation there in 1980, and one of the patients I saw was a quite elderly woman known only by her first name. A staff doctor told me that she was one of just a handful of residents who had made the move from North State Street still living, and her records had been left behind or lost in the transfer. No one knew where she was from, who her family was or what her original diagnosis had been, only that she must have been a teenager when she was committed. I always found that indescribably sad.

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About sec040121

Hello....I'm in possession of a priceless collection of memoirs and memorabilia left by my mother, Sara Evans Criss. She was a native and lifelong (88 years!) devotee of our small town, who covered this peculiar and volatile corner of the world for 30 years as the Memphis Commercial Appeal's Greenwood bureau chief, a job that started out with debutantes and high school football and wound up spang in the midst of one of the twentieth century's most enduring social upheavals. This blog is dedicated to her memory and the legacy she left behind, both for her family and her community.
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