A Brief History of the Asylum Cemetery

Construction

The origins of the Mississippi State Asylum can be traced back to an outgrowth of Jacksonian America and the rapidly evolving industrial nature of society in the mid-19th century. As small-scale, commercial care declined in the mid-19th century, asylums and other similar institutions became the norm for handling society’s unwanted and supposedly incurable individuals. The first formal proposal to construct an institution for these disabled individuals in Mississippi came from Governor A.G. Brown in 1846.1  After two years of opposition from the Mississippi State Legislature, Governor Brown managed to obtain an appropriation of $10,000 and land “in or near the city of Jackson” for the construction of the institution.2

Coinciding with this appropriation, Dorothea Dix—known as “the angel of the madhouses”—visited Mississippi.3  While surveying the statuses and living conditions of the state’s intellectually and developmentally disabled population, she found that they lived in autonomous squalor “in jails, or dungeons” or “chained in closets and attics.”4  Her survey led to an additional appropriation of $50,000 to build the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum.5  After five years of yellow fever epidemic-hindered construction and at a cost of $135,000, the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum opened on January 8, 1855.6  The institution’s layout was based on architect Joseph Willis’s plans and was heavily influenced by the Kirkbride Plan-inspired New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum.7  The Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum became the sixth institution in the United States and first in the South to be built utilizing the Kirkbride Plan.8

The Civil War Era

The institution became a highly contested site during the Civil War. Under the direction of General William T. Sherman, the Union Army ransacked the institution during the early stages of the occupation of Jackson in July 1863.9  Union soldiers plundered the storeroom and garden, and slaughtered numerous livestock.10  Making matters worse, seven of institution’s ten employees left their jobs and joined the Union Army.11

Two notable developments occurred at the institution during Reconstruction. The institution began admitting black patients in 1870.12  Indications show that black and white patients resided in neighbouring wards in the same buildings for a majority of the institution’s 85-year operation. Secondly, in 1871, the state legislature mandated weekly visits to the institution by its trustees.13  Such a mandate shows its usefulness in the institution’s yearly death rate of roughly 21 per year during most of Reconstruction.14

19th Century Improvements

Dr. Thomas J. Mitchell served as superintendent of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, renamed the Mississippi State Insane Hospital in 1900, from 1878 to 1910. Upon becoming superintendent, he described conditions as “verging on what the original Bedlam must have been like.”15  He linked such disorder and squalor conditions to contemporaneous health matters like the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878.16  However, Mitchell’s blunt description came to illustrate conditions that epitomized a majority of his 32-year tenure as superintendent.

Mississippi State Asylum

Due to the lack of upkeep and lack of funding, Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum became dilapidated during the late-19th century. Until 1894, the institution relied on coal oil lamps and candles for lighting, and a local pond for water.17  In 1892, a fire broke out that destroyed two-thirds of the institution’s major building and claimed one patient’s life.18  Spurred by this devastating fire, the state legislature appropriated funds to begin having electric light fixtures installed throughout the institution in 1894.19

The reliance on local ponds for water proved far more dire and impairing than the use of coal oil lamps for lighting. Because of the institution’s reliance on water sources open to the outdoor environment, patients suffered from numerous diseases and a water scarcity during summer months throughout the early-1880s.20  This lack of “an abundant supply of water at the proper time” also allowed the 1892 fire to cause so much damage.21  In the years immediately following the 1892 fire, the state legislature appropriated funds to furnish the institution with a proper water source from the Water Works Company in Jackson.22  In February 1901, attendants extinguished a fire that occurred in the laundry room.23  Having a proper water source almost certainly kept the building from being engulfed in flames. New living quarters for patients and a tuberculosis annex were built in 1897 and 1906, respectively. Prior to this, patients with tuberculosis lived either among healthy patients or in a cluster of tents on the front lawn.

Sterilization and Other Alterations

After the First World War, two separate events affected the institution. First, a separate institution for the feeble-minded opened in 1921.24  The Mississippi School and Colony for the Feeble-Minded removed children deemed feeble-minded from the state’s two mental institutions and society in general.25  Second, Mississippi enacted a compulsory sterilization law in the wake of the Buck v. Bell ruling in 1928. In 1933, the institution’s superintendent, Dr. C.D. Mitchell, “hoped that in the future every patient who comes to the institution…be sterilized in order to lessen the mental disorders which will be handed down to future generations”26 

Beginning in the late-1920s, plans to construct a new state mental institution began to take shape. Appropriated by the Mississippi State Legislature in 1926 and opened on March 4, 1935, the Mississippi State Hospital—under the direction of superintendent Dr. C.D. Mitchell—replaced the exceedingly dated 80-year-old Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum.27


1. Jay Milner, “Whitfield Marks 100th Anniversary,” Jackson Clarion-Ledger, No Date. Vertical Files, Whitfield State Hospital, Special Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University.
2. Milner, “Whitfield Marks 100th Anniversary.” The institution was located on North Street in Jackson, Mississippi, where the University of Mississippi Medical Center is currently located. Mississippi State Legislature, An Act to Establish a Lunatic Asylum for the State of Mississippi (Jackson, March 4, 1848), 1, Subject File, Folder: Mississippi State Hospital: 1848-1852, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi.
3. Jay Milner, “Whitfield Marks 100th Anniversary: Century of Care for the Mentally,” The Clarion-Ledger, November 13, 1955, Vertical Files, Whitfield State Hospital, Special Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University.
4. Milner, “Whitfield Marks 100th Anniversary: Century of Care for the Mentally,” 1. Dix played a large role in the establishment of the New Jersey State Lunatic Asylum in 1848, and pertinent to this paper, the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum in 1855.
5. Milner, “Whitfield Marks 100th Anniversary: Century of Care for the Mentally,” 1.
6. The Hinds County Association for Mental Health, Mississippi Mental Health Centennial Program: 1855-1955 (Mississippi State Hospital-Whitfield Mississippi, November 17, 1955), 3, 11, Special Collections Department, Mitchell Memorial Library, Mississippi State University. Dr. W.L. Jaquith, interview by John Griffin Jones and Martha Monaghan, March 20 1979, interview transcript, Mississippi Department of Archives and History, Jackson, Mississippi. “Aged Structure, Rich in History, Begun in 1850,” Jackson Daily News, March 14, 1935. Vertical Files, Mississippi Hospitals, Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi. The Mississippi Legislature, Document Report of Commissioners of the Lunatic Asylum (Jackson, January 1, 1852), 3, MDAH Subject File, Folder: Mississippi State Hospital: 1848-1852.
7. The Hinds County Association for Mental Health, Mississippi Mental Health Centennial Program: 1855-1955, 3, 6, 11. The Mississippi Legislature, Document Report of Commissioners of the Lunatic Asylum, 3. Thomas Kirkbride served as superintendent of the Pennsylvania Asylum for the Insane for several decades in the mid-19th century. Adding to Benjamin Rush’s Enlightenment-influenced “moral treatment,” established a linear blueprint for 19th-century asylums. Four requisites, thoroughly covered in Nancy Tomes’s The Art of Asylum-Keeping: Thomas Story Kirkbride and the Origins of American Psychiatry (1994), from his plan are relevant to this paper. First, the asylum had to be secluded, while being accessible and attractive to patients and the passersby. Second, edifices that housed patients needed to consist of an administrative center with well-ventilated wings to the left and right of it. Security, and its disguised manner, for the sake of the patient and the outside onlooker, is the third requisite. The forth requisite focuses on the running of an asylum. A single head, or superintendent, would rule an asylum. Superintendents’ authority would be both medical and administrative. Under the Kirkbride Plan, superintendents controlled the admission and classification of, and type of care and treatment administered to patients. Working with the superintendent, a board of managers, or trustees, with no financial tied to the asylum, would serve as the vital check on the superintendent and answer to the public at large. Utilizing the Kirkbride Plan, over forty asylums for the mentally ill and insane were constructed between the late-1840s and 1880s.
8. Alabama, North Carolina, and Arkansas also built Kirkbride Plan-style asylums for the mentally ill and insane from the mid-1850s to the 1880s.
9. “Aged Structure, Rich in History, Begun in 1850,” Jackson Daily News, March 14, 1935. Vertical Files, Mississippi Hospitals, Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi. E.C. Bears, The Siege of Jackson: July 10-17, 1863 (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1981), 56.
10. "Aged Structure, Rich in History,” 56.
11. “Aged Structure, Rich in History,” 56.
12. "Aged Structure, Rich in History,” 56.
13. “Aged Structure, Rich in History,” 56.
14. The Mississippi Legislature, Annual Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the year 1877 (Jackson: Power and Barksdale, State Printers, 1877), 42. 1872 and 1877 represent the first full year the mandate ensued and last full year prior to Mitchell’s appointment as superintendent. On average, 34 patients died per year in the six years of Mitchell’s tenure as superintendent that comprised the fewest number of deaths.
15. Incomplete title, Jackson Daily News, July 1, 1957. Vertical Files, Mississippi Hospitals, Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi.
16. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1878-79 (Jackson: J.L. Power, Public Printer, 1880), 72, 77. In Plague Among the Magnolias: The 1878 Yellow Fever Epidemic in Mississippi (2009), Deanne Stephens Nuwer explains that Jackson became a hotbed for yellow fever in 1878 because of its central location and being the major railway hub in the state.
17. “Aged Structure, Rich in History,” 56.
18. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum, to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1892 and 1893 (Jackson: Clarion-Ledger Publishing Company, 1893), 1, 6.
19. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum, to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1896 and 1897 (Jackson: The Clarion-Ledger Print, 1897), 13-14.
20. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum, to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1880-81 (Jackson: J.L. Power, State Printer, 1882), 6-7. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1882-83, 2-3. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1884-85 (Jackson, J.L. Power, State Printer, 1885), 4-5.
21. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Board of Trustees[…]years 1892 and 1893, 6.
22. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Lunatic Asylum to the Legislature of Mississippi, for the years 1894-95 (Jackson: The Clarion-Ledger Printing Establishment, 1895), 10.
23. The Mississippi Legislature, Biennial Report of the Trustees and Superintendent of the State Insane Hospital of Mississippi, from October 1st 1899, to Ocotober 1st, 1901 (Jackson: The Clarion-Ledger Print, 1901), 14.
24. James W. Trent, Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 200.
25. Trent, Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind, 200.
26. Edward J. Larson, Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 1995), 121. Larson explains that while no experts in mental health held the notion that heredity caused all mental disorders, Mitchell used this rhetoric to further his goal of sterilizing every single patient at the institution.
27. The Hinds County Association for Mental Health, Mississippi Mental Health Centennial Program: 1855-1955, 3, 12. “Whitfield Plant Finest in South, Experts Agree,” Jackson Daily News, March 14, 1935. Vertical Files, Archives and Special Collections, J.D. Williams Library, The University of Mississippi, Mississippi Hospitals.