Hey, y’all, and welcome to Southern Macabre. I’m Aeryn and I am so glad that you could join me today. I hope you’re having a fantastic week so far. Mine has been good. My birthday was last week and one of our cats surprised us with four kittens. We’re working on naming them since most people who want cats already have them so we’re figuring we have four new cats. I’m hoping to convince the kids to let me name one Edgar Allen Poe, but only my oldest child really appreciates his work.
Anyway. Today we’re going to talk about mental health and I’m going to tell you about a hospital in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. This episode took two weeks for me to research and write, but I think it’s worth the wait.
Also, I feel it’s important to tell y’all about mental health treatment beginning in the Victorian era (1880s to about 1910s) and how it changed through later decades. You may be shocked by what I’m going to tell you, but you will find sources to all of this information on the website.
To start off, mental hospitals were once called asylums. It was supposed to give the feeling of a rest or break from one’s mental illness and during the Victorian era it actually was. I was surprised to learn that in the late 1800s most patients were well cared for in the UK and in America.
William Ellis was the first superintendent of Hanwell Asylum in London and he believed mental illness could be cured through meaningful work. His successor, John Connolly, introduced the idea of a no restraint system at Hanwell. These two men likely influenced Dr. Peter Bryce, a twenty-seven-year-old psychiatrist from South Carolina. He had studied mental health in Europe and then worked in both New Jersey and South Carolina before being hired as the first superintendent of The Alabama Insane Hospital when it opened in 1861.
Robert Jemison, Jr. donated his estate to the state of Alabama to build the state-run mental hospital. He was a senator and he was convinced to make the generous donation by Dorothea Dix, an advocate for the mentally ill. In the early years, African American patients were housed in a barn loft. All of the patients worked to provide food along with clean clothes and living quarters. This was considered part of their treatment and all patients were encouraged to spend time outside. The Jemison Centre was built in 1939 for African American patients and it housed patients until 1977.
Dr. Bryce lived with his wife, Ellen, in the mental hospital and even ate with the patients in the hospital’s dining room. He dealt with budget cuts due to the Civil War, which shifted the patients working as part of their therapy to them working to make sure no one starved. His colleagues didn’t understand his model of treating patients with kindness and respect, viewing the practice as primitive and old-fashioned. This must have been infuriating to him after seeing how well it worked.
While Dr. Bryce cared for patients medically, Mrs. Bryce beautified the grounds as well as the inside of the hospital. She agreed with her husband that the way patients were treated and their surroundings played a role in their ability to get better. They even brought in birds for long-term patients to care for and all to enjoy as part of their therapy.
Sadly, Dr. Bryce died of kidney disease in 1892. The hospital was renamed in his honor in 1900. His wife, Ellen, passed away in 1929. They’re buried on the grounds of the hospital they devoted their lives to for so many years. I can’t help but wonder if they may still be there caring for patients unable or unwilling to leave, even in death.
There isn’t any information on Bryce Hospital after his death until the lawsuit in 1970, we’ll get there in a moment, so I’ll tell you about “treatment” in the United States in general. I can’t prove or disprove that any of these things happened at Bryce Hospital or the Jemison Centre, but the likelihood is high.
Sigmund Freud came on the scene in 1886. He worked in Vienna, Austria, but was popular around the world prior to his death in 1939. He believed in talking to patients, but he also prescribed cocaine as a stimulant and pain killer. For a brief period of time, he believed it would cure a morphine addiction, but then his friend died from a morphine overdose about three years later. Go figure.
The 1930s introduced electroshock therapy in mental hospitals around the world. It was, and still is, effective. Today it is performed while the patient has been given a muscle relaxer and anesthesia, to keep them from moving and feeling pain. Patients from the 1930s to 1970s were shocked to cause seizures which cured depression. As stupid as that sounds, there is documentation that it actually worked, but patients lost some of their long-term memories.
Psychosurgeries, like lobotomies, became popular in the 1940s. This was where part of the frontal lobe of the brain was damaged or removed in order to cure certain mental illnesses.
Everything came to an end when Bryce Mental Hospital’s sins were revealed in October 1970. Ricky Wyatt was a fifteen-year-old boy who was acting out; he did not have a mental illness. Due to his behavior, he was sent to live at Bryce by his probation officer and aunt who had custody. His aunt worked at Bryce when he was sent to live there, but was laid off with many of the other workers. This was when she first said anything about feces covering the walls, nurses betting on fights between patients, etc.
He wasn’t the only person who didn’t need to be there either. Sweet Aunt Betty burned the biscuits the past five Sundays in a row? Send her to Bryce! Maw Maw keeps misplacing her car keys? They’ve got a room for up there! Daddy being a general pain in the rear? He can go, too. The only requirement was a letter from a doctor, which was easy enough to get.
The lawsuit was called Wyatt vs Stickney and it led to federal regulation of mental institutions across the United States. It was found that the state was only giving 50 cents per patient per day for food, clothing, and other necessities. There were 5, 200 patients and only one nurse per 250. A reporter said that the hospital reminded him of the conditions he had witnessed in German concentration camps!
He claimed (and I believe him after doing research) that buckets of boiling water were poured on him to get him out of bed and he witnessed other patients being abused many times. I couldn’t find too many details, but maybe that’s not a bad thing?
Bryce State Hospital has been closed since 2014 and was sold to the University of Alabama to be used as a pair of museums, one on mental health history in the state and the other of the history of the University of Alabama. They were supposed to be completed by 2020, but the buildings on the old Jemison plantation are derelict and condemned today.
Of course, the buildings are haunted, in case you were wondering if this really was a paranormal episode or just a dark tale of mental health history. The history is what lead to the property and buildings being haunted. There was so much mistreatment and so many people who suffered at Bryce who were completely sane (or as sane as a person can be) and didn’t need to be there.
People have been scratched by unseen entities, heard screams coming from empty corridors, etc. There are several YouTube videos about Bryce and the place is creepy during the day. That could be due to decay, but I wouldn’t go out there even if it was allowed.
A small group of people who went there said they felt a cold spot and then noticed a clean spot on the floor with a shoe print in the middle. If you watch any of the YouTube videos, there aren’t any clean spots in any of these facilities.
Also, there are cemeteries out there. Plural. Most aren’t marked and the documents have been lost. The first recorded burial was in 1861, but most from 1861 to 1922 are gone forever. It’s estimated that over 1,000 people are buried on the premises, but only 554 are listed on Find a Grave. That’s a lot of potential souls, am I right?
I just found out about this as I was going to record, but there’s also an old nursing home back in there that was called S.D. Allen. It’s also said to be haunted. Visitors (trespassers, really) have heard what sounds like a mattress or a body being drug across the floor.
I hope y’all enjoyed today’s episode. I’m sorry it took so long to research; I hope you can tell how much time I dedicated to this episode. I’ll confess that part of that time was wasted because I didn’t realize how many buildings were out there so a lot of my information was incorrect. Some may still be, but I did my best and that’s what matters. At least I hope it is.
Come back on Friday. I’m not sure what I’m going to tell y’all about yet, but it’ll be good. I hope y’all have a wonderful day and I will talk to y’all tomorrow. God bless, y’all!