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Insane Asylum

Source:  Lost Landmarks of Mississippi - Page 118

     The University of Mississippi Medical Center is a labyrinthine complex of buildings occupying a sloping hill in Jackson.  Deep within the basement of its original 1955 core are doorways which won't close and walls that meet at odd angles.  Legend has it that this part of the med center was built atop the old tunnels which once connected the wings of the State Insane Asylum.  Legend or not, the asylum's shadow hovers over the campus, most dramatically in the wooded burial ground between the medical library and St. Dominic Hospital.
     The 1848 legislature authorized "that a lunatic asylum shall be established in this State, to be located in or near the city of Jackson."  The initial appropriation was for ten thousand dollars, which was partially used to purchase five acres at the north city limits.  That site was deemed unsuitable, and 140 acres were bought two miles north of town for seventeen hundred dollars.  Under the direction of architect William Gibbons, ground was broken and work began, the bricks being supplied by State Penitentiary inmates.
     Gibbons designed a building larger and grander than that envisioned by the legislature, modeling it on the New Jersey asylum, with a central block and two long wings.  Excavation, bricking, carpentry, and ironwork dragged on at a snail's pace for two years, as Gibbons ran through money and returned again and again to the legislature for more funds.  By 1850, the first-floor walls were partially completed, and Gibbons was demanding another fifty-thousand-dollar appropriation.  The legislature had run out of patience.  A new board of commissioners was appointed; they fired Gibbons, hiring Joseph Willis as his replacement.
     Willis inherited a mess.  He left a record of his dismay with the quality of Gibbons's work:
     About the first of July, 1850, I was informed that the foundations had been laid, and the walls of the cellar .... raised to the height of eight feet..... As the work had been suspended for several months, the cellar was filled with water to the depth of from two to three feet.
After having the cellar drained, I discovered that the foundations under the walls were very soft, and as they began to dry, that the walls cracked in many places, from top to bottom.... Under these circumstances, I was unwilling to put up the building, on the walls that had been erected, being satisfied that the foundations would not support the superincumbent weight of so massive a building; and that it would not be long before serious injury to the building would be caused by uneven settlements in the foundations.....
     Willis was also plagued by Yazoo clay, and provided an early description of the shifting soil which would aggravate Jacksonians for generations:  "After the walls were removed.... I found that the walls had been built on a bed of marl, that extends to the depth of from twenty to thirty feet, and that when it is wet, expands and becomes soft and slippery, and that when dry, it contracts and becomes hard, and if exposed to the atmosphere, crumbles or slacks like lime; consequently, it is a very poor material for foundations of buildings."
     Willis's problems were just beginning.  As the massive three-story center block rose on the unsteady soil, fires, water problems, and a yellow fever epidemic slowed the work.  Finally, in 1855, the hospital was ready for its first patients, with Willis surprisingly not among those admitted.  The commissioners proudly reported to the governor on the finished structure.
     The main or centre building, together with both wings, have been completed and the entire outside stuccoed, so that the whole structure presents an attractive appearance, both in finish and style of architecture, and will stand an enduring monument of the wisdom and benevolence of our noble State.  Back buildings, substantially built of brick, have been completed for engine room, kitchen, wash room and for generating gas, and all the necessary apparatus for generating gas and steam are in successful operation... Some fifty acres of ground have been enclosed with a plain but substantial board fence, and a sufficiency cleared for pleasure and promonade [sic] grounds for the patients."
     The asylum had been operating for only a year when fire swept through it in 1856.  The legislature appropriated sixteen thousand dollars for repairs.  Seven years later, the hospital sat on the fringes of the fight for occupation of Jackson.  It was outside the circle of Confederate defenses leaving it to Union occupation.  The patients were removed, and Federal soldiers climbed into the towering center cupola to signal their forces.  Confederate fire rained down on the asylum.  In exasperation, the hospital superintendent requested that both sides honor the neutrality of the building, and this request was honored, leaving the asylum with minimal damage.
     Following the war, serious structural problems tormented those responsible for the asylum.  A destructive fire and tornado damage added to their worries.  The patient population was increasing and tow new wings were added, raising the capacity to three hundred beds.  The overcrowding was alleviated somewhat in 1882, when East Mississippi State Hospital opened in Meridian.
     By the end of the 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.  Dunbar Rowland described 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 and 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.
     Structural problems and overcrowding worsened.  Mental health professionals were lobbying for an updated facility of multiple "wards" in freestanding buildings.  The State Insane Asylum had outlived its usefulness in less than a century.  In 1926, funds were appropriated to build a new complex in Rankin County, named after Governor Henry L. Whitfield.  The patients were moved in 1835, leaving the eighty-year old North State Street complex empty.  It was demolished in the 1950s to make way for the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
See reference to the fire HERE
See several Newspaper Articles HERE
 

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