Breaking Into Central State
Here is a personal piece of mine meant to showcase my editorial writing voice. I love this kind of writing, almost as much as I love old abandoned buildings!
Breaking Into Central State
“You’re gonna get sent to Milledgeville” is not a saying often heard these days, but a little less than a century ago it was one that carried a lot of weight. Milledgeville is a town right smack in the middle of Georgia that once served as the state’s capital in the 19th century, and as rumor has it, was a town so beautiful that Sherman himself couldn’t stand to burn it on his march to the sea. But the city gained its infamous reputation not for its beauty, but for what was the single biggest mental hospital in the world at the time. Opened in 1842, Central State Hospital (or Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum, as it was first named) was considered a state of the art facility. The sheer size of the hospital soon overshadowed the town, and the hospital gained notoriety for treatments that at the time were thought to be effective, but are now recognized as inhumane and even barbaric; lobotomies, electroshock therapy, prolonged confinement in straight jackets, ice baths and steam showers, and more semi-torturous practices. These are the types of treatments that you may have found yourself undergoing as a patient in Central State.
The hospital came to having over 12,000 patients in the 1960’s but was soon thereafter exposed as being severely understaffed, adding to the hospital’s (and the town’s) disreputable name. It didn’t help that the hospital had a history of committing people for “ailments” such as homosexuality, depression, frequent masturbation, religious fervor, and many other conditions, half of which are completely arbitrary and harmless, especially by today’s standards. Out of the hundreds of thousands of patients admitted to the hospital over the years, countless died and were buried somewhere among the rolling hills and pecan trees of the hospital’s campus. During a remodel of the grounds during the early 1960’s nearly all of the grave markers were removed and tossed away, leaving an unknown but considerable portion of the grounds a forgotten graveyard. While walking through the grounds at any time, the chances are high that you are treading over the bodies of patients long forgotten. The hospital began to decline in population during the 1970’s, around the same time that Milledgeville’s foremost university, Georgia College and State University, became co-educational and started growing in size. Central State’s size steadily decreased until it officially closed in 2010.
Milledgeville nowadays is considered a college town, as the downtown area is mostly dominated by Georgia College students. The town is dubbed as the “Antebellum Capital of the South”; a title that seems to be viewed in equal parts affirmation and disdain. But certainly, the town contains a distinct, unmistakable air of “old.” Sitting right in the midst of the South’s bible belt, with its abundance of old churches, neo-classical centuries-old homes, and various abandoned buildings, Milledgeville perfectly fits the description of former resident Flannery O’Connor as part of the “Christ-haunted South.” This distinct tinge of “old-south” is steadily combatted by the regular influx of metropolitan college students, the businesses that spring up to cater to them, and the underage drinking. Many young people only know Milledgeville as a raucous party-town where the bars don’t close until late at night, at which time the parties are just getting started.
In August of 2011 I was “sent to Milledgeville” myself to join their ranks and begin working on my undergrad degree. Perhaps it was my Catholic upbringing or the unshakable “Christ-haunted” state of my new home that kept me from the more bacchanalian tendencies of most of my counterparts, so I had to find my own fun. I didn’t drink. I didn’t do drugs. I didn’t really study either. I broke into places.
Not in a vandalous way, mind you; mostly just into abandoned buildings. I come from a long line of trespassers. Growing up it seems like all the time I was walking into some abandoned building with my dad or one of my uncles. I remember as a kid pointing out a “No Trespassing” sign to my dad that we were walking by and he explained to me “Those rules are for other people; people who are going to break stuff or do drugs in here. We’re just looking around”. I think I adopted that policy pretty early on, “break into stuff, but don’t do anything damaging or dangerous, just look around.”
Soon after moving there and promptly tiring of classes and other college activities, Milledgeville quickly became my antebellum trespassing playground. Every other day I was somewhere I wasn’t supposed to be: up an old water tower, in a dam reservoir, in countless abandoned homes, or some other forbidden area. It wasn’t long until I stumbled upon the trespassing grail, Central State Hospital. Acres and acres of empty land and unmarked graves, with dozens of abandoned hospital wards. Central State rumors were plentiful among students and locals: “You can’t go in because the floors and ceilings will collapse and kill you.” “That’s trespassing on federal property and they’ll put you in jail when they catch you.” “The wild animals and homeless people living in there will kill you if you go inside.” But one rumor was pretty much agreed upon with everyone; it was certifiably, undeniably haunted. But that didn’t daunt me. I couldn’t wait to get inside.
Luckily for me, my randomly-assigned dorm roommate Mark was also something of an explorer, and we had quickly become partners in crime. Misdemeanor crime maybe, but crime nonetheless. So late one evening when we decided that we felt like we were up for it, we set off to find a way in.
The Central State Campus itself is open to the public, but Mark and I made sure to park several hundred yards away to avoid suspicion. We selected the Jones Building as our target; out of all the empty buildings it is likely the largest, and architecturally by far the most foreboding. Erected in 1929 and closed just 50 years later in 1979, the building is several stories tall with massive corinthian columns adorning the front door, and absolutely covered in overgrown vines climbing its walls. The building’s aura escapes description; it’s spooky as hell. Even on a sunny summer day, the Jones building is uninviting and intimidating. Dozens of windows line the brick walls of each floor, some of which broken, and all of which on the first floor boarded up. After waiting and watching for security to pass by, we approached and circled the building, prying at each wood window cover almost hoping to be turned away unsuccessful. But before long, we found a chink in the armor. A board over a window had come loose, just enough to where you could bend it back and squeeze through. We were in.
Inside at night, it’s the kind of dark where you can’t see your hand right in front of your face. Like a darkness you can feel, it’s the first thing you notice. Soon after that is the musty smell that takes over your senses, like you’re inhaling each decade of decay and asbestos and dust all at once. Mark and I flipped on our flashlights to take in everything we could see, and the first thought that crossed my mind was thinking that it looked snowy on the inside. The floor, the walls, the ceiling, everything is covered in pure white dust. Piles of it gather in the corners. The peeling paint that’s left on the walls form a unique texture that covers most of the building’s interior. It was unlike anything I had ever seen, and about as creepy as we could stand. The building is basically a big “H” shape with two enormous wings connected in the middle. We gathered our courage and began walking down the wing we entered through. Most valuable medical equipment must have been removed when the building closed down, but the building was hardly empty. In most every room was some sort of machinery or medical appliance left to gather dust. Each bit of equipment we came across had the distinct visage of “old-timey medical equipment” you see in movies that you can only imagine being used by a nurse wearing a white hat with a red cross on it over her pin curls. All of the things in the Jones Building, the cabinets, the desks, the chairs, the equipment -- stuff just doesn’t look like that anymore. It was like stepping back 70 years.
Each floor had something different to offer. On the top floor is a room filled with X-Rays with medical reports of the patients. There’s a laundry room on the bottom floor. Bathrooms, beds, books, etc. People lived here. It wasn’t a normal hospital; you didn’t get sick, go to Central State, get better, and leave. A lot of people were there for good. On the bottom floor we found the morgue, complete with drawer slides for the bodies. I normally roll my eyes when people use the word “vibes”, but there’s no helping it. Central State was not a happy place for a lot of people, and I think you can feel that. So many people died there, only to be buried in some unmarked grave. That building heard a lot of bad news and absorbed a lot of tears, and just maybe that can create some sort of spiritual impact on a place.
One of the more memorable things I found was a box of greeting cards; get well cards with personalized messages to sick people decades ago. I kept some. “We miss you.” “Feel better soon.” “I’m praying for you.” Those and a no smoking sign are the only things I ever took. I don’t know, maybe that counts as vandalism or being a bad trespasser, but I don’t think anyone will miss them.
As grim as Central State is, it had a real pull on me. During my time in Milledgeville I developed quite the habit of going back. I sort of became an unofficial tour guide to people I knew who wanted to check it out. Friday night? Nothing to do? Let’s go to Central State. Let’s climb up the fire escape and hang out on the roof. Let’s go to the basement and turn off our flashlights to see how long we can stand it without getting too scared. Let’s go try to imagine what it was like living there, stuck until your depression or anxiety disorder or PTSD is “cured.” I don’t live in Milledgeville anymore, but I like to think the spirits of Central State still know me by name. I don’t actually believe in ghosts, but when I meet people who do, I tell them to go to Central State. I tell them to go in that building and try to wrap their head around the magnitude of death and malaise that Central State was home to. I tell them when they get there to turn off their lights, be quiet, and just stand there in the dark and silence for a minute. I tell them to let me know if they meet any ghosts and if they remember me. I send them to Milledgeville.