Before I ever heard of Flannery O’Connor, I had heard of Milledgeville. In Georgia it is a synecdoche for the state mental hospital located there, so one sometimes hears about cousins and in-laws who had a “nervous breakdown” and “went to Milledgeville.” A classic instance of Southern indirection, it was a nicer way of saying “looney bin.”
The state mental hospital loomed large in the collective imagination as an institution for freaks and misfits, and it seemed fitting that O’Connor’s fiction was so heavily peopled with characters who could have escaped from there. But the reality is far more expansive.
July 2018: John and I have both been to this town before, but this is the first item either of us have set foot on the campus of the State Hospital. Established in 1837 as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum, by the time it was renamed Central State Hospital in 1967, it was the largest mental health facility in the world.
It is staggeringly enormous, the size and appearance of a heavily-endowed college campus, at its heart a leafy central quadrangle edged with red-brick buildings with high-columned neoclassical porticoes. You could even imagine enjoying a loungy picnic on the meticulously maintained lawns on the quad, and get taken in by the brilliant bit of there-are-no-tanks-in-Baghdad groundskeeping trickery. On every side, the buildings of the hospital are uninhabited, crumbling, and roofless. Warning signs proliferate, discouraging intrepid prowlers and the curious from approaching the structures. Bad omens are everywhere.
UNSAFE BUILDING AND GROUNDS
Light plays weirdly behind broken-glass windows, vines creep through empty panes and up exterior walls, and there is blue sky where there should be a roof. Across the pecan grove quadrangle, the Central Chapel still holds weddings for people with very, er, particular, “Southern Gothic” tastes.
The dusk is deepening as John and I wander in front of the Powell Building on the main campus. A pair of red foxes lurk under the wide branches of a southern magnolia, eye us suspiciously, and flit off. Powell looks more like a state capitol than a hospital building: stark, white, and imposing, its weathered bronze dome looms above a classical portico, held up by four grand ionic columns. The bricks were made with slave labor. Sherman camped his troops here on his way to Savannah. Tonight the building is dark except for one flourescent-lit hallway deep inside. Out front, the fountain basin is dry, a faded swimming-pool blue.
There is too much to see tonight. We call it a day and come back the next day, first thing. The early morning sun is gold against the Jones Building, which in context does not look as grand as it supposed to. It has few windows still in tact, is overwhelmed with ivy. The Georgia state seal still seems improbably unfaded on the tympanum. Where there was once glass on the main doors there is now stained plywood.
I kneel in the dewy grass to take a photograph of the front of Jones and quickly jump to my feet, my right shin covered in dirt. Except it is not dirt, but a batallion of extremely pissed-off fire ants. The marks they leave on that leg do not go away until well after the trip is over.
In 1959, Jack Nelson, a reporter for the Atlanta Constitution, wrote a series of articles for the paper exposing “irregularities” in the operation of the hospital. Nelson found that a nurse had performed a major surgery. People ineligible for surgery—by implication relatives of hospital staff—were operated on, while others who were eligible waited indefinitely. Administrators misappropriated funds. The 12,000 patients were inadequately staffed. The superintendent of the hospital, T.G. Peacock, did not take too kindly to Nelson’s nosing around. When Nelson pressed Peacock on just how long was the backlog of eligible patients awaiting surgery, the superintendent told him, “I don’t think that’s any of your business.” Peacock telephoned Wallace Gibson, head of surgery and the subject of many of Nelson’s stories. “That same damned newspaperman is down here,” he said. Peacock was livid. He said that Nelson “ought to be turned over to those patients that handled that other fellow”—an apparent reference to an episode covered in the same day’s newspaper, in which two hospital patients attacked an attendant with a shiv, cutting him all over and leaving him “mighty bloody.”
Officials at Central Hospital weren’t the only ones in a tizzy about Nelson’s reportage. In May 1959, Nelson was back in Milledgeville to cover a Baldwin County Medical Society meeting. Some took umbrage to his being there. A doctor from Eatonton, Charles Jordan, complained that Nelson had been dragging Dr. Gibson’s name through the mud. They had words. Outside Ray’s Drive-In in Milledgeville, Dr. Johnson punched Nelson in the face.
Nelson had the last laugh. He won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the hospital’s woes. The institution soon began slowly emptying out, and by 2010 it had all but shut down. In the light of day the vastness of the abandonment becomes apparent. Central State Hospital is huge enough, but when combined with the adjacent Mens’ State Prison and other now-defunct facilities, it is an almost incomprehensibly sprawling and decaying complex where once an enormous swath of varyingly wayward humanity was managed, treated, rehabilitated, medicated, controlled, and buried.
At the Mens’ Prison, kudzu has overtaken much of the facility. It is creeping up the four legs of a solitary watchtower, all but inaccessible for the high grass. I crawl through a hole in the chain-link fence. A capsized wheelchair sits in a doorway, surrounded by broken glass. In a large hall like an abandoned set from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, rows of plastic seats are pushed together in one corner. In another, a pile of tan and blue mattresses. Battleship Grey is the common theme.
Milledgeville was not just the state’s sanatorium; it had also been the center of the prison system since not long after the city became the state capital in 1807. The State Penitentiary lasted until about the time the capital moved finally to Atlanta in 1868. Its original buildings were demolished in the 1870s, and the rubble-strewn, sixteen-acre site was deeded in 1889 to Georgia Normal and Industrial College, which in 1922 became Georgia State College for Women, which graduated Flannery O’Connor in 1945.
Some people would later say that Marion Stembridge should have gone to the State Hospital, or the prison. In 1949 the local grocer and loan shark and went with a burly colleague to the Shantytown home of John Cooper, an African-American, to collect a debt. Stembridge walked up on the porch uninvited, looking for trouble. Emma Johnekin was one of the women on the porch. She turned to Stembridge. “Lord have mercy,” she said. “He has got on brass knucks haven’t you?’ Stembridge turned to go inside the house. “God damn it,” he shouted. “What is it to you?”
As Emma testified,
he grabbed me and hit me with his knucks. He hit me on the head. Mary ran where I was and pulled him loose from me. He shot me in the hand and he shot at Mary. I went on inside the house and sat on the trunk. He came to the door and shot me in the shoulder and in the stomach. I didn’t have a gun, neither a knife and Mary had neither gun nor knife
Emma Johnekin died a few days later, and Stembridge was charged with manslaughter. But it being Georgia in 1949, Johnekin being a black woman and Stembridge a white man, he managed never to serve time. He maintained his innocence, but the episode festered in him, and it seemed as though he was paying a price anyway. He was later convicted of attempting to bribe two IRS agents, and indicted for perjury. He divorced his wife. But Stembridge came to feel he that the price he was paying was due to other people: he harbored increasing resentment towards Marion Ennis, the attorney who represented his defense until he became “uncomfortable” with the case, and quit. Stembridge seethed privately at Pete Bivins, the attorney who he believed was behind the tax evasion charges.
In 1953, Milledgeville was celebrating its 150th anniversary. On May 2, as the town was more decked out and gussied up than it had ever been, as its streets were about to throng with guttural V-8 pickup trucks barely above idle pulling floats of bonneted Georgia girls in billowing hoop skirts, as the asphalt was about to thump with bellowing brass bands and war-dancing native Americans in full ceremonial headdress, Marion Stembridge climbed the steps to Marion Ennis’s office on the second floor of the Campus Theatre on West Hancock, and fired three .38 caliber rounds into his former lawyer’s back. He then coolly walked back out onto the street, tipped his hat to a group of ladies, and moseyed to Pete Bivins’ office. He shot Bivins four times, and then turned the gun on himself.
Eugene Ellis, the police chief at the time, thought Stembridge belonged at the State Hospital. “I told Mrs. Stembridge in ‘49 that her husband was crazy as hell,” he told the Atlanta paper. “It made her mad, but later she told me I had been right.”
Not even the mad rampage of the “berserk banker,” as the Chicago Tribune called him, could cool the “hearts warm with pride, hands warmed with applause” of the over 2,000 high-spirited attendees who helped kick off the festivities the following day. Celestine Sibley wrote, entirely without irony, that “No mother saddened by tragic death in the family in the midst of preparations for a beloved child’s birthday party ever rallied more bravely than did the old town of Milledgeville as it hid its grief over the Saturday slaying of two of its leading citizens and put its best foot forward to receive the first of 10,000 visitors to attend the week-long sesquicentennial celebration.”
Heaven forfend that a little murderin’ should get in the way of a good time. But this classically Southern moment of burying grief deep down where it belongs is where Flannery O’Connor comes in. She was living in Milledgeville at the time, and for all I know was a witness to the pageantry, although she never mentioned it in her published letters. But it must have made an impression, because she used the episode as the basis for her short story, “The Partridge Festival,” published in The Critic in 1961. Marion Stembridge later became the subject of a full-length treatment in Pete Dexter’s novel, Paris Trout, which won the National Book Award in 1988. In the opening scene of the book, a young girl—the fictionalized version of Emma Johnekin—is bitten by a rabid fox.
Marion Stembridge has been mostly brushed out of memory, but his name was briefly on locals’ lips again in February 2019, when the Theta Chi fraternity house at the corner of Columbia and Montgomery Streets burned to the ground. Officials attributed the fire to inadequate wiring, but there is reason to believe it may have been due to some congenital misfortune: Marion Stembridge lived there during his infamy in the 1940s and 50s.
Pete Dexter is Milledgeville’s second-most famous novelist: he grew up here, but lives in the northwest now. I’m sure some people in town still remember him. I don’t know how many remember Pete Bivins or Marion Ennis. Or who remembers—or wants to remember—Marion Stembridge. Or Emma Johnekin.
The dead neither remember nor forget. Forgetting is for those who still have life.
Off a cedar-lined dirt lane near the men’s prison is a field where thousands of the hospital’s patients were buried from 1842 onward. The lane leads to and from precisely nowhere. A small gazebo and gate mark one end; at the other a bronze angel stretches a birdshit-encrusted hand heavenward. Originally, or at least for part of the hospital’s history, the dead were buried in this area in separate cemeteries for whites and blacks, men and women. Each grave was marked with a small, numbered iron stake like an elongated teardrop. In the 1960s, groundskeepers removed them in order more efficiently to mow the grass—the one inviolable consideration of modern cemetery culture to which, apparently, all burial grounds from Westview to the state mental hospital’s must submit. The iron stakes were discovered in 1997, when a group of visitors stumbled upon them in a pile in the overgrown field. Eventually the group established a memorial to the deceased, and lined up 2,000 surviving iron stakes in rows like a pecan grove. It is a stark, macabre memorial to society’s castaways, and only a partial restoration of their memory. And accidental integration by way of oblivion and anonymity. The dead aren’t buried under these markers; they are out there, somewhere, underground. And there are many more than even these small tokens of memory can compass: over 25,000 deceased patients were originally buried here. But no one knows where, or who, they really are.
“Banker Kills Two Lawyers, Ends Own Life,” Chicago Tribune, 3 May 1953, p. 1.
“Two Layers Prominent in Legal Difficulties Slain by Georgia Man Carrying ‘Grudge,’” Great Falls Tribune, 3 May 1953, p. 2.
“2 Beat Up Aide, Escape Milledgeville,” Atlanta Constitution, 26 March 1959, pp. 1, 6.
Court of Appeals of Georgia, Stembridge v. State, 82 Ga. App. 214 (1950). 60 S.E.2d 491, 32911. Decided July 12, 1950.
Pete Dexter, Paris Trout (New York, Vintage 1988).
Jack Nelson, “Ineligibles Given Surgery; Mental Patients Wait Turns,” Atlanta Constitution, 26 March 1959, pp. 1, 6.
Flannery O’Connor, “The Partridge Festival,” in Collected Works (New York: Library of America 1988).
Celestine Sibley, “Milledgeville Pageant Traces 150-Year History,” Atlanta Constitution, 5 May 1953, p. 14.