Many times I have fallen down a rabbit hole when researching my family tree. Often this happens when I stumble across some long lost relative that I never knew existed and uncover a tiny kernel in their life that leads to endless questions. I become a person obsessed at that point. I dig until I can satisfy my initial question, but that often leads to other questions and so on and so forth. Like some giant jigsaw puzzle, facts blend with a bit of myth and what began in my mind as a loosely drawn sketch becomes a full blown oil painting.
I recently had one such experience when I ran across this picture:
The gate leads to the final resting place of over 1,500 lost souls. It is one of four cemeteries connected with Alabama’s first mental hospital – Bryce. I ran across the photo in connection with my first cousin, four times removed – Georgia Ann Poe. She died at Bryce in 1931 and is believed to be buried behind these locked gates.
When entering the cemetery, all of the visible graves are marked by a simple, nameless stone, with a number on it. The number corresponds to a person in the hospital records. There is something inherently sad about this practice…people who spent their last years on earth locked away, are now remembered by a number on a stone in a field of thousands. No name is carved for a passerby to see – they are nameless in death just as in life.
The simple, slightly crooked black iron bars of the gate, topped by rustic crosses, intrigued me. I had to know more. Questions flew through my brain. What is the history of Bryce? What was life like there for a patient like by ancestor? Why was she even there in the first place?
And so I started digging…
Built in the 1850’s, Bryce was once a shining example of how a interactive, pastoral environment could positively affect those with mental illness – a novel idea at the time it was built. Like my ancestor, many people spent their final years at Bryce and are buried in one of the four cemeteries. The oldest, referred to as the Old Bryce Cemetery, welcomed its first internment in 1861, not long after the hospital opened. Today not many tombstones remain, but there are known to be thousands buried in that one cemetery alone.
Early in its history, the hospital witnessed the burning of the nearby University of Alabama campus by Union troops. In fact, the superintendent of the hospital at the time, watched it happen from the domed cupola in the early morning hours of April 4, 1864. Standing beside him was the wife of the president of the university. Upon seeing the intent of the Union soldiers, she raced back to campus and was at least able to save the president’s mansion from the torch. It is among just a few buildings that survived the attack.
Bryce was originally built to house only 250 people as the emphasis was on humane care for each patient. Special facilities were provided. In addition to a state of the art facility, there was an amusement hall for dances and teas, a domed library, baseball fields, a lake, and many other amenities. The use of shackles and straight jackets was outlawed and patients were given jobs either inside doing crafts, or outside helping with the farming on the surrounding fields. The facility had an actual coal mine underneath it so as to independently power gas heat up until 1902 when the mine was shut down.
Over the years, additional wings continued to be added to the building until by 1950 there were almost six thousand patients and only around ten full time doctors. By 1970, Bryce was estimated to have the longest roof line in the world and to be the third largest building. It was unsustainable. A place that had once been serene and offered patients excellent care and facilities, now was full of filth and disregard for the basic needs of patients. It began to draw comparisons to Nazi concentration camps.
Eventually this led to a shutdown. Patients were moved elsewhere and the facility sat empty for years. In the early 21st century, the University of Alabama purchased the property. Although a restoration is underway and Bryce will soon begin a new phase in its life as a welcome center for the university, the past still hangs on doggedly in the long corridors.
Georgia Ann Poe was in her late fifties or early sixties at the time of her death in 1931. She appears on the 1930 census as an “inmate” at Bryce – a term normally reserved for prisoners. Her occupation is listed as “none” despite others on the list having occupations such as “helper,” or “dishwasher in the dining room”. She also appears on the 1910 census, at the age of 34, still living at home with her parents. The census indicates she could not read or write. By 1930, this had changed.
I think I would like to imagine that her time at Bryce was helpful in some way. Perhaps she learned to read and write and found some peace of mind in her final years. The reality is that I may never know for sure why she was there or which of the hundreds of numbered markers is hers.
That reality makes me sad.
Cover image courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History