The first ghost story I ever wrote was about Searcy State Hospital in Mount Vernon, Alabama. When I was nothing more than a lowly graduate student, I did my internship there .I fell in love with it’s history and it’s white chipped walls. Everything about this old hospital spoke to me. Before I set foot on hospital grounds, my internship director, Dr. Kay Welsh, told our small group about Searcy’s long and dark history. At the time, I was amazed that a place so steeped in history and tragedy could still be used as a psychiatric hospital. It was even more remarkable because most of those who worked there and lived there every day were oblivious to it’s history. They seemed bored by the history and if you asked them about it, they seemed irritated that you would ever consider that relevant.
Searcy State Hospital is located in Mt. Vernon, Alabama. Prior to being a state hospital the old hospital has a long and dark history that is very difficult to find, but easy to see upon casual observation. The hospital is encased in long, chipped, white walls that seem as old as anything in the United States. From outside these walls, you can see a battered watchtower that gives testament to the fact that the hospital is in the same location as a 300 year old fort. The fort bears witness to American history. It was originally a French fort and then a Spanish Fort. It switched hands during the Louisiana Purchase and became a US fort. After the US took possession of the fort it was converted to a military arsenal and became known as the Mount Vernon Arsenal.
The Arsenal switched hands again several times and was taken by the Confederates during the civil war only to be passed back over the United States again in 1862. From 1887 to 1894, The Arsenal became a Barracks and was used as a prison for the captured Apache people. The most famous of the Apache people to be held in these barracks was Geronimo. There is a door in the lobby of the old hospital that is labeled as the door to Geronimo’s cell. It is beautiful and intricate. Sadly, history notes that Geronimo was not kept in a cell during his stay at Mt. Vernon. He was allowed freedom to wander the barrack, so the door is just a lovely bit of folklore. The infamous Aaron Burr was also held at this secluded prison at some point after his notorious gun fight.
In 1900, the Barracks were transformed once again and the prison became a mental hospital. Searcy hospital was built as the African American mental hospital in Alabama. Conditions in the hospital were beyond questionable and at one time there were over 2000 patients in the crowded hospital and all were seen by one psychiatrist. All patients were expected to work in the fields. After I wrote my first story about Searcy, I learned more about the tragedies that took place here. I got numerous emails from family members of former patients asking if I had any access to records. Apparently, many African American families had family members taken from them, institutionalized here, and they were never seen or heard from again. I had an elderly lady write me asking if I could find out what happened to her mother. It broke my heart that I could not. She said her mother had been sane but had offended a white woman. The white woman had took her mother before a judge and no one ever heard from her again. The elderly lady just wanted to know where her mother was buried. Searcy was a place of unspeakable sorrow.
A year ago, a well meaning writer called me for what I think was meant to be a gotcha moment. She wanted to know if ghost story writers and collectors ever thought about the impact our stories have on mental health care. I had written a book about Searcy State hospital called “Circe” and she believed a was profiting from the mentally ill. She said that we made things worse for the mentally ill by linking them to ghost stories and horror movies. I laughed and told her about my internship at Searcy. I told her about the ghosts that haunted the old buildings. I told her about the forgotten patients that had been buried there. I told her that the ghost stories could only help all of us remember that some things should not be buried, locked up or forgotten and that maybe the ghosts that haunt these places are there to remind us that we need to take better care of the mentally ill and treat them like people. They are there to remind us of all the living mentally ill that we try to forget, cut funding for, and who now end up in jail or homeless. Sometimes ghosts stay for a reason and telling ghost stories can help us remember those that might otherwise be forgotten.