Whitfield is the colloquial name for the Mississippi State Hospital, Mississippi’s primary public mental institution and hospital, which dates to 1848. The name is derived from the post office and railroad station located at the hospital, which were named for Henry L. Whitfield, a Rankin County native who served as Mississippi’s governor from 1924 to 1927 and was in office when the state legislature voted to relocate the Mississippi State Insane Hospital, as it was then known, from Jackson to its current site ten miles to the southeast in Rankin County.
The modern treatment of mental illness in Mississippi dates to antebellum times. Prior to the late eighteenth century the mentally ill, then termed lunatics or idiots, often were not considered worthy of public concern. They frequently wandered the streets or were kept locked up by families at home, with the violently psychotic sometimes chained to the floors of jails. Early mental institutions developed not to treat the afflicted but rather to confine them away from the general public. By the early nineteenth century physicians such as Philippe Pinel and Benjamin Rush encouraged a more scientific and humane approach that resulted in the creation of benevolent institutions and hospitals for the scientific treatment of the insane. In the early 1840s leaders in the state’s medical community, especially Drs. William S. Langley, Edward Pickett, and Thomas J. Catchings, championed the idea of erecting such a hospital in Mississippi. In January 1846 Gov. Albert G. Brown proposed the erection of “an asylum for lunatics” and “a refuge for the insane.” Two years later, the legislature appropriated ten thousand dollars and provided a five-acre lot in Jackson. An early superintendent later remarked that Mississippi’s asylum was “born in debt” and spent most of its early history “begging and borrowing.”
The asylum’s commissioners soon purchased a tract of 140 acres of land two miles north of Jackson off the Canton road (the present location of the University of Mississippi Medical Center), and work began on a large central building with two wings on that site in 1848. Assisted by Dorothea L. Dix, a Boston schoolteacher nationally known as a mental health reformer, the commissioners consolidated public support and secured the necessary funding from the legislature. By 1851 the first buildings of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum were erected and a cornerstone placed, and the asylum opened its doors to patients in 1855.
The first superintendent, Dr. William Langley, had been among the earliest proponents of the asylum’s establishment. By 1856, at the request of the asylum trustees, a few slaves and free persons of color were admitted. In its early years the Jackson asylum survived fires, tornadoes, yellow fever epidemics, and shifting Yazoo clay. The main building, with six marble columns and a classic front crowned with a cupola, had wing after wing added on, sprawling out like a prehistoric bird. For generations, it provided care for thousands of Mississippi’s mentally ill.
In 1870 Gov. James Alcorn appointed Dr. William Compton as superintendent. A nationally recognized mental health physician, Compton utilized his great political skill to secure gubernatorial and legislative support. He also embarked on efforts to modernize the medical treatment of the insane and to double the facility’s capacity. He requested improved lodging for the “lunatics of color” to equal those provided for the whites while acknowledging, with Alcorn’s support, the need for segregation by both race and sex.
Overcrowding continually plagued the institution, and a second hospital, East Mississippi Insane Asylum (now East Mississippi State Hospital), was established in Meridian on 8 March 1882 to help treat the state’s mentally ill. In 1890, after considering the possibility of opening an institution in the Delta, the legislature authorized the building of an annex to the Jackson facility for the increasing number of black patients; ten years later, yet another annex was added.
In January 1900 the lunatic asylum changed its name to the Mississippi State Insane Hospital. The institution continued to deteriorate physically as its census swelled to 1,350 beds. Appointed superintendent in 1918, Dr. Charles Mitchell advocated relocating the hospital to create a more modern campus. By 1926 the Jackson hospital reached a census of 2,000 patients, and the grounds totaled more than thirteen hundred acres, which were farmed by the patients. That year, the legislature appropriated $2.5 million for a new hospital to be located on 3,333 acres of state-owned land in Rankin County. The 1926 legislation also dropped Insane from the hospital’s title, and it became simply Mississippi State Hospital. Because of a significant drop in state income during the depression and ongoing political squabbles, the hospital did not open at the new site until March 1935 and cost a total of $5 million.
The Whitfield campus was a more isolated environment, based on a modern prototype very different than the interconnected wards and annexes of the old asylum. Highly regarded architect N. W. Overstreet planned the main campus, which covered 350 acres and consisted of more than seventy-five colonial-style red brick buildings with white columns and trim. It had a capacity of thirty-five hundred patients. The original plan included two separate campuses—the western side for African American residents and the eastern side for whites. Whitfield remained segregated racially until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when administrator Dr. William L. Jaquith desegregated the campus without incident.
Jaquith, a Vicksburg native who began his service to the hospital in 1947, transformed its approach to mental illness during his three decades of leadership. By 1955 Whitfield had a census of four thousand patients and more than eight hundred employees. However, after legal challenges to the confinement of the mentally ill, the patient population decreased significantly, falling to twenty-six hundred by 1978 and to sixteen hundred by 1983. The legislature considered closing the facility in the early 1980s. As medical professionals have increasingly embraced community-based psychiatric programs, Whitfield has continued to shrink, and several of the buildings that formerly housed patients have closed. As a result of this shift in mental health priorities, in 2016 the hospital contained 405 licensed hospital beds and 379 licensed nursing home beds and provided a variety of community-service programs.
In February 2000 the Mississippi State Hospital Museum opened on the Whitfield campus in Building 23, constructed in 1929 to receive white male residents. The museum offers a concise historical overview of the treatment of mental illness in the state, centering on the critical role played by the Mississippi State Hospital. Original hydrotherapy rooms, needle spray showers, and a fever box are included among the museum’s exhibits.
- Annual Reports of the Board of Trustees and Superintendent of the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum (1870–77)
- Whitney E. Barringer, “The Corruption of Promise: The Insane Asylum in Mississippi, 1848–1920” (PhD dissertation, University of Mississippi, 2016)
- Lucius M. Lampton, Journal of the Mississippi State Medical Association (April 2000, January 2003)
- William D. McCain, The Story of Jackson (1953); Mississippi State Hospital website, www.msh.state.ms.us