Bryce Uncovered: A look at the asylum's short-lived newspaper

Bryce Uncovered: A look at the asylum's short-lived newspaper
Laura Johnson / Alabama Crimson White

The Meteor ran from 1872 to 1881, at first printed quarterly, but then irregularly. 

Seven years after the Civil War, near The University of Alabama’s campus, a newspaper was being prepared for publication. The first story of the first issue: Darwinism. It was placed under the paper’s motto, "Lucus a non Lucinda," meaning “a dark grove because it is not light,” an absurd phrase for an seemingly illogical endeavor. The Meteor and its staff were unique in structure. The paper was created and run entirely by patients at the Alabama Insane Hospital, now known as Bryce Hospital.

“Meteors are always a surprise,” said the first issue, published in 1872. “So doubtless will be our little sheet. They will appear at irregular intervals. So will it. Their career though short is brilliant, and we intend that our paper, if it do not coruscate with wit, shall glow with a kindly and generous sentiment for all mankind, would ever be their nationality, political principal or religious creed.”

The Meteor ran from 1872 to 1881, first printed quarterly then irregularly near the end of its publication. It featured articles on social issues like the virtues of Sunday School, basic hospital events and poems and stories submitted by patients.

There’s debate as to whether the idea to create the paper came from patients or staff, but the paper was published nonetheless in an effort to be a form of media relations and work therapy for the patients.

“They would have been in the hospital especially over the summer and with it being hot, there was nothing to do other than work the fields,” said Ryan Phillips, a journalist working on a book discussing the history of The Meteor. “If your condition left you physically unable to do manual labor your options back then were really limited ... but I think that being able to work and interact with the community that pretty much had shunned them ... I think it gave them a sense of belonging and interaction with the community.”

Phillips is currently the editor of the Starkville Daily in Starkville, Mississippi. His grandmother worked as a police officer at Bryce for years and would tell him stories about the patients’ lives within the hospital. When he began his tenure as a graduate student at The University of Alabama in 2013, he wanted to learn more about the institution and its patients. When he discovered The Meteor, he said he was “blown away.”

“It gives us about our only view from the ground of the hospital at that time,” he said. “I really think it's about our only connection to the state’s first mental institution that's right in our backyard, in Tuscaloosa. To be able to have that inside is a rare thing because at any other mental institution, even today, you really don't get that level of insight.”

Phillips was also impressed by the paper’s progressive viewpoints, even for the time. The paper criticized local Klan leader's stance against efforts to register African-American voters and often engaged in thoughtful discussions on what it means to be “insane.”

“I really think that they embraced who they were and I think that makes it even more interesting,” Phillips said. “Because there's a self-awareness that’s manifested through their writings and their views on issues of the day and everyday life in the hospital.”

The paper was meant to serve as a means of communication between the hospital and the community as well as a look into the lives of the patients who lived there, said Steve Davis, a historian for the Alabama Department of Mental Health.

“If we didn’t have a Meteor we would have no idea what life was like for a patient at that point in time except what we get out of the annual reports,” Davis said, ”I think it humanizes the people that were there. You've got a cross-section of people that are just like a cross-section of people in the state at this point in time and it will probably be similar to the dynamics of the state of that time.”

Davis said he thinks the paper was truly driven by one man, the patient that supposedly served as its editor and attributes the paper’s later irregular production to that man’s deteriorating interest and health.

“I believe this was a really educated guy who knew how to print the paper himself so it didn't cost the hospital,” he said. “And so you've got something with one guy, but if he doesn't feel like doing it, then it doesn't get done.”

While Davis said he couldn’t reveal the probable editor’s name since they were once a patient, Phillips has his own theory about who the man was – a hospital resident named Joseph Goree.

Phillips came to the conclusion after determining which articles were written by the editor, noticing many were signed at the end with a simple “G.” He then discovered an old newspaper article from the Tuskaloosa Gazette that named Goree as the editor of the paper. A book published by a preacher, an exposé of Bryce, noted that Goree was a publisher.

According to research done by Phillips, Goree was born in Alabama and his family was involved with Judson College. He later left Alabama, after attending the University here in Tuscaloosa for a year, to go to Brown University, where he was married and lived in Indianapolis before coming back and being committed to the Alabama Insane Hospital for reasons unknown. Goree died, most likely from dementia, in 1890, several years after The Meteor’s last publication. He was buried in a numbered grave.

“It started out, I think, there was a lot of editorial humor and a lot of social commentary and then the more the paper went on,” Phillips said. “I think in later years he lost that and it just became more of like a calendar of events and a look around town and things like that. I think it lost some of its spirit.”

The paper established a clear outlet for communicative and therapeutic endeavors. Despite irregular publication and the passing of the paper’s editor, The Meteor seemed to accomplish more than many expected it to.

“They meant for it to be the go-between for the hospital and the communities,” Davis said. “Just as much as it was meant to be read by patients, there would be instructions on if you visited the hospital, the best things to do if you went to the ward, what you might encounter and how to be appropriate to the people that live there. And that's a concept that really grew a lot in the advocacy programs of the 1970s into the present and there it is in the 1870s.”

Eventually, the staff of the paper decided to publish it just for themselves and the residents of the Alabama Insane Hospital.

“THE METEOR will be printed in future solely for the use of the patients of the Hospital,” an issue from 1876 said. “If a copy fall into the hands of persons not attached to the institution, they may discover if they have an equitable right to read it, by asking themselves the following query: ‘Have I a thoroughly sound and well-balanced mind, free from quips and cranks of every kind?’ If yes, return the paper to the Hospital, as an estray.”

Archived issues of The Meteor can be read at http://digital.archives.alabama.gov/cdm/search/searchterm/the meteor/order/date

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