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Ghost Fry

Ben Osborne’s armed escape from the Georgia Insane Asylum at Milledgeville following a masquerade ball on the night of Jan. 4, 1898, created a sensation throughout the state, as did the subsequent publication of a damning letter he had mailed to the Constitution a few hours before his flight in which he accused Principal Keeper Dr. T.O. Powell and his staff of practicing neglect, torture and murder among the nearly 2,000 wretched Georgians entrusted to their care.

Several letters appeared in papers statewide refuting Osborne’s charges, most notably one from J.R. Irby, an inmate of the asylum, which was published in the Journal Jan. 15.

Irby praised the kindliness and care of Dr. Powell and his staff, commended the food and sanitation of the asylum, and noted its recreational opportunities and its fine library. The attendants whom Osborne had condemned as sadistic torturers Irby praised as “clever, gentlemanly young men,” but made no mention, let alone refutation of Osborne’s serious charges against them.

While the controversy over Osborne’s charges raged, law officers kept a statewide alert for the escaped lunatic. A man matching Osborne’s description was sighted heading east from Milledgeville on the road to Sparta. It was reported that Osborne had friends in that town, but no trace of him was found there.

On the night of Jan. 13 the people of Harlem, near Augusta, were terrorized by an armed madman who passed through the town and was generally believed to have been Ben Osborne.

The following day Atlanta police captured Robert Badger, the son of a prominent black Atlanta dentist who had escaped from the asylum on the same night as Osborne, unlocking a door with a stolen key and removing windowpanes with a chisel. The police grilled Badger about Osborne, but finally concluded that there was no connection between the two escapes.

Orth Stein, editor of Atlanta’s favorite scandal sheet, the Looking Glass, fanned the flames on the day after Badger’s capture with a story of Jesse Delpey, an Atlanta boilermaker grievously injured by a brick falling on his head.

Severely brain-damaged, Delpey was cared for by his mother until she could no longer bear the responsibility and sent him to the asylum, where he soon died. Mrs. Delpey had sent instructions for Jesse’s body to be returned to Atlanta in case of his death, but Dr. Powell did not contact her until several days after Jesse’s body had been buried on the asylum grounds. Powell gave Mrs. Delpey a limp apology and told her that her son’s body could be exhumed after six months.

On Feb. 1 Governor Atkinson issued a $200 reward for Osborne. The Baldwin County grand jury had issued an indictment for attempted murder, and there was talk of retrying him for Schrader’s murder in Atlanta if he should be recaptured. On the same day that Atkinson issued the reward, Sam Sanners, a black attendant at the asylum was arrested and jailed as an accomplice to Osborne’s escape. It was claimed that Sanners had picked up a package for Osborne at the Milledgeville post office and smuggled it into the asylum. The assumption was that the package had contained the pistol Osborne fired at Dr. Powell. Apparently nothing further came of the charges against Sanners.

On Jan. 22 a report came from Milledgeville that Dr. Powell had received a letter from Ben Osborne postmarked from a town in South Carolina threatening to return to the asylum and kill the doctor. If this report was authentic, it was the last thing ever heard from Ben Osborne. His name does not appear in Atlanta papers during the next three years, and when his brother Jim returned to public notice as a socialist candidate for governor in 1906, no mention was made of Ben. He likely succeeded in the plan that he confided to his father in the summer of 1897 of leaving the country never to be heard from again. His father died in October 1899 and his mother last appears in the Atlanta city directory in 1906.

Although there was frequent talk of replacing Dr. Powell as head of the asylum, he remained for several years. When a magnificent new building was erected for the asylum with a dome and a fountain, looking, barring the barred windows, like the national palace of some tropical republic, it was named the Powell Building.

No further outcry was heard about the administration of the asylum and the annual reports of the legislative committees charged with its oversight report nothing out of hand. Yet there is no doubt that Ben Osborne’s charges were largely true. Anyone who visited the Central State Hospital as recently as 30 years ago can attest to the overwhelming sense of barely hidden horror pervading that deceptively lovely place. Not every patient descended into hell there, but the poor, the black, the forgotten were often at the mercy of a frustrated and undertrained, overburdened staff whose power over their miserable, unfortunate charges was nearly absolute.

Ben Osborne’s tortured, erudite voice remains the most eloquent cry of protest ever to emerge from that place of weeping and oblivion.

Next Week: Where Can a Fellow Get a Drink Around Here? Curious Taverns of 19th-Century Georgia.

© 1995, John Ryan Seawright


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