On a 17-acre plot adjacent to the University of Alabama were a farm, a corn crib, a stable, and a building to house the people who kept all of those things running. The building was a sprawling white structure with a library and a dance hall and rooms for the people who plowed the fields, shucked the corn, and raised the pigs. It was the first building in Tuscaloosa to have steam heating or gas lighting.
It was also a hospital for the mentally ill, the first of its kind in Alabama. And from 1872 to 1881, it was the headquarters of the Meteor, a newspaper written, edited, and published entirely by patients and circulated beyond the hospital walls.
The paper was named after the patients’ own expectations for it: “Meteors are always a surprise,” the first issue explained, and “so doubtless will be our little sheet. They appear at regular intervals. So will it.” Whenever it appeared, though—quarterly at first, more sporadically in its later years—the paper offered its readers a clear-eyed look at life inside the hospital—and, by extension, a window into a grand new experiment in mental-health treatment.
Over the first few decades of the 19th century, ideas around mental illness began to shift in the U.S., and what had once been considered a moral failing was now viewed as a medical condition, one that could be treated with more humane care. In the 1840s, the social reformer Dorothea Dix spearheaded the movement for “moral treatment,” lobbying for the construction of asylums around the country to house the mentally ill, who had previously been held largely in jails and almshouses.