Laura Todd Carns| The Atavist Magazine | September 2021 | 7 minutes (1,935 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 119, “Searching for Mr. X,” written by Laura Todd Carns and illustrated by Ben Jones.

On a summer day in 1931, a man was found wandering South State Street in Jackson, Mississippi. He appeared to be lost. He was white, with gray hair and a thin, angular face. His clothes were worn and rumpled, but on his feet were a pair of tan Borden low-quarter dress shoes, the kind that sold for more than ten dollars at S. P. McRae’s department store on West Capitol Street. He had shell-rimmed eyeglasses and a belt buckle with the letter L on it. In his pocket was a cheap watch and a single penny.

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When police questioned him, the man seemed dazed. He was unable to supply his name, his address, or an explanation for why he was in Jackson. He was arrested for vagrancy. After a few days, he was placed in the custody of Dr. C. D. Mitchell, superintendent of the Mississippi State Hospital. Upon his arrival at the facility, the man, who was estimated to be about sixty, was entered into the patient ledger as “Mr. X.”

Who was he? Where had he come from? How did he wind up alone on a street in the Deep South, at the beginning of the Great Depression, without his memory? Months passed, then years. Mr. X remained at the hospital, and the mystery of his identity lingered. For reasons no one could discern, his past was beyond his reach.

Formerly known as the Mississippi State Lunatic Asylum, in 1931 the hospital was a warren of overcrowded barracks so decrepit that patients kept getting injured by pieces of plaster that fell from crumbling ceilings. Worse yet, the hospital was a firetrap—its buildings were full of mattresses, linens, and other combustible material. One blaze after another destroyed parts of the facility, necessitating reconstruction.

In 1935, four years after Mr. X’s arrival, the institution moved to a brand-new campus about 15 miles outside Jackson. It was built on the site of a former penal farm and dubbed Whitfield, in honor of the governor—Henry L. Whitfield—who approved the construction. Over the course of several days, patients in Jackson were loaded onto buses in groups. They traveled along Highway 80 before turning onto a long gravel drive lined with young trees and freshly planted flower beds. Some 70 redbrick buildings with white columns were nestled on Whitfield’s green lawns and connected by paved walking paths. A visitor, taking in the manmade lake and the wide porches on the buildings, might have thought the place a summer camp or a university.

Over the previous century, patients in mental hospitals were often written off as subhuman and kept in barbaric conditions; by the 1940s, mental health care began shifting toward new treatment models, some with real potential to help people (psychiatric pharmacology), and some that could only do harm (lobotomy). Mr. X’s time in state care fell between these two eras, at an institution flush with the spirit in which it was built. Whitfield’s superintendent, Dr. Mitchell, designed the campus in line with the latest scientific understanding of psychiatry. The physical environs were intended to be peaceful and pleasing to the eye. Patients attended weekly dances and movie nights. On Sundays, patients and staff alike worshipped in the campus chapel. Orchards, fields, and a dairy farm provided Whitfield’s food. Able-bodied patients sewed overalls in the occupational therapy workshop; others milked cows or repaired fences. Mitchell believed in giving residents the opportunity to contribute to their community, because the dignity of honest work could be a salve to a troubled spirit. It also helped stretch the institution’s meager budget.

For some patients weathering a temporary crisis, the restful environment was all the treatment they needed, and they left after a short stay. For those suffering from more severe or chronic disorders, the hospital offered comfort and stability. The focus of treatment was on easing symptoms and providing structures that kept patients safe.

By all accounts, Mr. X thrived at Whitfield. He worked in the hospital’s greenhouse, tending to plants and flowers, and he revealed a surprising store of botanical knowledge. In his downtime he played cards with other patients and with staff. He had a knack for complicated games like bridge.

Knowing the names of things is semantic knowledge; knowing how to do things is procedural knowledge. These parts of Mr. X’s mental functioning were intact. What was missing were his autobiographical memories. And without them, who was he? A skilled bridge player who couldn’t remember how or when he’d learned the game; a gardener with no recollection of who’d taught him the names of flowers or which varieties grew in his mother’s yard.

Mr. X spent hours in the hospital’s library, reading every newspaper and magazine he could get his hands on. He told his doctors that he was looking for something that might jog his memory, something that felt familiar. Nothing ever did. He spoke with a genteel Southern accent, which suggested that he’d had some education in his life, or at least had grown up among educated people. Those people—his people—could tell Mr. X who he was. But no one came to Whitfield to claim him.

We’re not the only ones who carry our memories. The people around us, who share in our experiences, have their own version of events saved away. And when we tell a story to a loved one, we’re giving them a piece of our lives. We scatter memories like seeds, letting them take root in the people who care enough to listen.

One day in the late 1990s, I sat cross-legged on the cool tile floor of my grandmother’s sunroom in Florida, listening. I had a cheap spiral notebook in my lap where I scribbled down the scraps of memory she shared. My grandmother had always been reticent to talk about her upbringing in Mississippi, but as she spoke, her initial hesitance burned away like a fog dissolving in sunshine.

As she described her childhood, she dwelled for a while on a woman named Ligon Smith Forbes, her aunt on her mother’s side. Ligon—pronounced with a short i and a hard g—died well before I was born, but as my grandmother spoke, a lively, unconventional woman took shape in my mind. “She was a feminist divorcée suffragette journalist alcoholic lesbian rabble-rouser,” my grandmother said, tapping a manicured finger against her ultra-slim cigarette. “You would have loved her!”

Ligon was a tall, striking woman, and by the time she was in her fifties, her lined face had a rosy glow—the complexion of a heavy drinker. She was married briefly, retaining nothing from the union but the title “Mrs.” and a new last name. Ligon worked all her life, and she held a wide variety of jobs. She tried teaching, then managed a stationery and newspaper shop. She dabbled in real estate and in the insurance business. She got into journalism and road-tripped with Eleanor Roosevelt to report on conditions in the rural South for the Emergency Relief Administration. She also started the first advertising agency in Mississippi. Her cofounder was her longtime “companion,” a woman named Earlene White.

“When I was turning 13, Mama let me take the train to visit Aunt Ligon in the city, to celebrate my birthday,” my grandmother told me, her eyes shining at the glamour of it all. The year was 1931, and the city was Jackson—for a girl from a small, dusty town, the state capital was the height of sophistication. She stayed with Ligon and Earlene in their suite at the Robert E. Lee Hotel.

“Of course, they were lovers,” my grandmother said in a casual aside, “but we didn’t talk about things like that back then.”

Her mother—my great-grandmother, Ligon’s sister—had given her five dollars to buy a dress. “Five dollars was a lot of money,” my grandmother said solemnly, as if she could still feel the weight of it in her patent-leather purse. “Ligon took me shopping, and well….” My grandmother shrugged. “Instead of a dress, I came home with my first pair of high heels.” She grinned with the mischief of a rebellious teenager.

“She worked for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans for a while,” my grandmother said of Ligon, narrowing her eyes in concentration. “Wrote for a bunch of newspapers. Sometimes she sent me cuttings, but I don’t think I saved them. Maybe you could look”—at this my grandmother gestured vaguely toward the sky, indicating technology and its mysteries—“find out something about her work.”

I tried, but searching through old newspapers on library microfiche was a formidable task, and the earliest databases for genealogy research, such as, were just coming online. The notebook where I’d scribbled my grandmother’s memories soon slid to the bottom of a box. It sat there, unopened, and moved as I did, to new homes, half a dozen times over the years.

When I discovered the notebook again, my grandmother had been dead for a decade. But there were her words on the page, transcribed in my ballpoint-scrawled hand. Outlandish stories of feuds with her older brothers, of the small-town telephone operator who eavesdropped on everyone’s conversations, of the house her lumberman father built, hand-picking every board. And memories of her beloved Aunt Ligon.

I took the fragments my grandmother had given me—the Robert E. Lee Hotel, the Times-Picayune, Earlene—and fed them into search engines. There she was: Ligon Smith Forbes. I discovered facts about my aunt’s life that my grandmother hadn’t shared, perhaps hadn’t even known. Ligon filed a patent in 1920. She worked with Near East Relief, famously the first charity to let donors “adopt” a child by supporting them financially from afar. And at the time of the 1940 census, her residence was listed as the Mississippi State Hospital in Whitfield.

At first I thought Ligon had been a patient. Perhaps she was being treated for alcoholism. But no—I soon learned that Whitfield was another career shift. Ligon was hired in July 1938 as the institution’s public relations director. Previously, administrators or the occasional contractor had handled publicity. But someone convinced the hospital that it could use a dedicated staff member to liaise with the press. In all likelihood that someone was Ligon herself. Creating jobs out of whole cloth was one of her specialties.

Ligon moved into the female staff dorm at Whitfield. Her commute to work was a stroll down landscaped paths, first to the dining hall for breakfast at communal tables, then to the cupola-topped administration building. She had a Rolodex full of contacts at regional newspapers and magazines. She had experience writing copy she knew papers would run. Now all she had to do was scour the hospital for story ideas.

Ligon reached out to the Commercial Appeal, a newspaper in Memphis, Tennessee, that had wide circulation in the South. It was always seeking content for its weekly photo supplement, referred to in the newspaper business as rotogravure. Ligon suggested that the paper do a two-page spread on the state-of-the-art mental hospital where she’d recently started working. She said she would travel to Memphis herself and hand-deliver the photographs. The newspaper, presumably eager for an easy way to fill a couple of pages, agreed.

On the day she would board the train for Memphis, Ligon came across a patient file that roused her journalistic instincts. As topics went, it was far meatier than images of Whitfield, however lovely the campus was. It was the sort of thing the public was hungry for. The stuff of radio melodrama and matinee movies. The kind of story a writer stumbles upon only a handful of times, if ever.

She had discovered Mr. X.