I am a Tombstone Tourist: someone who loves to wander cemeteries. I find it akin to visiting a museum: an opportunity to enjoy rarely seen sculpture, intricate carvings, and amazing architecture, all in a tranquil outdoor setting. This blog is about cemetery culture, art, history, issues of death, and genealogy - subjects of current relevance. I usually find something that intrigues me and makes me want to dig deeper. Care to join me? Read on...
Friday, February 21, 2020
Finding the Forgotten in an Insane Asylum’s Graveyard
When this country
was founded, those who suffered from mental illness were accused of practicing
witchcraft and being under demonic possession. Many of them were left untreated
at home or sent to poor houses, imprisoned, or as with the Salem Witch Trials,
put to death.
The first insane
asylum in the U.S. was located in Williamsburg Virginia. Founded in 1773,
Eastern State Hospital was built to deal with the “lunatics of society.”
In the 1800s, these
facilities housed those who suffered from melancholy, dementia, female
complaints including "suppression of menses,” masturbation, hysteria,
epilepsy and chronic mania could land you in an institution for the insane –
“for their own good.”
placed in rooms that were basically cells if they were deemed to be dangerous.
Treatment could include restraints, shock water treatments, bleeding, strong
drugs, insulin coma therapy, electroconvulsive therapy, and lobotomies.
Central State Hospital for the Insane
became popular in the mid-1800s and their acceptance continued until the early
1960s. In 1955, more than 560,000 patients were living in a state mental
institution. It was not until President John F. Kennedy signed the Community
Mental Health Centers Act of 1963 that funding was allocated to create new
mental health facilities around the country. By the 1970, the number of
patients at mental institutions in the U.S. was decreasing, and by 1977 only
160,000 remained institutionalized. Democratic President Jimmy carter
established the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980. This act restructured
federal health care centers in communities throughout the nation by
strengthening ties between local, state and federal groups.
In the 1980s Republican
President Ronald Regan’s sweeping budget cuts severely cut assistance for the
mentally ill and most funded hospitals and group homes were closed. As states
saw this funding disappear those who suffered from mental illnesses were turned
out on the streets to fend for themselves. Today 20 % of prison inmates have
been diagnosed with a mental illness. The national trend of moving patients out
of mental hospitals and into community care has come with a price. With
insufficient funding for community-based care and residential programs, the
mentally ill have nowhere to go for services. This is the reason so many are
now ending up in jails and prisons – facilities that are not equipped to deal
with these problems.
institutions are closed, left abandoned as relics of a sordid, and at times
inhumane history. And few are willing to tell the stories of those who lived
there, in an attempt to pretend this era of mental health didn’t exist in our
country. But some former insane asylums are trying to make reparations and
educate the public about his dark time in our history.
The Old Pathology Building
Indiana, Central State Hospital for the Insane officially closed its doors in
1992 after more than 100 years of operation. The Indiana Medical History
Museum, located in The Old Pathology Building on the hospital grounds is
working to humanize the patients of Central State. Research is being done to
attribute personal stories to those who lived in the hospital. The vast
collection of brains and tumors seen floating in glass specimen jars filled
with formaldehyde were removed from deceased patients and used to advance the
research and understanding mental illness.
Unveiled last summer, the project is
known as “Rehumanizing the Indiana Medical History Museum Specimen Collection.”
A card accompanies each specimen that tells a more personal story about the
patient; things like where they came from, when they were admitted and what for,
and what they died of. The museum hopes this will help visitors connect with
the humanity of these patients, understanding that these are not just specimens
but stories of lives that should to be told about this questionable era.
The Indiana Medical History Museum
is also working with Ball State University’s Applied Anthropology Laboratories
to locate the missing graves of residents who lived at the institution from 1896
to 1905. Using ground-penetrating radar (GPR), students are finding the graves
of patients buried in the hospital’s first cemetery located northwest on the
grounds, adjacent to the Old Pathology Building. Grave markers for the cemetery
were removed in the 1950s so ground crews could care for the property in a more
efficient manner but the identity of hundreds of patients has been lost. A fund
has been set up to assist with the cost of locating, identifying and memorializing
those who were buried here.