By Laura Pinhey
Earlier this month I wrote on this blog about the U.S. Federal Census Schedule of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, also known as the DDD. The DDD schedule supplemented the 1880 Federal Census with information about prisoners, orphans, physically ill or injured persons, disabled persons, homeless children, indigent persons, and the mentally ill.
Many of the persons listed in the DDD were at the time living in institutions such as prisons, orphanages, hospitals, “poor farms”, and state asylums. Of course, many people died while living in those institutions, not only in 1880 when the DDD was recorded, but also prior to and after 1880. Some of the deceased were claimed by relatives, taken home, and interred in the family or church cemetery.
But many persons who died while living in institutions were buried onsite.
There are many possible reasons why people who died while living in institutions were interred there too. Those persons may not have had any family or they may have been estranged from their families. Attempts by institution personnel to contact next of kin may have failed. The families may not have had the means to transport the deceased home. They may have been committed to the asylum in the first place not because they were mentally ill, but because their family—and in the case of many women in institutions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, their husbands—wanted to be rid of them.
I suspect that my three-times great-grandfather Franklin Fogle lies buried in one of the two mostly unmarked cemeteries of the Central Kentucky Lunatic Asylum in Anchorage, Kentucky (since the institution was established in approximately 1869 as a home for “juvenile delinquents”, it has been known by several names). Because the original asylum building was demolished in 1996 and a new one built nearby, those cemeteries are now on the grounds of a Kentucky state park. Franklin died at the asylum in November 1884. While I have no evidence that he was buried in the asylum cemetery, I also have no evidence that he was buried anywhere else. When he died, Franklin was divorced and his two grown sons were working as farm laborers; they may not have been able to afford to transport Franklin’s body the 70 miles from Jefferson County, Kentucky to LaRue County, Kentucky. Or they may have been estranged from him.
I may never know for sure where Franklin is buried or why he was buried there. That may simply be because I haven’t yet discovered that information. It may be filed away in an archive that I haven’t visited or in an index I don’t know exists. Perhaps the gravestones of the cemetery in which he was buried have been documented, but his gravestone was worn illegible by the elements. Or, as I suspect, it could be because he’s buried in the unmarked cemetery of an asylum the historical records of which are scant. As a family history researcher, I am not alone in this plight.
Whatever the reasons, across the country perhaps thousands of persons lie buried in abandoned institutional cemeteries, many in unmarked graves. Entire cemeteries have been lost to the ages after institutions closed or changed location and buildings were remodeled or razed. Family researchers trying to verify death and interment information about ancestors who were buried in state asylum cemeteries (and the cemeteries of other types of institutions) encounter numerous obstacles.
Not only are many graves in state asylum cemeteries unmarked, but also entire state asylum cemeteries have been lost to lack of markers, poor upkeep, the ravages of time, indifference and lack of respect toward the deceased patients, or some combination thereof. Moreover, oftentimes, patient records weren’t kept, weren’t kept accurately or consistently, were damaged or destroyed, or remain protected by privacy laws even more than one hundred years later.
In response to these challenges, descendants of institution residents have organized, volunteering their time to restore and maintain abandoned state asylum cemeteries, and, where possible, identify the deceased buried there.
For family researchers seeking interment information about ancestors who lived in asylums or other institutions, or for those wishing to contribute time or knowledge to restoration or documentation of abandoned institutional cemeteries, a number of websites, wikis, and Facebook pages exist for collecting and communicating known information and for organizing efforts. A few such resources include:
Institutional Cemeteries An “attempt to catalog all known cemeteries established for residents of asylums, poorhouses, poor farms, prisons, orphanages, and similar institutions – in other words, cemeteries for the unclaimed.” There is a companion Facebook page.
Asylum Projects A wiki (editable by anyone) the mission of which is to archive historical and current information about asylums, sanatoriums, state training schools, reform schools, almshouses and orphanages. It includes a message board and a companion Facebook page.
Lunatic Fringe A blog that chronicles, among other topics related to mental health, cemetery restoration efforts and news about newly discovered abandoned mental health facility cemeteries.
The Gardens at Saint Elizabeths: A National Memorial of Recovered Dignity Maintained by Mental Health America, a nonprofit organization acting as a fiscal agent for the fundraising efforts for this national memorial to patients at St. Elizabeths, the first federally funded asylum, as well as to psychiatric patients interred at state hospitals in all 50 states. The site includes a link to a guide to state hospital cemetery restoration.
The Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Preservation Project, along with its companion Facebook group, is just one example of an active state hospital cemetery restoration group. Eastern State Hospital, founded in 1817, is the second-oldest operating psychiatric facility in the U.S.