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Museum traces shuttered mental hospital's unmarked graves

In the northwest corner of the old Central State Hospital grounds lies a nondescript field, bordered by a chain-link fence and choked by weeds and tall grass.

Posted: Sep 26, 2020 5:49 PM

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — In the northwest corner of the old Central State Hospital grounds lies a nondescript field, bordered by a chain-link fence and choked by weeds and tall grass.

But this is more than merely an overgrown field. It is a long-forgotten cemetery — the final resting place of more than 200 residents who lived and died at Central State.

That’s not immediately evident. The tombstones have disappeared, removed decades ago for reasons lost to time. Burial records for the interred mental patients don’t exist, making the question of who lies there an unresolved mystery.

Now, the Indiana Medical History Museum is trying to change that.

Last month, in an effort to humanize the former Central State patients, the museum, with help from Ball State University archaeologists, set out to delineate the cemetery’s boundaries and identify what patients — and how many of them — are buried there.

The tedious task of tallying the graves will help the museum add to the site’s history by telling the stories of Indiana’s mentally ill population, a historically marginalized and often forgotten group. So far, they estimate about 235 patients are buried in unmarked graves in the field at the corner of Tibbs and Vermont.

Central State Hospital, originally known as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, opened in 1848 as a nexus for mental health care in Indiana. Asylums at that time typically resolved to keep patients out of society’s sight. But Central State was different. Its intention was to actually treat patients with schizophrenia, depression, hysteria, alcoholism, dementia and epilepsy.

“The idea was that people who have mental diseases are not possessed by demons, they’re not being punished by God for moral failings, and they’re not innately bad people,” said Sarah Halter, the museum’s executive director.

At its height in the 1950s, the site was home to about 2,500 patients. It closed in 1994, following several scandals surrounding patient abuse.

In 2014, Halter and her staff at the medical history museum began the long process of trying to humanize and memorialize the hospital’s residents. They began telling stories from the patients’ perspective through exhibits and by hosting events, a break from a narrative built by administrators and doctors, the majority of whom were white men.

“They’re the ones history remembers — the ones who were writing the annual reports. The people whose names are on plaques on the walls,” Halter said. “We really wanted to focus on the patients because their stories are as important, if not more important. The hospital existed for them.”

Vickie Cole, 71, remembers the patients and their stories well.

Cole began volunteering for Central State Hospital in 1963, when she was 14 years old. She was a volunteer on Saturdays, playing with the children, then worked in different capacities until the hospital closed in the 1990s.

“These people, who were dealt the kind of life that you and I probably would not have survived, made a life out of it anyway,” Cole said. “They were resilient enough to create a life no matter what they were given.”

Halter and her team began the shift toward humanizing these patients by creating exhibits on the hospital’s closure from their perspective. They commissioned a play based on a memoir from a patient from the 1880s, and they had Nanette Vonnegut — author Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter — read material from her grandmother, who was a patient in the 1940s.

They also began reinterpreting the museum’s specimen collection. Previously, brains with lesions and tumors on display had been interpreted clinically, Halter said, with vague descriptions that left readers without a sense they were describing real people.

Scientific interpretations are important, Halter said, but they don’t portray the patients’ humanity.

“You wouldn’t really get a sense of (the patient’s) humanity, and it certainly wasn’t a story about them,” Halter said. “It was a story of disease.”

A large part of the museum’s work to give patients more agency was centered around part of the cemetery located across Tibbs Avenue, where patients who died after 1905 were buried. The two cemeteries on either side of Tibbs Avenue were once connected, before the thoroughfare was constructed.

In 2014, the museum hosted a community clean-up with the neighborhood and other organizations to beautify the property. Modest markers betray the graves beneath them, and a nearby monument now memorializes the dead, with their names engraved in granite.

This is what they are trying to do with the Northwest corner of the cemetery — that overgrown field where patients who died between 1848 and 1905 are buried, and where there are no indicators of their existence.

“They’re people,” Cole said. “Most of them never even had a funeral. When they died, their family just planted them somewhere.”

That’s where Erin Powers, a staff archaeologist at Ball State’s Applied Anthropology Laboratories, and the team of archaeologists come in.

Last month, they spent two days using Ground Penetrating Radar, or GPR, to determine how many people are buried in the cemetery. GPR is a non-destructive technique used to find anomalies in the soil — such as coffins.

For a few hours each day, archaeologists pushed a lawn-mower-shaped machine across the property, collecting data on the discrepancies in the soil. Now, Powers is left to analyze the data and determine just how many people are buried there, a process that can take three to four weeks.

“Unfortunately, for such a long time, no one thought to consider the patients because they’re underrepresented and marginalized groups of society,” Powers said. “I’d really love to be able to give them some sort of justice.”

Though there are no burial records for these patients, Halter has been working with the Indiana State Archives, where she has found medical records that show what happened to the patients after death — whether they were moved by their families or buried somewhere on the site.

Based on when the patient died, they can determine if they are buried in this section of the cemetery, or in the other sections, which were created in 1905.

There’s no way of telling who is buried where, but they can determine how many people are out there, and where the graves are.

“It starts answering questions about who these individuals are, and it starts giving them some sort of agency to be identified and be part of a modern story about the hospital,” Powers said. “They’re no longer lost to history; we’re still very interested in who these individuals are.”

After the data is processed and the number of graves is determined, Halter hopes to do something similar to what the museum did with the other part of the cemetery. She wants to mark each of the graves, then team up with a community partner to help cover the cost of a monument with every patient’s name etched on it.

Further, they’d like to beautify the space, working with landscapers to make it a more welcoming area.

Jeannie Regan-Dinius, director of special initiatives at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources and a leading cemetery expert in the state, says knowing where the graves are, and the cemetery’s size, does two things.

First, it protects that area so that no construction or excavation can happen on the site. Secondly, it helps shape Indiana’s history.

“For some individuals, the only way we ever know they existed is through their tombstone,” Regan-Dinius said. “That’s a way for us to remember them, it’s a place where their loved ones put them, where their loved ones came and visited them.

“Regardless of whether they were the most important public official or a subsistence farmer, they are a part of our history and a part of how we got to where we are today,” she continued. “Remembering the things that happened in the past helps explain where we are today and where we’re going in the future.”

Halter also wants to use the cemetery to normalize the conversation around mental illness. One of the goals the museum has in relation to its work with the patients is removing the stigma from conversations about mental well-being.

“These were people who were vulnerable and forgotten and often mistreated,” Halter said. “They were isolated and stigmatized during their lives.

“We can’t go back and change what they suffered, but we can change the way they’re remembered.”

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