The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

July 7, 2013

Asylums’ cemeteries lack tombstones

JOAN GRIFFIS
Commercial-News

Willard State Hospital, located in the Finger Lakes area of upstate New York, was originally called Willard Asylum for the Insane, and was built in 1866 as a better facility than a poor house, where the insane were often kept in chains or in seclusion.

Willard is no longer in use, and it is just one of several institutions around that state with cemeteries having no tombstones — just numbered markers on each grave.

Linda A. Stuhler’s book, “Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900,” provides a history of Willard, descriptions of the facility, and the classifications that had been established for “insane” individuals.

Her website at http://inmatesofwillard.com provides links (click on “names”) to Willard’s residents as tabulated in the federal censuses of 1870, 1880, 1900 and 1920, as well as the 1880 US Federal Census of Defective, Dependent and Delinquent Classes. Stuhler reports more than 5,000 individuals are buried in Willard’s cemetery.

Her website also provides links to other New York asylums where burials of inmates are without tombstones — cemeteries at Rochester State Hospital, Binghamton State Hospital, Dannemora State Hospital, Long Island State Hospital, to name a few.

Reading articles of the treatment of individuals is heartbreaking to say the least. Knowing that they lie buried without names or dignity is unacceptable!

Efforts are being made to correct this state of affairs. Legislation was introduced in New York last year, and again this year, to release the names of those individuals.

Stuhler’s mission “is to get the names; dates of birth and death; and location of graves, of ALL former patients who lived and died in New York State Hospitals (Insane Asylums) and custodial institutions released to the public so that these forgotten ancestors can be honored and remembered with dignity.”

What about other states? Is anyone working on a similar project in the state/s where other of our ancestors might be buried?

The federal government recently defined that restricted personal health information should exclude that of individuals who have been deceased 50 years or more. State laws also might need to be changed to allow access to such information.

Census comparisons

Stuhler’s tabulations of census data pertaining to residents of Willard Hospital illustrate the importance of comparing all known census data for an individual.

For example, in the 1880 Federal Census Jane C. Anderson is identified as age 70, single, nurse, born Massachusetts, and insane. On the 1880 Federal Census of Defective, Dependent, and Delinquent Classes, Andersons’s previous residence is identified as Phelps in Ontario County, the “form of disease” was dementia, and she was 65 years old when “first attack occurred.”

She is not listed in the 1900 census. Thus, clues from these tabulations indicate further research should be in Massachusetts (for Anderson family), and Ontario County, N.Y., for possible Anderson kin.

It’s unfortunate that her final resting place, possibly in the Willard Hospital Cemetery, is not identified.

Queries, as well as a general exchange of genealogical material that readers would like to share, will be printed in the column for free. Contact Joan Griffis by e-mailing JBGriffis@aol.com