Searching for names for graves' numbersSearching for names

Cemetery: A historian is trying to identify the dead buried at Crownsville Hospital Center, which originally housed only black patients.

January 31, 2004|By Ryan Davis | Ryan Davis,SUN STAFF

For 89 years Neo Hackett was missing, buried in a hillside cemetery of anonymous graves where the only regular visitors are the wind, the autumn leaves and the man who mows the lawn.

No one knew he was there. No one was looking for him.

But nearly three years ago, historian Janice Hayes-Williams set out to find the names of hundreds of African-American men and women sent to the state's psychiatric hospital in Crownsville - and eventually buried there in numbered, nameless graves.

She didn't know whether it was an impossible task, and she started in no particular hurry.

Now, she is rushing to finish. State health officials said last week that they plan to close the nearly century-old Crownsville Hospital Center - once called the Hospital for the Negro Insane - as early as July.

If it closes, the land around is likely to be sought by developers, despite the state's announced intention of preserving it. To accomplish her goal of having a memorial erected at the cemetery site along Interstate 97, Hayes-Williams figures she had better finish soon.

"Our history is always the first to go," said Hayes-Williams, 46, who specializes in African-American heritage. "Our big question is, `Who is going to maintain this?'"

Since beginning the project, she has been shocked to discover that the cemetery would be much larger if the corpses of so many Crownsville patients hadn't been sent to the University Hospital in Baltimore for experiments, apparently on their brains.

But she was heartened to determine that she is likely to uncover the names of every patient buried in the desolate cemetery.

By digging through death certificates at the state archives in Annapolis, she has determined that there is enough information to compile a list that is complete - or at least nearly complete. She expects to find at least 1,400 patients.

"There needs to be a monument on this site with everyone's name on it," she said.

The state General Assembly founded Crownsville in 1910, after reports by the state Lunacy Commission that criticized the way Maryland cared for its mentally ill. Much of the initial construction was completed by those the facility was intended to house: 31 patients from a Frederick asylum, who were each issued an ax.

A 1916 book refers to Maryland as one of three states to have hospitals exclusively for black patients.

In his initial report to the state in October 1911, the new hospital's superintendent devotes nearly his entire paper to a summary of the work produced by the men and women there.

"One old patient, a cobbler, has shown wonderful ability to prolong the life of old shoes," he wrote.

Doctors at the time believed that hard work, such as farming and basket-making, offered relief from mental troubles. Patients also made their own coffins.

The hospital, which wasn't integrated until 1962, held the truly mentally ill, as well as patients with syphilis and tuberculosis. When patients died, they were either claimed by a family member and taken to a private cemetery, sent to Baltimore for experiments, or buried anonymously in the woods.

Forgotten people

"The sad thing is, we forgot these people while they were alive and continued to forget them," said Robert W. Schoeberlein, the director of special collections at the Maryland State Archives.

Whether corpses were sent for experiments may have hinged on the illness suffered by the patient, said Paul Lurz, a 35-year hospital employee and its unofficial historian. "It's my understanding that it was a brain research project."

In some years, such as 1951, far more than half the patients who died at the hospital and weren't immediately claimed by a family member were sent to Baltimore, Hayes-Williams has found. It's likely that no one made much effort to seek the permission of their families, historians said. After all, these were the forgotten.

Year after year, the patients buried in the hospital cemetery were interred under numbered headstones. In 1953, the hospital began attaching names, crudely etched with a stick, instead of numbers, to at least some headstones, Hayes-Williams said.

About 35 years ago, some bones washed out from under the dirt. Hospital workers reburied them, Lurz said. Brains that were preserved in jars, later found at the hospital, were buried there as well, said George Phelps Jr., Hayes-Williams' uncle and the founder of the identification project.

The hospital, which had crowded conditions, peaked at a population of 2,719 in 1955. Photographs show patients sleeping two to a bed.

As treatments have improved and the philosophy on how long to keep patients has changed, the population has dwindled to 200. State lawmakers are discussing a proposal to close Crownsville, which officials estimate would save $12 million in operating costs next fiscal year.

"Once the hospital is gone and the building is gone and you have houses or whatever else put up here, I think everything will be forgotten," Lurz said. "At least we can preserve the cemetery."

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