Volunteers try to identify patients buried at old cemetery
“Archie Cole,” it reads. “Died Oct. 11, 1953. Age 84.”
For every Archie Cole on that Crownsville Hospital Center hill, there are hundreds more psychiatric patients buried anonymously.
Their small, concrete markers are identified simply by numbers: 1,501. 1,868. 1,362.
Once there was a book, listing the names that went with those numbers. But that was lost long ago.
Now, a group of volunteers is rushing to flip through books of death certificates at the Maryland State Archives, trying to find the names of all of those anonymous patients.
Time is of the essence, as the state moves closer to closing the Crownsville campus to save money.
Local historian Janice Hayes-Williams is leading the effort because most – if not all – of the bodies belong to African-American patients. She’s worked on restoring other African-American cemeteries in the Annapolis area.
Mrs. Hayes-Williams and others have been searching to find the identities of those buried at Crownsville.
Armed with the names and the stories of the deceased, they hope to promote preservation of the cemetery, should the hospital close. The cemetery sits on 550 acres that was supposed to be preserved through an environmental trust, but that deal has been put on hold.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. said Wednesday he’s aware of the environmental and historic concerns of the land, but hasn’t decided whether to preserve it.
Without offering specifics, the governor said he thinks the hospital can be redeveloped in a way that is a “win-win” solution.
Moving the graves would involve a complicated legal process. But Barbara Sieg of the Coalition to Protect Maryland Burial Sites said the rules often are overlooked.
“This is done all the time and people look the other way,” she said. “It happens every day in every county in Maryland.”
Mrs. Hayes-Williams said her efforts are gaining momentum and thinks her work “is much too public now” for the state to be able to sell or develop the cemetery.
She’s gained the attention of cemetery preservationists and even a state delegate who is working on a bill that would require the cemetery – and ones like it at other state institutions – to be saved.
“It’s just the simple dignity of it,” said Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg, a Baltimore Democrat who is sponsoring several mental health bills.
“Preserving that cemetery is what we should accord them. It shouldn’t be developed.”
‘Lived and died’
In the early years, most people who lived at Crownsville died there, too.
“In those days when you went to the state hospital, there was not much chance you’d be getting out,” said Paul Lurz, a Crownsville social worker for nearly 40 years who has taken an interest in the cemetery.
Burials were started shortly after the facility opened in 1910 as the “Hospital for the Negro Insane.” They likely stopped in the early 1960s, about the same time the hospital was integrated.
Some death certificates have no information about a patient’s birth date or parents’ names, leading Mrs. Hayes-Williams to think they may have been homeless before arriving at Crownsville.
“They just lived and died and nobody knew,” Mrs. Hayes-Williams said.
Many of the early deaths weren’t even related to mental illness. Scores of patients in the 1920s died due to tuberculosis, and still others suffered complications of syphilis.
All told, Mrs. Hayes-Williams says there could be 2,000 graves in the cemetery. She and her handful of volunteers have found hundreds more death certificates indicating patients were sent to Baltimore for medical research.
“The names are just coming fast and furious,” she said. “It’s personal, there’s so much information.”
Gone, not forgotten
Mrs. Hayes-Williams said collecting all the information has given her a window into the lives of the mental patients. In those early decades, they were given a steady dose of fresh air and hard work – sewing, making baskets – to clear their minds.
But as the attitudes toward the mentally ill began to change, so did the procedures for dealing with the dead. In the 1960s, social workers started arranging burials with sympathetic funeral directors, Mr. Lurz said.
Today, family members are less likely to abandon mentally ill relatives, and patients’ stays in the hospital are shorter.
Also, modern medication has meant fewer people are committed – Crownsville today has only about 200 patients, compared to more than 2,000 at its peak in the 1960s.
But while Crownsville has moved on from the old ways of treating the mentally ill, Mrs. Hayes-Williams wants to make sure the past is never forgotten.
When most state agencies are closed tomorrow for Presidents Day, archives employees will open their offices just for Mrs. Hayes-Williams and her three volunteers so they may plow through death certificates without distractions.
Ms. Sieg, of the cemetery preservation group, said supporters plan to lobby to get the cemetery preserved if the hospital closes. The Ellicott City woman visited the cemetery for the first time last.
“We will just make all the noise we can,” she said.