Sunday, April 17, 2016

Potter's Fields and the Forgotten Mentally Ill

Potter's field, Spring 2016: State Institution Cemetery No. 2, Cranston, Rhode Island.

Early in my career as a staff writer at The Providence Journal, I covered two of Rhode Island's public institutions where many of the state's most vulnerable people lived: The Ladd Center, in Exeter, for the developmentally and intellectually disabled; and the Institute of Mental Health, in Cranston, for people living with mental illness. By the mid-20th century, both had become degrading and dehumanizing warehouses rife with cruelty and abuse. Following years of lawsuits, Providence Journal exposés, and tireless advocacy by heroic people, they closed in the 1990s after some latter-year improvements. A model community system, since deteriorated, had been built.

'The inertia of despair.' Providence Journal exposé, 1950s.

With the death of the developmentally disabled 70-year-old Barbara A. Annis in February 2016, allegedly following staff abuse in the state-run group home in Providence where she lived, Ladd recently has been much in my thoughts. I penned some of them, along with the story I wrote on Ladd's final day -- the day the declaration "the beast is dead" was made -- in an earlier post.

Thoughts of Ladd have prompted reflection on the Institute of Mental Health, or IMH, previously known as the State Hospital For Mental Diseases, and before that, the State Hospital for the Insane (the State Asylum for the Incurable Insane was proposed even earlier).

State Hospital for the Insane, early 1900s. Overcrowded, hundreds of patients slept on the floors

IMH, 1950s.

As with Ladd, thousands of people disappeared virtually without trace behind the brick and granite walls of that institution; I told the story of one of them, Hope Lincoln, in an extensively researched story for The Journal. And during those closing days of the IMH, I spent many hours at the institution, including living there for a week to chronicle in print what were then-improving conditions and even marching on several occasions with patients and staff in the annual Field Day, a vestige of the 19th century, when "inmates" were let outside (under close guard) for a parade and festive food. Below you will find three of my stories about three such Field Days.

For many of these people, particularly in the 1800s and the first six or seven decades of the 20th century, Field Day was the only time they ever got out -- until they died. Those few who still had connections to relatives might be sent for dignified burial in a church or community cemetery. But the majority, like Hope Lincoln, had no relatives that cared or even knew of them and got no such respect. Shame and stigma ruled -- and, sadly, still do today, albeit to a lessening extent.

They were buried in potter's fields, under concrete markers with sequential numbers but no names, the final -- and in most cases, only -- evidence these human beings had ever existed. I visited one of the IMH potter's fields early in my coverage of the institution, and it haunted me -- and has, on some level, ever since. The potter's field similarly affected my friend Dan Barry, New York Times staff writer, who last year wrote so eloquently of another potter's field and the man who buried the dead there in one of his This Land columns: "Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Dignity."

A few days ago, I revisited Rhode Island's State Institution Cemetery No. 2, as the old IMH potter's field is now called (even today, numbers, not names, attach to the forgotten dead). It was a pristine spring morning: trees budding, birds singing, temperatures rising, the sun sparkling on the Pawtuxet River, which winds toward Narragansett Bay. Over the years, an adjacent landfill has further encroached, providing another sad irony: people who in life were considered little better than trash in death now lie next to the real thing. Still, the field, tended by state-prison inmates, was trimmed and green. And except for the birds, it was quiet.

As I walked the field, I found that time has been unkind: some markers have worn away; others are toppled or gone altogether, the work of vandals. I wondered who had left the sole decoration, a plastic floral arrangement next to marker 1,142. Did they know who was buried there? What was their relationship? Or was this a random act of respect? Like the identities of the dead, I will never know.

Marker No. 1,142.

I counted 632 numbered markers: 632 people who died just from 1933 to 1940 alone at "the state institutions": the IMH and other facilities at the Howard complex, home also to the state prison, the state training school, and the state infirmary, predecessor to today's Eleanor Slater Hospital. Untold thousands of residents of those institutions and the long-closed State Farm for the poor from earlier and later years are buried in other potter's fields. In an ultimate form of indignity, the state simply paved over one of them -- the State Farm Cemetery, which had an estimated 3,000 graves dug from about 1873 to 1918 -- when it was building Route 37. I suspect few people driving on that busy thoroughfare have no idea what lies beneath them as they travel.

Heavy rains in 2006 washed out the remains of 71 of those State Farm residents near Route 37, and archaeologists were able to at least minimally identify most of them, including Infant Donnelly, the stillborn child of  State Infirmary resident Ann Donnelly, about whom nothing else is known, either. Infant Donnelly died on Valentine's Day, 1918. More on the Route 37 story at the end of this post.

Infant Donnelly.

Like Infant Donnelly, the 70 other individuals are remembered with flat stones. A handful of remains are unidentified; some of those, having thwarted the archaeologists, are labeled "co-mingled."  But there is Elizabeth "Lizzie" Anderton, daughter of James Gregson and Lucy Sielding, circa 1840 - Oct. 20, 1916; and Dinah "Maria" Cleary, wife of Patrick Cleary, daughter of Thomas and Margaret Finnegan, circa 1845 - Sept. 7, 1887; and John Gurney, a.k.a. Gierney, husband of Bridget Myers, circa 1841 - Dec. 21, 1873; and Manoog Shegdian, husband of Saonik Shekoian, circa 1868 - Oct. 21, 1916; and more, an apparent mix of working-class ethnicities and races. The wealthy had their private hospitals, and their respectful final rites of passage and resting places.

Elizabeth "Lizzie" Anderton, et. al.

Standing there, I imagined their lives: their days, interminably long; their nights, surely restless; the weeks stretching to months and then years and then decades, memories of the outside world fading, except, perhaps, the faint one of childhood joy, before the onset of their illnesses... a reminder of what might have been, and what was for lucky others who remained mentally healthy. The dream of ever leaving, except the final trip to the potters field, receding... or did some keep that dream alive? I thought of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: the extraordinary final scene, one of the best movie endings ever, when Chief Bromden hurls the hydrotherapy console through the window and escapes.

The final scene of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

The drudgery and isolation were but part of it. Unquestionably, there were good and caring staff who sought to ameliorate suffering and practiced a degree of sound medicine, but there were also abusive workers and barbaric treatments.

For example, the lobotomy: the surgical separation of the lobes of the brain, the debilitating and personality-erasing operation that prompted Chief Bromden in Cuckoo's Nest to smother Randle Patrick McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson, after he was lobotomized. Astonishingly from today's perspective, at least, the inventor of the lobotomy, Portuguese neurologist Egas Moniz, won the 1949 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

There was the even more horrifying hempispherectomy, in which one half of the brain was entirely removed.

There was hydrotherapy: captive immersion in warm (or cold) baths for hours or even days, and the "shower" treatment, in which patients, strapped into chairs, were sprayed with jets of water. Picture waterboarding.

And shackles and restraints, and isolation chambers.

Isolation. IMH, 1950s.

And the administration of the toxic substances chloroform and potassium bromide, and the forced use of morphine and alcohol -- alcohol!

Some patients were injected with malaria-infected blood to produce fever, which supposedly had curative power.

Others were subjected to various forms of shock therapy. One form, to treat schizophrenia, involved the injection of insulin to induce coma and seizure. The quack Dr. Manfred Sakel, who introduced insulin shock therapy in 1933, wrote that "the convulsions and comas of the deep shock brought about dramatic psychological changes in the patient. . .the indications were rather that the physiological shock restored the homeostasis in the nerve cell by forcing it to mobilizing its defence reactions, thus causing a restoration of the balance in the automatic nervous system."

IMH, 1970s.

And on the crazy belief that "damaged" or "displaced" parts of the female reproductive anatomy were related to insanity, some mentally ill women were forced to undergo "female surgeries." One practitioner, London's Dr. R. Maurice Bucke, wrote of 106 operations between 1895 and 1898. He claimed that 71 of the women "either recovered their mental health or this was improved." Among the specific operations, according to the "Restoring Perspective: Life and Treatment at the London Asylum" project: "Sixteen hysterectomies, 12 removals of diseased ovaries and tubes, 22 operations involving the replacing and retaining of the uterus in the normal position, 30 operations on the cervix, 21 minor uterine diseases, and 8 operations for vaginal lesions."

A virtual tour through all of these now mostly long-discontinued treatments can be found at the "Restoring Perspective" project.

In fairness, treatment for severe mental illness before the advent of psychopharmaceuticals (which are not without side effect, and which hardly constitute a cure-all) was vexsome; intractable diseases, like severe schizophrenia, defied any treatment. Still, well-intentioned efforts competed with the broader mandate of control and containment. Like Hope Lincoln, many who were committed for life had only experienced non-debilitating anxiety, depression or other conditions; or were homeless or impoverished; or acted only "oddly," in the eyes of a judgmental world; or crossed the police or a judge or another authority; or were sexually promiscuous; or otherwise deemed a "nuisance" to the community.

With records lost or gone, identities rendered anonymous, and buildings closed or razed, about all that is left of these countless untold stories -- each, the story of a unique human life -- are sequentially numbered markers in potter's fields and bones beneath.

We must never forget the forgotten, nor the larger story that is told through them: man's inhumanity to man, a never-ending tale that, we can only hope, one day will cease to be written.

Another view of the IMH potter's field, aka State Institution Cemetery No. 2.

State Institution Cemetery No. 2 stone. Note SIC No. 3, nearby, re-burial site for 577 others.


Troubles and cares are forgotten as patients at state institutions enjoy their glorious Field Day
Publication Date: May 24, 1985  Page: C-09  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL

Field Day, 1985, for the state-run General Hospital and the Institute of Mental Health, and the institutional grounds have become a sprawling carnival.

It is one of Rhode Island's older and most colorful traditions, this annual production known as Field Day, and yesterday's version had what they've all had going back over the years - a parade, music, good food, games, prizes, a feeling that for one day, at least, the world can be something more than a ward.

The parade included fire engines of three different colors, a marching band, high school cheerleaders, clowns, floats, a motor scooter, a bicycle, Santa Claus on roller skates, Fred Flintstone on a truck, a gaggle of bureaucrats from the state Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, which runs both institutions.

THE PATIENTS included those with physical or mental handicaps, some of them in wheelchairs or on crutches, some of them residents of institutions for for only days, others for most of their lives.

These were their friends:

Volunteers, firemen, ex-patients, doctors, psychologists, attendants, therapists, technicians, custodians, kitchen workers, secretaries, ministers and priests, including the Most Rev. Louis E. Gelineau, Catholic bishop of Providence.

This is what they did:

Munched popcorn, relaxed on the grass, danced to a Dixie beat, posed for photographs, swapped stories, listened to a few speecehs, admired Field Day's King and Queen, tossed rings at a game booth, let staff paint their faces, had steamship round of beef and barbecued chicken for dinner.

And this is what a few of them said:

"It sure is a beautiful day." - a patient at the General Hospital who, suffering from muscular dystrophy, is confined to a motorized wheelchair.

"I've been here 20 years. This is all right." - a resident of MHRH's special program for people who are both retarded and mentally ill.

"Beautiful. Best day ever." - a short-term IMH patient who has been to the hospital on several occasions.

"Next year, I hope they have more booths." - a patient at the IMH for many years.

So it was a carnival.

And, like any carnival, it brought smiles to faces and sprinkled laughter throughout conversations.

There are those that complain that Field Day is an anachronism - a gaudy display more suited to 19th-Century notions of treating patients - and perhaps there is merit to their argument. But most patients yesterday wouldn't have agreed. Neither would Thomas D. Romeo, MHRH director, or many on his staff.

Said Romeo: "The rationale for doing this is having patients and employees enjoy a day outside the environment of hospitals in an atmosphere of mutual appreciation. This is nice."


Field Day still a treat at hospital and IMH
Publication Date: June 20, 1986  Page: A-20  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL

No one really knows how long it's been around, this tradition known as Field Day, only that it happens every year - even as the participants continue to dwindle, and what was once a pageant involving thousands now involves only hundreds.

Yesterday, another Field Day was staged for patients at the state-run General Hospital and the Institute of Mental Health, located on the grounds of the Howard complex.

And while the 1986 edition was a scaled-down version of earlier Field Days, it nonetheless had a lot of what every Field Day has had.

It had a parade - a long, homespun parade that followed a route past hospital buildings, offices and one unit of the Adult Correctional Institutions. It had clowns. A couple of fire engines. Games. Prizes. Free Coke and popcorn. Music.

And it had food. Not the steamship round of beef that other celebrations have featured, but hot dogs and hamburgs and salad and soda and chips, and ice cream for dessert.

Naturally, a few bureaucrats spoke.

"Governor DiPrete sends his best to everyone," said Danna Mauch, head of mental health services for the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals, which runs both the IMH and General Hospital. "I want everyone to have a good time."

Added Peter Megrdichian, administrator of General Hospital: "I just wanted to wish those here today a good time."

Still a great day

For the patients and staff who turned out, there was enough left of a very old tradition to still bring smiles to faces.

Having fun? one patient was asked. "I'm trying," she answered. "I'm bearing up."

Once, 20 and 30 and 40 years ago, nearly 5,000 patients lived at Howard. The Field Day parade packed them six and seven deep. For many, it was the only chance to get off the ward.

Today, the combined population of the IMH and General Hospital is about 700, and those patients who are able spend a good deal of their time in the community.

But that doesn't mean Field Day yesterday wasn't special.

"A wonderful day," one patient for more than 40 years offered - smiling, of course. "Just a wonderful day.


Sun shines on hospital residents
Publication Date: May 25, 1990  Page: A-03  Section: NEWS  Edition: ALL

Blessed by the return of the May sun, and seemingly oblivious of a strong breeze, hundreds were at the state General Hospital yesterday to join in the festivities of Field Day, a tradition at the Howard state institutional complex since time forgotten.

"It's a chance to get some of the patients outside," said James Benedict, the hospital administrator.

"An opportunity to celebrate," said Robert L. Carl Jr., who runs retardation programs for the Department of Mental Health, Retardation and Hospitals.

"I like the sun," said the hospital's most famous resident, Hope Lincoln, 100. Hope, covered with an afghan, was one of an estimated 150 patients who - bundled in sweaters and jackets and wearing the traditional Field Day straw hat - walked outside or were brought there in wheelchairs.

For a moment, at least, patients, staff and administrators were able to put aside some of the controversy that accompanied ward closings this year.

"Getting out - it does boost your spirits," said Connie Prior, a patient who led the unsuccessful fight to prevent the closings.

There were clowns.

"It's nice to see a smile. They've got enough problems, these people," said Gene Little of Coventry, a member of the Masons' Tall Cedar Clowns.

There were cheerleaders, a marching band and a song-and-dance troupe, all from Cranston's Western Hills Junior High School.

"I think it's great because we, like, make them happy," said eighth-grader Barbara McFadden, a singer.

There was Del's lemonade. There were hamburgers, ice cream and soda. Radio station WICE was broadcasting live.

There were old friends of MHRH.

"When they get all the patients out of the buildings - that's good," said Cheryl Morin, who has been in various programs and lives on her own now.

There was a new resident of General Hospital.

"It feels funny. I love it," said Angela Petice, a respirator-dependent patient who has not been outside in four years. A patient at Rhode Island Hospital for four years, she came to Howard this week when MHRH relaxed its admission freeze to allow two new patients on General Hospital's respiratory ward.

There were four floats. The Snoopy float took the $100 first-place prize.

"Please think before you drink]" proclaimed the float put together by the staff of Benjamin Rush, the state's detoxification center. That entry featured a coffin on the back of a pickup truck.

Only a few residents from the Institute of Mental Health were on hand this year, in part because administrators have decided that patients carrying balloons and mingling with clowns sends the wrong message about mental illness. At one time, when the IMH had some 3,500 residents - more than 17 times the number it has today - Field Day was the highlight of spring and summer.


At rest at last - Uprooted remains of forgotten souls finally get a proper burial
Barbara Polichetti
Publication Date: April 16, 2009  Page: B-01  Section: News  Edition: All  

Nameless no longer.

Under the watchful eyes of archaeologists, state Department of Transportation crews this week worked at an old state cemetery on the Cranston-Warwick line, carefully placing more than 60 granite stones that will mark the graves of the forgotten souls whose remains washed out from beneath nearby Route 37 nearly two years ago.

Since the first bones were discovered on the fringe of the former Davol Building parking lot on Sockanosset Cross Road after unusually heavy rains in June 2006, DOT archaeologist Michael Hebert has worked diligently with consultants to piece together the story of the forgotten graves and try to find as much information as possible about each individual.

The skeletal remains, some still in the shredded remnants of plain wooden coffins, were determined to be those of the sick, poor and often forgotten people who lived and died at the former State Farm, on Pontiac Avenue, around the turn of the 20th century.

As the DOT examined the erosion area near the base of the southern embankment of Route 37, it was determined that additional graves would have to be emptied to protect remains from being disturbed in the future.

Because of brass coffin plates that were often still intact, officials were able to identify the remains in 60 of the graves, but a few remained a mystery.

Perhaps most disturbing, Hebert has said, is the fact that the unearthing of the remains led to the discovery that they were only a small part of a large, forgotten potter’s field that served as a final resting place for State Farm residents from about 1873 to 1918.

He estimated that more than 3,000 graves will have to remain beneath Route 37, which was built squarely atop the graveyard.

Both the DOT and the Cranston City Council - which has jurisdiction over cemeteries within its borders - made it clear early on during the project that the people whose remains were disturbed would be treated with the respect they were apparently not accorded after their burial.

"This has been the most thought-provoking and emotional project in my 30-year career," Hebert said Wednesday. He helped pick the speckled Vermont granite for the markers and worked with the stone carvers for Scioto & Sons to include as much information as possible about each individual.

When they were first buried, their graves were marked only with plain wooden crosses that rotted away, Hebert said. Now they are identified by name, birth date, death date, assignment at the State Farm and more. Hebert and Public Archaeology Laboratory, in Pawtucket, spent months combing through census records, admission ledgers from the State Farm and other documents to determine what relatives the state wards had.

On the granite markers, they are now sons and daughters, husbands and wives. Some of the stones are heartbreaking, Hebert said, pointing out that there are a couple of infants, never named, who died at birth in the state infirmary. There was also a couple, John and Mary Shepard, who died at the almshouse within months of each other.

After the remains and coffin shards were exhumed they were stored at PAL, where every item was photographed and studied. Hebert and the PAL staff said the meager personal possessions found - glass buttons, a hair comb and only a couple of wedding rings - spoke to the bleak existence of the people who found themselves remanded to the State Farm with its poor house, work house, prison and insane asylum.

The remains were kept at PAL for more than two years while the state searched for descendants and a proper place of reburial. The remains were reinterred last summer at an old state cemetery where Pontiac Avenue in Cranston becomes Knight Street in Warwick.

On Wednesday, PAL archaeologist Jay Waller turned his collar up against a cold April wind and carefully eyed the engraved granite markers being placed flush in the earth.

"Now there’s a sense of closure –– this is what is right," he said.

"In researching this, you can’t help but get attached to some of the personal stories you discover," Waller said. "Now their graves will be marked forever and they are finally getting what they deserve." / (401) 277-8065


  1. Very sobering but inspiring article about the castaway disabled/debilitated of society who for one reason or another don't make it on the outside. This has given me a great idea for making a presentation at our office. On our soul journeys there are many things that call out for our attention and this is one.

    1. I have met one of the residents from the imh many years ago whom was lucky enough to make it out and reside at a nursing home I was employed at,she told me her story.I was saddened by the reasoning she was admitted into the imh,she was raped by a family friend and when she revealed it to her parents they sent her to the imh where she spent most of her life.she is long since gone now but I still remember her story and the heartbreak she felt being labeled crazy because she chose to speak up about sexual abuse and her family chose to silence her instead of bringing her abuser to justice.god bless all the souls in potters heart aches for them all

  2. My great grandmother and one of her children both died in that hospital in the late 1930's. Since I have never found evidence of a grave for either, I suspect they are both in that cemetery. To the state, they were nothing more than numbers, not even worthy enough to have a record of their burial or a name on a stone. This article gives them and the others lie them a voice that says "I was a person."