Sometimes spring uncovers unexpected stories. Bud Merritt was hiking in Milledgeville, Ga., when he came across a long-forgotten cemetery.
“There almost seemed to be no end to it. You would find areas where there were no markers. And then you walk a few yards and you would find more,” he explains.
Overgrown with shrubs, the tall, thin headstones were nearly lost amongst the oak trees. Upon closer inspection, Bud noticed the graves bore no epitaphs. Not even a name or date could be found. They were simply numbered posts.
It turns out Bud had discovered a lost cemetery of patients at the largest mental hospital in the United States.
City of the dead
Founded by Quakers in 1842, Central State Hospital once housed more than 13,000 people. Beautiful antebellum buildings, now mostly abandoned, haunt the sprawling campus.
During the Civil War, General Sherman’s troops camped here. Today you can still find descendants of the original hospital staff caring for the 800 patients here now. Scattered in the surrounding acres lie an estimated 30,000 dead — more than the current population of Milledgeville.
For years the mentally ill were discarded, not just in Georgia, but all over the country. Families who didn’t claim their relatives left it up to hospitals to choose the patients’ final resting places. Given the stigma attached to mental illness, many were given just numbered markers.
Unfortunately, records were often lost or incomplete. In some cases, even the markers were pulled up and tossed away. It’s estimated there are more than 100,000 of these forgotten graves nationwide.
National correspondent Bob Dotson and I headed to Milledgeville to find out more. Bud Merritt greeted us at the hospital museum. A sprightly man with a mischievous smile, he showed us the records listing — in theory — the name and number of everyone buried on the grounds. The books date back to the 1900s, and with each handwritten entry is an incomplete story — the name of a person who came to the hospital and never left.
"There's a lot of people that, frankly, have expressed the attitude to me that it's too late and there's no need to raise these issues again. It would be best forgotten. But I've never felt that way,” says Bud.
Death by heartbreak
Casey McClain grew up in the shadow of her great-grandfather Herbert Martin Williams. Once the backbone of the family, Papa Williams suffered a breakdown after losing his wife in childbirth, his infant son to illness, and his business to a dishonest partner. Overwhelmed, he checked himself into Central State and died of heart disease — literally brokenhearted.
Casey's grandmother, Mollie, learned of Papa Williams’ death when she was a teenager. Not knowing where her father was buried pained the young woman. For years, she kept photos of Papa Williams hidden in a shed. Later, Casey would tag along as they searched local graveyards for his headstone.
“It was a child loving her father and mourning,” Casey says. “Grandmother told us, ‘There's a reason why people do what they do. You just have to look for the answer.’ ”
Together they combed hospital records. Within six months, they were able to locate the plot where Papa Williams is buried. “I just got a peaceful feeling,” Casey says.
Casey and her family now have a headstone at grave No. 1951. It reads, “Herbert Martin Williams, February 1859-October 9, 1907.”
Visiting the cemetery is still extremely emotional. Casey considered moving Papa Williams to a family plot, but then realized that he belonged where he was; a name in a sea of numbered graves.
This month, a new national memorial dedicated to remembering those unnamed graves of the mentally ill will break ground at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a significant step in acknowledging the plight of those suffering from mental illness.
As Casey puts it, marking these graves is “like our Arlington. It recognizes all of the unknowns and gives them dignity in death that they didn't have in life.”
A final goodbye, too long in the making.
For more information, visit the Mental Health America Web site by clicking here.
If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, write to:
c/o Central State Hospital
620 Broad St
Milledgeville, GA 31062
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