Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Dignity by Dan Barry – The New York Times

UPDATE 12.22.2014 – THE NEW YORK TIMES: No Longer Anonymous: Gravedigger Gets His Due at a Psychiatric Hospital by Dan Barry.

UPDATE 12.21.2014, From DARBY PENNEY: “A shout-out to the power of the press to shame government into doing the right thing, and the power of dogged activists to make change! Breaking news: Lawrence Mocha will be honored by name in the Willard Cemetery. Thanks to Dan Barry’s powerful 11/28/14 article in the NY Times, and years of hard work by Colleen Spellecy and the Willard Cemetery Memorial Committee, the New York State Office of Mental Health has changed their mind and will allow the plaque to be placed with his name and full information about him. They located a relative of Mr. Mocha who gave permission. In addition, according to Colleen Spellecy, “They also want to work with us on a general memorial honoring all of the individuals buried within Willard cemetery. After these memorials are installed they want to support a multi-denominational community service to re-consecrate the cemetery lands and dedicate the memorials. They will then invite the Mocha family to participate in this event and OMH will work with them to provide necessary travel arrangements.”

“OVID, N.Y. — For a half-century, a slight and precise man with an Old World mustache resided as a patient at the Willard State Psychiatric Hospital, here beside spectacular Seneca Lake. You are not supposed to know his name, but it was Lawrence Mocha. He was the gravedigger.

Using a pick, a shovel, and a rectangular wooden template, he carved from the upstate loam at least 1,500 graves, 60 to a row and six feet deep. At times he even lived in the cemetery, in a small shack with a stove, beside a towering poplar.

The meticulous Mr. Mocha dug until the very end, which came at the age of 90, in 1968. Then he, too, was buried among other patients in the serene field he had so carefully tended.

But you will not find the grave of Mr. Mocha, whose name you should not know, because he was buried under a numbered marker — as were nearly 5,800 other Willard patients — and the passing years have only secured his anonymity. The hospital closed, the cemetery became an afterthought, and those markers either disappeared or were swallowed into the earth.


A few original cast iron grave markers. Nearly 5,800 patients were buried under numbered markers to shield their names. Credit Ángel Franco/The New York Times

Now, though, this obscure gravedigger has come to represent the 55,000 other people buried on the grounds of old psychiatric hospitals across New York State — many of them identified, if that is the word for it, by numbers corresponding with names recorded in old books. This numerical system, used by other states as well, was apparently meant to spare the living and the dead from the shame of one’s surname etched in stone in a psychiatric hospital cemetery.

A retired schoolteacher, Colleen Spellecy, is seeking to end the anonymity, which she says only reinforces the prejudices surrounding mental illness. One way to do this, she says, is to place a plaque bearing Mr. Mocha’s name on the spot where his shack once stood.

“He’s a symbol for what we want to do with all the rest,” Ms. Spellecy said. “It’s almost like if we could just do something for one, we could do it for all.”

But the State Office of Mental Health, which oversees some two dozen hospital cemeteries tucked in upstate corners and along busy Long Island highways, has consistently denied her request. Its officials say that a generations-old state law protects the privacy of people who died in these institutions.

“Stigma and discrimination is alive and well, though I wish it were not,” said John Allen, special assistant to the commissioner of mental health. “Outing every family, whether they want to be outed or not, does not conform with the reality.”

But advocates say that other states have long since figured out how to return names to those buried under numbers — a process that the advocacy organization Mental Health America says would help to end prejudice and discrimination. In an email, its spokeswoman, Erin Wallace, wrote: “These people had names, and should never have been buried with us forgetting them.”

Larry Fricks, the chairman of the National Memorial of Recovered Dignity project, an effort to create a Washington tribute to all mental patients buried without names, agreed. He suggested that the cost of memorializing so many people could be a factor in a state’s reluctance — and some of those books with recorded names have been damaged and even lost over the many years. The issue is not trivial, Mr. Fricks said. “There is something embedded deep in our belief system that when people die, you show respect.”

In addition to his name and burial site, here is what else you are not supposed to know about Lawrence Mocha: Born poor in Austro-Hungarian Galicia in 1878. Hit in the head with a rock as a young man. Drank heavily, was briefly institutionalized, and served in the Army. Emigrated, and found work at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. Caused a ruckus one day and was sent to the psychiatric unit, where he talked of guilt and depression, of hearing God and seeing angels. Sent to Willard in 1918, never to leave. Kept to himself for years, but eventually took an interest in tending to the graveyard. Requested freedom in 1945, but was ignored. Made an extra dollar here and there by preparing bodies for burial. Stopped having episodes, if that was what they were. Dug, and dug, and dug.

Gunter Minges, 73, the last grounds superintendent at Willard, sat on his pickup’s tailgate at the cemetery’s edge and recalled Mr. Mocha in his last decade. A reclusive man, he said. Had special kitchen privileges. Smoked a pipe. Wore hip waders, because groundwater would fill his neat rectangular holes. “He dug until he died,” Mr. Minges said, and was rechristened with a number. Then, with a Catholic priest at graveside, the grounds crew used ropes to lowered Mr. Mocha’s coffin into a hole dug by someone else. “But where it is,” Mr. Minges said, “I don’t know.”

Many of the numbered metal markers, forged by hospital patients and spiked into the ground, vanished over the years, sold for scrap or tossed into a nearby gully as impediments to mowing. In the early 1990s, groundskeepers began affixing numbered plaques flat onto the ground, but the job was left incomplete when the hospital shut down in 1995. In a last-minute search of Willard’s buildings for items worthy of posterity, state workers opened an attic door to find 427 musty suitcases. Among them: a brown leather case containing two shaving mugs, two shaving brushes, suspenders, and a pair of black dress shoes that a slight and precise immigrant hadn’t worn since World War I.

The discovery of the suitcases led to an exhibit at the New York State Museum in Albany, a traveling display, and a well-received book about forgotten patients called “The Lives They Left Behind: Suitcases From a State Hospital Attic.” Confidentiality laws forced its authors, Darby Penney and Peter Stastny, to reluctantly use pseudonyms; Lawrence Mocha, then, became Lawrence Marek.

Ms. Penney said that for the last several decades of his life, Mr. Mocha exhibited no signs of mental illness and was not on any medication. Her guess: “There were certain people who were kept there because they were decent workers.”


Lawrence Mocha Credit New York State Archives and New York State Museum

And Mr. Mocha was the meticulous gravedigger.

Ms. Spellecy read the book. She is a wife, a mother, and a retiree who lives in Waterloo, about a half-hour’s drive from Willard. Visiting the cemetery for the first time, she “sensed the injustice immediately,” she said, and quickly set about to forming the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project. Its mission: “To give these people a name and a remembrance.”

They have also engaged in a contentious back and forth with the Office of Mental Health over its refusal to grant names to the dead — beginning with a plaque on that boulder to honor Mr. Mocha, and then, perhaps, a central memorial that would feature the names of all those buried anonymously or beneath numbers.

“It’s as if they are saying that they own the cemetery and therefore they own the names,” Ms. Spellecy said. “In so owning the names, they are owning the person — as if these people continue to be wards of the state.”

State officials say that they are bound by state law to protect patient confidentiality, even after death, unless granted permission by a patient’s descendants to make the name public. They also say that attempts to change the law have failed, and that, even now, some descendants express concern about prejudice.

Mr. Allen said that the state had worked with communities throughout New York to restore these cemeteries as places of reverence and contemplation, and had assisted families in locating graves. In fact, he said, “We have helped a number of families place a marker at a number.”

But without some descendant’s consent, Willard’s dead will remain memorialized by a number, if at all.

State officials also say that at the request of the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project, they are searching for any relatives of a certain individual — they would not say “Lawrence Mocha” — who might grant permission for the public release of that individual’s name. This is highly unlikely, advocates say, given that this individual never married and left Europe a century ago.

But Ms. Spellecy will not give up. She and other volunteers are developing a list of the dead through census rolls and other records, and hope to secure permission from descendants to have those names made public, perhaps even in granite. When asked why she has committed herself to this uphill task, Ms. Spellecy paused to compose herself. With her eyes wet from tears, she said: “Every stage of life is very sacred. Life deserves to be remembered, and revered, and memorialized.”

A few weeks ago, Ms. Spellecy and some others bundled up and went out again to the 29 acres of stillness that is the Willard cemetery. They removed a little brush and cleaned a little dirt from a few of the numbers in the ground. The autumn winds carved whitecaps from the steel-gray lake below, while fallen leaves skittered across a field of anonymous graves, many of them dug by a man buried here too, whose name, Lawrence Mocha, you are not supposed to know.”

SOURCE: “Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Dignity” by Dan Barry – The New York Times. (A version of this article appears in print on November 28, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Dignity.)

1. CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE VIDEO They’re Buried Where? by Seth Voorhees
2. Cemetery Information at the NYS Office of Mental Health
3. New York State Hospitals, Custodial Institutions & Cemetery Projects.
4. S2514-2013 – NY Senate Open Legislation – Relates to patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries – New York State Senate
5. NEW HIPAA UPDATE March 2013!

Willard Cemetery Memorial Project

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE VIDEO They’re Buried Where? by Seth Voorhees

Between 1869 and 1890, Willard Asylum for the “Chronic” Insane served the entire State of New York with the exception of New York, Kings, and Monroe Counties. After 1890, Willard State Hospital served the counties of Allegany, Cayuga, Genesee, Ontario, Orleans, Schuyler, Seneca, Steuben, Tompkins, Wayne, and Yates.
1916 Willard State Hospital.

11.28.2014 Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Dignity.
Willard Cemetery Memorial Project.
Not Forgotten by Colleen Spellecy.
Transcribed Interview with Gunter Mingus and Mike Huff at Willard Cemetery – 9.26.2013 – by Colleen Spellecy.

Willard Cemetery

Willard Cemetery

Willard Cemetery Memorial Project “has grown out of the concern for the 5,776 Willard patients that are buried in unnamed and unremembered graves at Willard Cemetery, Willard, New York, as well as those buried at Ovid Union Cemetery in “Patients Row” and unmarked patients in Holy Cross Cemetery.”

Committee Members include Colleen Kelly Spellecy: Chairperson; Yvonne Greule: President Romulus Historical Museum; Janet Brown: Advocate for Memorial; Sheila Reynolds: Secretary Ovid Union Cemetery; Paulette Likoudis: Trustee Lodi Whittier Library; Gail Snyder: Town of Ovid Historian Advisory Board; Peg Ellsworth: Past President Romulus Historical Society; and Diane Valerio: Chaplain American Legion.

Colleen has done a fabulous job organizing this project: getting the cemetery lawn mowed, creating awareness about the project, collecting donations, and getting a sign installed to let people know that this is a cemetery. She has worked very hard on this project and I know that she will see it through until it is completed! I am sure that as this project progresses this group will need volunteers. Please contact Colleen Spellecy at: to find out more information. To make a donation or to find out what you can do to help, please visit Willard Cemetery Memorial Project. Thank you for your interest!

Willard Cemetery 2 - 5.18.2013

Willard Cemetery 2 – 5.18.2013

Willard Cemetery 3 - 5.18.2013

Willard Cemetery 3 – 5.18.2013

Willard Cemetery 4 - 5.18.2013

Willard Cemetery 4 – 5.18.2013

“Lost Luggage, Recovered Lives” by Peter Stastny, MD, and Darby Penney, MLS

The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic offered a ray of hope for people like me, who had discovered that an ancestor was a former patient who died at Willard State Hospital. I read the book in a day, not being able to put it down. I wanted to know more. I wondered what kind of treatment was given to my great-grandmother, and I wonder to this day. The significance of this book is that no others before Darby Penney and Peter Stastny had ever gone through the patient medical records and personal belongings in order to tell the patient’s side of the story. To learn more, please feel free to download, read, and share “Lost Luggage, Recovered Lives” by Peter Stastny, MD, and Darby Penney, MLS.  

Darby Penney is a leader in the human rights movement for people with psychiatric disabilities. Peter Stastny is a psychiatrist and documentary filmmaker. You may contact Ms. Penney to inquire about your ancestor’s suitcase at: For more information visit The Lives They Left Behind Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic Website. 

The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney & Peter Stastny

The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney & Peter Stastny

Within the pages of this book is where I first learned about the anonymous graves at Willard State Hospital Cemetery. Further research led me to the discovery that burying former patients of New York State Hospitals and Custodial Institutions, in numbered, anonymous graves, was not the exception but the rule. As I have stated before, I am a Genealogy Geek who was inspired by Ms. Penney and her book, to get a law passed that will require the NYS Office of Mental Health to release the names; dates of birth and death; and the location of these historic graves, to the public so that these people may be honored and remembered with dignity. Even with the new HIPAA ruling that allows the release of medical records after 50 years from the time of the patient’s death, it appears that the OMH will not comply with the new ruling unless forced to do so. One wonders how and where they got the authority to classify the burial ledgers (cemetery records) in the same category as medical records? Why are the deaths of thousands of people being kept a secret?

Hopefully, the NYSOMH will release historic patient burial information and when they do, it will be a wonderful opportunity to educate the public about what mental illness is; to reassure people that they should not be ashamed; that help is available; and that no one needs to struggle alone. But as of today, they are sticking with “the very fact of one’s mental illness, and receiving professional help for such illness, can, if generally revealed, cause a person to be subjected to prejudice and stigma in one’s personal and professional life.” Does this statement really encourage people to seek help?

“The only exception would be if you believe a patient was buried in one of our cemeteries. If so, then with appropriate family linkage documentation, including birth and death certificates, we could provide you with information on the individual’s burial site.”

One of the first lessons that you learn when researching your family history is that people have common names. In other words, you are not the only person in the world who has your name. Lesson two is, anyone can claim to be anyone’s descendant in order to get a historic copy of a birth, marriage, or death certificate. The state does not know your genealogy, nor do they care because they’re making money on the deal. Note that after spending the money on this documentation, writing a letter, mailing it in, and waiting months for a response from the OMH, they state we could, instead of, we will, provide you with the information.

The following “Frequently Asked Questions” page is posted at NYS Office of Mental Health Last Modified: 11/15/2012.

“Q. Can I get a copy of a birth or death certificate for a family member that was a resident of one of the Office of Mental Health’s facilities?

A. Birth records, death records, and marriage records are considered Vital Records in New York State and generally can be accessed by the public. If you are interested in exploring this option, you can obtain more information on how to obtain these records on the New York State Department of Health’s vital Records website at

Q. I have been doing genealogy research and have discovered that one of my relatives was a resident at one of the Office of Mental Health facilities. I would like to find out any personal or medical information about them. Can I obtain a copy of these records?

A. The Office of Mental Health is dedicated to the maintenance of privacy and confidentiality of patient information. We feel this is especially true with regard to mental health treatment records. It has long been recognized that the very fact of one’s mental illness, and receiving professional help for such illness, can, if generally revealed, cause a person to be subjected to prejudice and stigma in one’s personal and professional life. We also recognize that effective and lasting psychiatric therapy can take place only in an environment of privacy and trust in which the patient knows that his/her statements will be held in confidence.

New federal regulations that govern the privacy of individually identifying health information, have underscored this requirement. While it has always been our position that a person’s right to confidentiality of clinical information does not change upon his or her death, federal regulations have given us some additional specific guidance on access to records of deceased patients. Therefore, we have recently modified our policy and procedures and require the following before we can provide any information from a deceased patient’s clinical record:

A. Birth records, death records, and marriage records are considered Vital Records in New York State and generally can be accessed by the public. If you are interested in exploring this option, you can obtain more information on how to obtain these records on the New York State Department of Health’s vital Records website at

B. If you are a family member of the deceased patient and the patient allowed our facility to share information with you while he or she was living, and it is reasonable to assume that the patient did not intend to revoke his or her permission to continue to communicate with you prior to his or her death, we may provide you with basic information about the patient’s condition and circumstances of his or her death, if appropriate.

C. If you are a family member of the deceased patient and the information from the patient’s record is relevant to your own health care, we can release the information to your physician, provided the physician submits a written request to us on your behalf.

D. If you are the executor of the deceased patient’s estate, or if you otherwise have legal authority to act on behalf of the patient or his/her estate, (e.g. you have letters testamentary issued by a court), we can release information to you upon your written request which documents and attests to your legal authority to act on behalf of the deceased patient. We can also release information to you if you obtain and provide us with the written consent from the executor or legal representative of the deceased patient.

E. In all of these cases, we are required to review the record prior to its release to ensure it does not infringe upon the privacy rights of any other individual who may be named in the record.

The only exception would be if you believe a patient was buried in one of our cemeteries. If so, then with appropriate family linkage documentation, including birth and death certificates, we could provide you with information on the individual’s burial site. Requests should be sent to John Allen, Consumer Affairs, NYS Office of Mental Health, 44 Holland Avenue, Albany, NY 12229.”

Port City Paranormal – The Ghosts Of Willard Asylum

To quote their website: Port City Paranormal is a team of investigators that, “is dedicated to finding answers to the age old mystery of what lies beyond the grave. We investigate and research unexplained phenomena that includes, but is not confined to; experiences of hauntings, EVP, apparitions, ghost sightings, and a broad range of altered realities.”

Port City Paranormal Logo

Port City Paranormal Logo

Port City Paranormal of Wilmington, North Carolina, was founded by Doug and Jane Anderson. In September 2008, and with the permission of the N.Y.S.D.O.C., they began investigating The Maples which was the first and oldest “cottage style” building that was constructed on the property in 1872. The team returned to Willard in March 2009, and began investigating The Branch, later renamed The Grandview, in 1904. According to the plaque that was placed on the building in 1960 by The New York State Agricultural Society and The Willard State Hospital, “This is the original building of The First State Agricultural College in the United States. Chartered April 15, 1853, Constructed 1859, In Operation 1860 – 61. Undone by war, it was transformed into Willard State Hospital in 1865, and reconstructed and reduced in size in 1886. Here, Ezra Cornell, a trustee, received the inspiration which became Cornell University.” Port City Paranormal also investigated Elliott Hall that was built in 1937.

Port City Paranormal  - Willard Patients

Port City Paranormal – Willard Patients

According to the Port City Paranormal Team, “SWAT trainees bunking in Grandview and Elliott Hall, frequently report ghostly encounters and many refuse to stay in the buildings over night. Cell phones ring, keys repeatedly knocked to the floor, whispering, door knobs turning, screaming, and black shadows have been reported with every new class session.”

To read more about PCP’s extensive investigation of Willard State Hospital, please visit their website & blog!

Port City Paranormal

Port City Paranormal Blog

To learn more about The Willard Asylum for the Insane, buy my book:

The Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900, A Genealogy Resource

Paranormal State – The Ghosts of Willard Asylum

Paranormal State – The Asylum – Parts 1 & 2

I saw this episode of Paranormal State starring Ryan Buell, on A & E a few months ago, and since I am interested in the history of The Willard Asylum for the Insane (Willard State Hospital), I wanted to share it with you. Yes, I do believe that every person has a soul, and I do believe in the possibility that some souls may be stuck here on earth in a place where they don’t want to be, for whatever reason.

I wanted to share this episode because it shows a panoramic view of the Willard Cemetery which is a disturbing 25 acres of anonymous, unmarked graves; only the veteran’s graves are marked. The video also shows the original State Agricultural College Building which was turned into “The Branch,” and later renamed “The Grandview,” which held over 200 mild, insane, female patients (the basement of this building is shown quite a bit with its rounded, brick arches).

Willard was unique because it was built for the “pauper chronic insane” population of New York State and opened on October 13, 1869 (not 1866). Willard’s main building or “Chapin House,” named after Dr. John B. Chapin, the first physician superintendent of Willard, no longer stands as it was demolished around 1984/85. The group of red buildings with boarded up windows is one of four “cottage style” buildings that made Willard different from other state hospitals because they could segregate patients (over 200 patients in each group of 5 buildings), and expand the hospital in an economic (cheap) way to serve the needs of the state.

This cemetery has been blessed numerous times but the people who are buried there still remain anonymous.

Part One

Part Two

To learn more about The Willard Asylum for the Insane, buy my book:

The Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900, A Genealogy Resource

The Inmates Of Willard 1870 to 1900 / A Genealogy Resource

The Inmates Of Willard 1870 to 1900 / A Genealogy Resource