Notes & Insights from Craig Williams – Willard Cemetery

Here are some wonderful notes, used with permission, from Craig Williams, Curator of History at the New York State Museum at Albany, concerning the burial ledgers of the Willard State Hospital Cemetery, and Ovid Union Cemetery. Mr. Williams is an expert on the history of the Willard Asylum and has always been more than willing to share his vast knowledge on the subject. He has provided me with maps, old photographs, answered my numerous questions, and filled in the gaps with insight that only comes from years of experience. I would like to take this opportunity to recognize and thank Mr. Williams for all the help he has given to me!

NYS Museum Albany album b 154-2 Old Cemetery

NYS Museum Albany album b 154-2 Old Cemetery

“As you know, those records are now among the sealed materials…. sad, since back when they were at Willard, the staff were only to willing to help locate “lost” relatives by using those records… Often overlooked is the section of the Union Cemetery dedicated to Willard. I have a memory of being told that there were over two hundred burials there. I’ve always meant to check with the Cemetery to learn if they have a log of burials. In the inside cover of Willard’s first burial ledger, there is the handwritten note stating – “January 17th, 1876 – Trustees of Union Cemetery at Ovid, N.Y. made deed of lot 161 to Willard Asylum for the Insane. Deed deposited with J. B. Thomas, Treasurer, Consideration, $25. // Ganett W. Freligh, Pred’d’t // John C. Meddick, Treas.” The Willard burials that I know of at Union are along the east center edge, by the main road. The few formally marked (you can see many more depressions) date from the 1980s plus or minus. Could that location be Lot 161? Is there another section at Union where there are older Willard burials? There must have been a period in the 1980s when people were being buried at both cemeteries. I wonder how that was decided?”

“One of the things I noted in the burial ledgers were the fair number of people later removed by family or for other reasons (move to a Catholic cemetery, for instance), maybe a couple dozen over the hundred plus years? The Stock memo says 5,757 burials and there were several burials after that date. The last “regular” burial was on November 18, 1991 (not counting the 2000 burial). As you know, at the very end, there were two burials of lab specimens (including one fetus). From the four manuscript ledgers, I get 5,249 burials (not counting the two above) in the main (“Protestant”) section. The Soldiers Cemetery account shows 106 burials. A few of those (half dozen) may have been counted among the 5,249, being reinterred when that section was set up in April 1885. The last burial there seems to have been done on December 10, 1926. The Jewish cemetery (old and new), first used in January 1932, appears to have 202 burials. The old portion is where the monument now stands. The new is in the far northeast section of the cemetery. Catholic (old and new), first used in January 1959, seems to have 327 (including the 2000 burial of M). Added together, I get 5,884. I did not deduct the burials that were later removed…”

“That first burial ledger has a number of interesting clues. It lists the first burial as being done on 5 January 1870, not long after the Asylum’s opening. This cemetery was (I think) immediately north of the Branch (Grandview)… maybe in what is now parking lot or closer (under?) the current building?… By December 1873 there was already some confusion over the number of burials (85 by that time). In March 1875 a 71-year-old woman was buried, with a place of birth being listed as “Africa.” I note that since in some Upstate cemeteries separate sections were made for African-Americans…never the case at Willard.

The first burial at the new cemetery (on “Risings Hill”) was on July 3, 1875. She is listed as burial 123. On October 16, 1875, the ledger notes that “This day, John Hanlon (Sexton), finished transferring bodies from the old “Cemetery” to the new, on “Risings Hill.” He reports he had removed 119 bodies, and that bodies corresponding to Nos. 7, 27, 64 and 70 had been disinterred. // Alexander Nellis, Jr., Assistant Physician.” That comment on “disinterred” doesn’t actually match the records. They were all placed in “Form 1” (Row 1?)…The July 3rd burial is the first one in Form 2 (Row 2?). Those rows were just north of Mocha’s shed. An implication of the removal to the new cemetery is that the old one had grave markers. Apparently, some things were overlooked. In the third cemetery ledger, in November 1898, there is the note of “Bones taken from new Branch” were put at the west end of Form 2. In 1897 and 1898 there was substantial regrading around the Branch. That work probably exposed the overlooked burial(s?).

The annual report for 1874 discusses the reasoning for the new cemetery. “Experience has demonstrated, that the present location of the cemetery is a bad one, though the most appropriate one on the asylum farm. It is inconvenient because of its distance (remember, the Asylum was still just Chapin Hall), from the nature of the soil, and it also interferes with the enlargement of the upper reservoir, which is indispensably necessary. We therefore desire to change the location. Twenty-five acres of land can be purchased a short distance north…”

“Obviously, the cemetery in the 19th-century only took up a small portion of the hill, the rest was probably used for farm purposes. The first engravings of that north edge of the Asylum land show what might be a bridge going across the ravine, the original entrance not being the current one. The Stock memo states “the current entrance was cut in and established because new more modern day vehicles could not cross the small culvert bridge. The story goes that the village mayor wanted the fire truck to be able to go in a parade down Main Street of Willard and enter the cemetery for ceremonies at the old Civil War cemetery site but could not because the bridge was too narrow. The new entrance was established. While doing this, some landscaping was required and the sharp embankment needed to be made more gradual. In that process, some heavy equipment was used and they proceeded to taper the hillside but had to stop when they began to strike some old grave sites.” The old entrance shows on the facility maps.

Just a couple other items from my notes from the cemetery ledgers. A note was made to the entry for a July 5, 1886, that a glass bottle with a person’s name was placed in the burial alongside the one whose name was so enclosed…. confusing, but implying that such identification practices happened early on. There are at least three references to infants being buried. One was from September 1896 and mentions a “Form A” location at the west end of Form (Row?) 1. Alongside a November 1880 burial entry is the note that the daughter was present at the burial of her mother. In the last ledger, especially from the 1940s on, there are frequent references to amputated limbs being buried in unrelated graves.”

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