The Anonymous Burial Ground

UPDATE: GOOD BYE! 10.12.2016

QUESTIONS & CONCERNS: CONTACT JOHN ALLEN, Director, Office of Mental Health, Office of Consumer Affairs, Central Office Staff, 44 Holland Avenue, Albany, New York 12229, Phone: (518) 473-6579, Fax: (518) 474-8998.

THE BAD NEWS: Thousands Remain Nameless! 6.15.2015.
THE GOOD NEWS: One Man Is Remembered! 6.14.2015.
Willard Cemetery Memorial Celebration 5.16.2015.

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

May 14, 2011: The conditions that exist at the Willard State Hospital Cemetery are disgraceful. There needs to be a dignified, cemetery appropriate sign at the entrance of the cemetery; a drive way; a designated parking lot; roads within the cemetery; clear signs dividing the cemetery into groups: Catholic, Protestant, Jew, Veteran; and signs designating the section and lot numbers. This cemetery should be well maintained and treated with respect like any other cemetery as a place where descendants and friends gather to pay respects, lay flowers, or meditate in silence. 

Path Leading to Willard Cemetery 5.14.2011

Path Leading to Willard Cemetery 5.14.2011

I read about the Willard Cemetery in Ms. Penney’s book but I was not prepared for what I saw when I visited the cemetery in May 2011. No sign, no roads, no headstones except for the Civil War veterans off in one corner who have headstones provided by the U.S. government inscribed clearly with the deceased’s name. To stand in an open field with grass and weeds up to my knees knowing that this is the final resting place of 5,776 people made me sick. It was disgraceful. I have never seen anything like it before and it disturbs me that this cemetery is not the exception but the rule. Originally, patients were buried anonymously with numbered metal markers. At some point during the 1980s or 1990s, most of the upright metal markers were replaced with flat aluminum markers or disks that were sunk in concrete poured into PVC pipe to make it easier to mow the vast cemetery lawn. The New York State Office of Mental Health has classified the burial ledger of the Willard State Hospital as a medical record thus denying access to the people of the state. The names of the deceased and the location of their graves must be made available to the public in order that they may find their ancestor, visit the grave, and purchase a headstone if they wish to do so. Withholding their names is unacceptable, dehumanizing, and insulting; it only serves to feed the stigma associated with mental illness. Many of these former patients died over one hundred years ago; they are not under the care of the Office of Mental Health or any government agency. It is important and necessary to pass a law that allows the release of the names of these people in order to restore their dignity and personhood. Not to do so is unconscionable. The people of the State of New York have a right to know where their ancestors are buried and the patients who were buried so long ago need to be remembered.

Willard Cemetery 5.14.2011

Willard Cemetery 5.14.2011

I received an email dated February 23, 2012, from Antonio Milillo, Senior Attorney, NYS Department of State, Office of Counsel, who stated: “the Department of State, has no jurisdiction over this matter. We do have a Division of Cemeteries but it oversees cemeteries organized under the Not-For-Profit Corporation Law. The cemetery at Willard was never under the jurisdiction of the Division of Cemeteries.” At this point I don’t know what agency is responsible for the upkeep of the Willard State Hospital Cemetery or any of the other former New York State Hospital cemeteries.

Veteran’s of Willard Cemetery 5.14.2011

My hope is to get the names; dates of birth and death; and location of graves, of ALL former patients who lived and died in New York State Hospitals (Insane Asylums) and Custodial Institutions released to the public so that these forgotten ancestors can be honored and remembered with dignity. Hopefully, this bill, introduced for a second time by Senator Joseph Robach, will become a law: S2514-2013 – NY Senate Open Legislation – Relates to patients interred at state mental health hospital cemeteries – New York State Senate.(Banner photo by Roger Luther at www.nysAsylum.com). With the passage of time, the disks have been covered with dirt and grass and are no longer visible. Please visit the RELATED LINKS page to see what other states have done to right this dehumanizing wrong.
(Page Created June 30, 2011)
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39 thoughts on “The Anonymous Burial Ground

  1. Amazing investigative work on your part Linda!! Abuse at group homes occurs today – a group home on my street recently closed after a resident was taken to the hospital for injuries incurred as a result of abuse and criminal investigation by MC sheriffs. But you don’t hear about it in the news.

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    • Thank you, Beth! I was made aware of the Willard cemetery by reading the book The Lives They Left Behind by Darby Penney and Peter Stastny. To see the conditions of the cemetery in person is quite disturbing. My research on everything about Willard developed out of frustration. My great-grandmother was an inmate at Willard from about 1924 to 1928. All I wanted was her medical record and photograph but I was denied. Thanks for reading!

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      • I was very interested in reading the comments of people trying to locate information about their relatives in Willard. My husband’s great-grandmother was a patient first at Matteawan, then in Rochester, and finally Willard. She died there in 1944. I sent a letter requesting a death certificate to the town clerk in Romulus. Even without a death year, she was able to locate the certificate for me. After being admitted in 1898, her son (my husband’s grandfather) became an orphan. The only facts he knew about himself were that he living in New York City and was fostered out to Delaware. Through research we found this to be the Orphan Train. After his death, my mother-in-law and myself started digging and found out lots of surprising information! Through the records found at the Children’s Aid Society, Five Points House of Industry and subsequently, the mental institutions, we found out that she was from Russia and was Jewish! What a surprise! The only known information we have about her are the few facts on the censuses from 1900-1940. Has anyone had success with getting medical records from Willard through the route of a living relative? I have the doctor’s form but have never followed up on it since I thought it would be a lost cause. My mother-in-law is thankful (she’s 93) that perhaps some day her grandmother will have her name attached to her burial number. so please keep up the good work! When we travel up north next spring, we plan on visiting Willard.

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  2. Lin, no wonder you are so passionate about this! You have a relative there that you can’t find! This is outrageous! Isn’t there anyway this can be reported to the media, so that it can get more attention? I would think some part of the media would take this story on!

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    • Hi Judy, My great-grandmother was an inmate for about four years and died there in 1928 at age 76, but she is not buried there. She’s buried in a cemetery in Penn Yan, Yates County, NY. I wanted her medical record and photo but was denied by the NYS Office of Mental Health. All the research is a result of frustration, but then, I found it so interesting that I started collecting articles and documents because I wanted to learn more; I had to share it. There are 5,776 unmarked graves in the Willard Cemetery. There is no good reason to continue to punish these people who were removed from society during their lifetime over one hundred years ago. This is why I wrote the book and created this blog; to help others find their ancestors. Thanks for reading, Judy!

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    • My grandfather died there and I am just finding out thru search if Willard that it was fir the insane. I am shocked to find out this horror. I remember my dad saying they killed his father, I am assuming he was buried there. Wish I could find out his history there.

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      • Medical Records are not yet available in New York State even though the Federal HIPAA Law states that patients medical records can be released 50 years after death. I’m working on it but introducing new bills takes a long time. As far as the history of Willard goes, I have written a book and this blog is loaded with history. Thanks for writing! -Lin

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  3. Pingback: [Final] Peek: Signs (a poetry broadside) « Peach Farm Studio

  4. Nerissa and Katherine Bowes-Lyon– nieces of the Queen Mother and first cousins to the Queen – who had been incarcerated since 1941 in the Royal Earlswood Asylum for Mental Defectives, at Redhill in Surrey.

    Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2059831/The-Queens-hidden-cousins-They-banished-asylum-1941-left-neglected-intriguing-documentary-reveals-all.html#ixzz1nONVXh2G

    Your work fascinates me. If I were still living in America, I would have to come visit the site and write the stories it gave me.

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  5. Hello;
    My grandfather died in 1931 in Buffalo State Hospital. I can’t find his gravesite. I’ve spent at least 5000 hrs on the net looking for him.
    Do you know anything about where Buffalo State Hospital inmates were buried?
    Thank you.
    Janet LaWall
    Ocean Shores, Wa.

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    • Hi Janet, Have you contacted Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, NY? Many of the former state hospitals did not have their own cemeteries and used public city or county cemeteries. Call or email the cemeteries of Buffalo and ask if they have a section that buried patients from the state hospital. Also, do you have a copy of his death certificate? That may tell you where he was buried. Could he have been buried in a family plot?

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  6. Very important work that you’re doing. There are sadly so many cemeteries lost or in terrible condition. People, their names, their history need to be remembered. It’s our history too. Every time I visit Mt. Hope I despair at the grave markers no longer legible, and that is a well-maintained place. We are losing invaluable information every day.

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  7. Great job, My grandfather was a patient at Willard he passed away there in Jan. 1969 his death certificate states he was turned over to Syracuse medical University. I have read in an article that in one of the buildings at Willard was used for training and research by Syracuse, so not sure if he was sent to the actuall University or just to the school on Willards grounds. I am not sure where his remains ended up. It also has Covert Funeral Home on there. Any thoughts as to who I can contact at the University or anything? Thank you Debbie

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  8. Pingback: An Inside Tour of 'Willard Asylum for the Chronic Insane' - Ovid, NY |

    • 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.”

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  9. This is such a disgrace, i know my great grand father Willard Kimble was listed on the New York census in 1900 as being a patient there, funny that we can’t find anything on him past that date, i was just wondering if he too is one of the unknown in the numbered graves. thank you

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  10. Hi, my 2nd Great Grandfather James J Cashman was an inmate at Binghamton State Hospital, but when he was there it was called New York State Inebriate Asylum. He shows up on the 1930 census as an inmate and then again on the 1940 census, after that he completely disappears. I believe that he is buried somewhere on that property but i haven’t found anything regarding a burial for him. I was wondering if his name has popped up at anytime during your research? James became an alcoholic after my 2nd Great Grandma Annie died in 1907, leaving him with 2 children, they had a 3rd child that passed away months after Annie. James then sent my great grandfather George and his sister Frances to live with family. It is very important to me to know what happened to James and where he is buried.

    I have a relative that was sent to Willard. Edith M Maynard Frost, my 2nd Great Grandma. She was born in January of 1890 in Tioga County,PA. Her husband was Lewis Frost. From what we have been told she became depressed after her grandson died, which Lewis blamed her for even though she was not even there when he died. Lewis had her committed and refused to tell anyone exactly where she was because he didn’t want anyone to go see her. She may have been committed under her moms name Ida or the name Ethel but i’m not sure. Any help that anyone can give me would be greatly appreciated. I have spent close to a year researching my family none stop and its very upsetting to me to not know what happened to these two.

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  11. We’ve been researching my wife’s ancestor “Ira Larkin” born 1787 in Rutland, Vt. He and his brothers had moved to Plattsburgh, NY fought in the War of 1812/ Battle of Plattsburgh, Ira was a “Drum Major”. We’ve been able to locate him in Sterling, Cayuga County living with 3 separate families 1) 1850 the Wasson’s 2) 1855 the Liddle’s 1860 the Holmes’. Always as a laborer. He had received a Bounty Land Grant in Kansas in 1860, sold it, filed a claim for wages, use of personal property including his “drum” and un-paid wages totaling over $350 in 1858-1860 and yet he was placed in the “County Home North of Auburn and died and was buried in the “Sennet Cemetery” June 5, 1863 in an unmarked grave. Questions will remain; Why was he found with “3” families? Was he sold to the lowest bidder at auction? What happened to his money? Why the “County House”? “Honorably discharged War Veteran to the “Poor House”?

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    • I think you have to look at this with 19th century eyes, if that’s possible. If he was a farm laborer listed as living with other families, that means he lived on the property and worked for that family. If he was a slave, the census would say “slave.” Many of my ancestors, when they were single men, were also listed as “boarder” or “laborer” living with non related families. My great-great-grandmother lived as an inmate at the Yates County Poorhouse during the Civil War. Her son, my great-grandfather, who fought in the Civil War was dirt poor after the war and if not for a marker provided by the government, his grave would have been unmarked as well. The marker only has his initials, “S.G.” His family lies next to him in unmarked graves. Remember, people had no money after the war; no social security, no insurance, etc. I hope this helps. Thanks so much for sharing your story!! -Lin

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  12. Thanks for your reply… and yes we understand that Ira was moved to the “Cayuga County House” after 1860 and in 1863 died there. Prior to that he’d lived and worked on three separate farms, for three separate families . That he applied for and received more than $350 for his service in the War of 1812 and money for his Bounty Land Grant all between 1858-1860 and then within a short time be in the “Poor House?” Our questions were, “Why the Poor House?” with substantial money? Could it have been for other reasons i.e., disease, alcohol related? We’ll never know.
    Referring to http://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&frm=1&source=web&cd=1&ved=0CCUQFjAAahUKEwi-2fnp_ZnIAhWWM4gKHbc2Bfg&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.poorhousestory.com%2Fhistory.htm&usg=AFQjCNGTV6a7_DKO3lC23X3PiauArJmGSg , we also wonder if that were the reason he was shifted from family to family for support. Not a slave but as a result of a “Pauper Auction”, those “low bidders” providing support in turn for a persons labor. Many questions but little documentation.
    Thanks again,
    J.C.

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    • I agree that many questions will never be answered. Remember that there were NO jobs in the rural areas except for farm labor. In the winter those farm laborers lived at the County Poor Houses to survive especially in New York State. If you owned property but were forced to live in the poorhouse to survive, the county took your property and everything in it as payment. This is what happened to my g-g-grandmother. They knew that people couldn’t read and write and were poorly educated if at all. Your ancestor may have suffered from a war injury, PTSD, depression, health problems, etc. Back then, there were no nursing homes or hospitals that would “take care” of or “rehabilitate” the down and out. Also remember that there was no good drinking water thus many/most had to drink beer, wine and juices if they could get their hands on it.

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  13. All I can say is: WOW! what a lot of information here and I am feeling sick, reading all the sorrow. I have a maternal grandmother who was “incarcerated” (I don’t say that lightly) at Ogdensburg and died in July, 1970. I am adopted, so I don’t know much about her and I do not have access to any birth or death certificates. I don’t even know where I would get any, since she emigrated to America from another country. How do I find her death certificate? Impossible I would think. The saddest part of all this is that just because these people are mentally ill, society deems them unfit, forgettable and locks them away…

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  14. Can you suggest who to write to regarding having the Willard records housed at the Albany State Library Archives sealed by HIPPA and the New York State Office of Mental Hygiene unsealed to relatives? Additionally is is there an online petition? I would like to know who to contact regarding the issue.

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  15. Pingback: Visit to Oregon State Hospital, Part 2: The Cremains Memorial – The PreservationWorks

    • QUESTIONS & CONCERNS: CONTACT JOHN ALLEN, Director, New York State Office of Mental Health, Office of Consumer Affairs, Central Office Staff, 44 Holland Avenue, Albany, New York 12229, Phone: (518) 473-6579, Fax: (518) 474-8998.

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  16. I have 2 ancestors who supposedly were buried at the “Poor House” cemetery in Poughkeepsie. That’s what the “sign in” record said and that’s how it was listed in a census. The two surnames are Northrop and Hutton, both old New England/New York families. Would like to know more if only because I am a researcher thru and thru.

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