Hello Friends! My last blog post on October 12, 2016, was entitled, “Good Bye!” There are a few reasons why I have not written any posts. First of all, I had written over 200 factual articles which required countless hours of research. At this time in my life, I am not willing, nor am I able, to devote that much time sitting in front of my computer. Secondly, the nature of this subject matter is extremely depressing and not good for my mental health. Thirdly, I was tired of banging my head against wall trying to convince the New York State Office of Mental Health to release the names of former patients in an online format, etc. If you have read past posts, I don’t need to fill you in.
A friend of mine contacted me with some very disturbing news about John Allen, Director, Office of Mental Health, Office of Consumer Affairs. Here is his mugshot from the Albany County Jail.
John Allen-Albany County Jail
This is the man who was in charge of Consumer Affairs. This is the man that everyone had to go through to get answers. This is the man who had total control over what we could and could not learn about our family members; former patients of New York State Hospitals/Asylums, who died YEARS AGO and were buried in anonymous, unmarked graves in the state owned cemeteries of these 26 state run institutions. In my judgement, any deal that was made between the New York State Legislature and John Allen should be null and void. Hopefully, we can start over and write the bill that I wanted written in the first place but I’m not holding my breath. Two years after my last blog post I have reached 507,475 hits without any new blog posts. Read the comments! Clearly, there are people out there who are still searching for help, trying to locate any information on their long lost loved ones!
I started this blog on July 10, 2011, thinking that maybe 5 people would actually read it and find the posts interesting. Five years later, I have created 12 pages, written 211 posts including countless PDF files, published 739 comments, and received 352,795 views. I self-published The Inmates of Willard 1870 to 1900: A Genealogy Resource, on December 17, 2011, with my own money, to further the cause of restoring dignity to the forgotten people who lived and died at New York State Hospitals (Insane Asylums), who had been buried on New York State property in anonymous, unmarked cemeteries and graves for over a century. New York State Senate Bill S840A-2015 became a law on August 18, 2016, but it did not include provisions for a searchable database available to the public as New York State lawmakers and the Office of Mental Health believed that if they did so, they would be sued. Their belief is that putting a name on a memorial or a headstone in public is different than publishing the names on a specific public website (as if no genealogy geek in the future will photograph the graves along with the names and publish them on the internet). This makes no sense to me. I believe that the New York State Office of Mental Health did not want to disclose the names of deceased patients because the burial ledgers may have been carelessly lost or destroyed. They would also have to explain why these cemeteries had never been marked in over 150 years, why they fell into such a state of neglect and disrepair in the first place, and why Kings Park State Hospital Cemetery is being used as a youth baseball field. The following states took a different approach and put searchable databases on the internet available to the public: Kansas; Minnesota; Nebraska; Ohio; Texas; Maryland; Florida; Washington; and even Binghamton State Hospital of New York has a searchable list on line.
Monument For The Forgotten-Museum of disABILITY History, Buffalo, NY.
The reason why New York State Hospitals / Insane Asylums, Feeble-Minded and Epileptic Custodial Institutions are so important to the world is because there were 26 of them, possibly more. These institutions housed many newly arrived immigrants during the mid 19th and early 20th centuries from all over the world, especially Western Europe. I’m sure that there are plenty of people who would like to know the final resting place of their long, lost ancestor. It just doesn’t seem fair to me that this one stigmatized group of people are being denied the one and only thing that we really have to be remembered by; our name. Even though I initiated the original bill in August 2011 and it was introduced to the New York State Senate by Senator Joseph E. Robach in March 2012, I was never allowed to write it. This is the bill that I would have written:
“This bill is important and necessary in order to restore the dignity and personhood of the thousands of people who were incarcerated and died at former New York State Insane Asylums, (later renamed State Hospitals), Feeble-Minded and Epileptic Custodial Institutions. When the bodies of the inmates were not claimed by family members, they were buried in anonymous, unmarked graves, or, their bodies and brains were given to medical colleges for research. These forgotten souls deserve to have their names remembered and available to the public by means of a searchable internet database. Some of these deceased patients were undoubtedly United States Veterans who served during the Civil War, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Viet Nam, who suffered from PTSD and Shell Shock. Their graves deserve to be marked with the American Flag and honored like any other veteran’s grave.
There is no good reason why these long deceased souls need to be punished and stigmatized in death for an illness or intellectual disability that they lived with in life. The great majority of these former state hospitals closed in favor of smaller group home settings or changed their names to Psychiatric Centers in the early 1970s. This in turn led to many patients being thrown onto the streets to live in cardboard boxes, or thrown into jail with no psychiatric services, just as they did 150 years ago. I do not understand why anyone would need to have their name withheld from any cemetery list until 50 years had passed after their death. This requirement in the bill only serves to feed the stigma.”
Well, the bill that I wanted didn’t come to pass. I will keep this blog up and running for the purpose of historical research and I might post something now and then but there is nothing left for me to blog about, and I will not continue to bang my head against the wall trying to convince New York State lawmakers and the New York State Office of Mental Health to change their position. So, I will say, Good Bye! A few years ago, I donated $100.00 dollars to the Willard Cemetery Memorial Project and I cannot afford to give any more. If you are so inclined, please donate to the cause or start a cemetery organization of your own. The saddest part of this law is that by the time this organization raises enough money to mark 5,776 graves, I will be too old to care, and I am not aware of any other cemetery organizations for the other 25 New York State institutions. Thank you for all of your support over these past five years! May God Bless You and Your Loved Ones!!
Sincerely, Linda S. Stuhler
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.
On Saturday, May 16, 2015, LAWRENCE MOCHA was honored and remembered as a living, breathing, contributing member of society, 47 years after his death, with a lovely service and memorial. LAWRENCE was a patient at The WILLARD STATE HOSPITAL and served, unpaid, until the age of 90, as the gravedigger for the institution for thirty years. He dug 1,500 graves for his fellow patients, all of whom, with the exception of one other man, remain in anonymity. As you will see in the video below, it was a beautiful celebration of life that not only remembered with dignity and grace MR. MOCHA but all of the nearly 6,000 patients buried in anonymous graves at the 30 acre, WILLARD STATE HOSPITAL CEMETERY.
I was honored to be invited to this special event but I was unable to attend. I did however view the entire 55 minute video. I was so happy to see that so many people attended the celebration! I understand that there was quite a traffic jam and the State Police had to be called to divert people away from the WILLARD CAMPUS that held their annual tour and fundraising event for the Day Care Center. I hope in some small way I was able to help get the word out with my book and this blog about the dehumanizing, anonymous graves in former NEW YORK STATE HOSPITAL and CUSTODIAL INSTITUTION CEMETERIES.
Lawrence Mocha’s Marker
After viewing the video, there are a few thoughts I would like to share:
The anonymous graves at WILLARD would never have been brought to light, and the suitcases found in the attic would never have been saved and preserved without the tireless work of CRAIG WILLIAMS, Curator of History at The New York State Museum at Albany.
“The Lives They Left Behind, Suitcases From A State Hospital Attic” written by DARBY PENNEY and PETER STASTNY, opened the eyes of the public and made us aware of what it was like to be institutionalized. This book inspired so many people, including me, to try to correct the disgrace of anonymous burials in former New York State Hospitals and Custodial Institutions. It led me to ask my State Senator, Joe Robach, to draft a bill concerning the release of patient names, dates of birth and death, and location of grave. Written in 2011 and first introduced to the New York State Senate on March 23, 2012 as S6805-2011, on January 13, 2013 as S2514-2013, and on January 7, 2015 as S840A-2015. As of today, it has not passed into law.
In 2011, The Willard Cemetery Memorial Project was formed. God Bless all the volunteers who made this celebration possible!
JOHN ALLEN, Special Assistant to the Commissioner of the New York State Office of Mental Health (518-473-6579), verified in his statements on the video exactly what I have been stating for years! Thank you, Mr. Allen! He told the story about how difficult it was to match A NAME, ANY NAME, with the correct family especially after multiple generations have passed since the ancestor’s death. He spoke about how problematic it was to find a living relative of the deceased buried in a numbered grave (which is exactly why the Federal HIPPA Law changed in March 2013). I know I’m going to hell for saying this, but it gave me great pleasure watching MR. ALLEN getting choked up as he told his story. Hopefully, he now knows what it feels like to search, and search, and search for a “long, lost relative” and finally finding them. MR. ALLEN also had a photograph of MR. MOCHA which he could show to a long, lost family member. Most of us don’t have that luxury even though photographs were taken of each patient. I would love to have a photograph of my great-mother. It’s simply outrageous that one government agency has the right to withhold the names, dates of birth and death, and location of graves of THOUSANDS!!! We’re not talking about medical records here, only the most basic of information concerning the death and final resting place of our loved ones who happened to live and die in a NEW YORK STATE HOSPITAL or CUSTODIAL INSTITUTION.
Plaque Honoring Lawrence Mocha
A NAME IS JUST A NAME AND MEANS NOTHING TO ANYONE UNLESS YOU’RE THE ONE SEARCHING FOR THAT LOVED ONE! It’s just a name that many other people share, it’s just a birth date, it’s just a death date. NO FAMILY WILL BE STIGMATIZED unless they are like me and tell the world that their great-grandmother lived and died at a state hospital. Remember that when WILLARD opened in 1869, that people were really poor, something that we have a hard time understanding today. Some families did not have the money to ship their relatives’ remains home. To believe that none of these people were loved and or missed is incorrect. To think that no one ever attended their burial or said a prayer for them is simply not true.
In case you didn’t catch the fifty-one names, beginning at minute 45, here they are.
I apologize in advance if I misspelled your loved ones’ name.
Do these names mean anything to you?
Names Of The Dearly Departed That Were Read In Public And Recorded On Video At: The Willard Memorial Celebration Saturday, May 16, 2015
1889 June 3 – Hannah Thompson August 14 – Eliza Delaney October 16 – Ida Bartholomew
1890 September 9 – James Foster September 15 – Patrick McNamara October 31 – Mary Champlain
1891 April 26 – Sophia Anderson May 26 – Mary Brown June 23 – Katherine Davis November 16 – Lavinia Hayes
1892 January 4 – Electa George June 7 – John Van Horne September 24 – Mary Church October 20 – Sarah Scott
1893 January 20 – Susan Dugham September 26 – John B. Kellogg December 12 – Effie Risley
1894 January 1 – Syble Pollay February 19 – Suzanne Klinkers Waldron March 26 – Carolyn Gregory June 23 – Elizabeth Weber August 21 – Sarah Ann Baker November 8 – Sarah Jane Hemstreet December 30 – Willis Mathews
1895 February 2 – Sophia Podgka July 21 – Elizabeth Dawson November 26 – Parmelia Baldwin
1896 March 3 – Ann Dady
1897 April 27 – Miriam D. Bellamy
1898 August 10 – Julia Holden
1899 November 15 – Delia Richards December 4 – Genevieve Murray
1900 February 3 – Ellen Jane Roe May 14 – Honora Nugent July 1 – Harriet Gray October 12 – Lottie Sullivan
1901 September 19 – Rachel Tice
1902 August 24 – Emma P. Sandborn
1903 April 18 – Elizabeth Snell December 3 – Nora Murphy
1904 February 20 – Catherine Walwrath March 18 – Margaret McKay April 27 – Ellen Horan June 21 – Isabella Pemberton October 29 – Mary J. Chapman December 20 – Mita Mulholland
1905 August 4 – Susan Stortz September 7 – Mary Gilmore October 25 – Adele Monnier
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.
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.”
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.”
Ms. Spellecy and other volunteers got on their knees to begin unearthing the numbered plaques. They searched the surrounding woods to salvage discarded metal markers. With the help of another former groundskeeper, Mike Huff, they erected signs to identify sections divided by religion — Protestant, Catholic, Jewish — and planted a small boulder where Mr. Mocha’s shack stood.
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.”