Graves project seeks dignity for the forgotten

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Her name was Elsie.

She lived at the Toledo State Hospital for a month before she died of tuberculosis in the early 1900s. She was 13 years old at the time.

For decades, her grave and hundreds of others were forgotten, but an ongoing project is bringing recognition to those who lived and died at the state hospital.

On May 15, the Toledo State Hospital Cemetery Reclamation Committee's annual memorial program will include dedication of two Ohio Historical Society historical markers and a memorial monument to honor the nearly 2,000 forgotten souls in the two Toledo State Hospital cemeteries off Arlington Avenue near South Detroit Avenue in South Toledo.

The dedication will acknowledge the historical significance of the cemeteries, which date back to 1888, when Toledo State Hospital first opened as Toledo Asylum for the Insane. It's an important step in acknowledging the history of the treatment of those who were often hospitalized for a lifetime due to mental and physical disorders, committee members said.

The 1 p.m. ceremony will be held at the Toledo State Hospital Cemetery on Arlington, west of South Detroit Avenue, with parking available in the Bowsher High School lot.

Near Elsie's grave on this sunny spring morning, a group whoop sounded when a long metal probe connected with a stone marker several inches below bright green grass.

Abigail Dudek, a St. Ursula Academy freshman from Holland, excitedly announced "we found one," and after some digging, SUA sophomore Lindsey Gilbert of Toledo pulled the marker to the surface. Several St. Ursula Academy students worked for several hours last week in one of the state hospital's cemeteries to find markers as part of a United Way Day of Caring volunteer effort.

Freshman Allie Rudolph of Perrysburg squirted the top of the stone with water but decades of dirt didn't budge. Students scratched with sticks to reveal "1430," the burial number.

Nearby, sophomore Marissa Sehmann of Bowling Green tried to find another marker. Based on the spacing in the row, "it shows one is missing here," and shortly a shovel scraped against stone. Another forgotten soul had been reclaimed.

She's pleased signs will be erected to let people know that this is a cemetery, not just a pretty wooded area adjacent to a University of Toledo Medical Center parking lot. The cemetery land is owned by UT.

People will know, she said, that "family members are buried here."

Miss Rudolph said each marker found, and each one still buried, brings a sense of sadness. "Thousands of people are buried here. So many people and no recognition for them until now."

For the first time, as volunteers worked, mock medical record cards (details tweaked to protect patient privacy) were posted on several graves in an effort to link people today with those buried many yesterdays ago.

George, burial number 1004, was admitted at age 18 to the Toledo State Hospital. He was born in 1881, and he died in 1925. He was a farmer from Wood County, and lived at the hospital for 26 years. Jane Weber, a project volunteer and committee member, walked along shaded rows of markers, carrying cards to match with numbers.

"There she is, Ella," Ms. Weber said, leaning over to put the card onto the grave. Ella, a housewife, was admitted at age 40 to the state hospital. She lived there 19 years. She died in 1928 from epilepsy.

In another section of the cemetery, Henry Hartford of East Toledo gave pointers to St. Ursula students on how to find markers with probes. A project committee member, he has found 700 markers - most of which were several inches below the earth's surface - in the last couple of years.

"I do this because it is a good cause. These people were forgotten in life. They deserve better than to be forgotten in death," he said. "Nobody should be known as a number. The people here should be recognized for what they went through in the early days of mental health treatment. It was a shame."

Nearby, SUA senior Jenniefer Stearns of Toledo wiggled a marker loose while senior Tiffany Carnicom of Sylvania stood ready with a shovel.

Elizabeth Smith, an SUA junior from Maumee, described the volunteer work as a way to give back to the community. "We are giving respect to people who deserve respect but didn't receive it," she said. "It is rewarding to bring people together. It might not happen initially, but you know you are helping."

Patients were admitted for several reasons, including age-related dementia, developmental disabilities, drug or alcohol addiction, and brain injuries, Ms. Weber said. When they died, patients received a numbered marker, placed flat to the ground. "There were no names, no dates, no identity," Ms. Weber said.

Patient privacy laws require confidentiality, but relatives are finding details about lost family members as a result of the project, Ms. Weber said.

Some of those families will attend the May 15 event and share details about relatives buried in the cemeteries.

One family wrote and told the a story of their relative, a mother of three. A tragic flash fire in the kitchen of the woman's home killed her youngest daughter, and the mother never quite recuperated. She was hospitalized at the Toledo State Hospital for some 20 years before she died.

Buried in the cemeteries are a lot of tragic stories, Ms. Weber said. "These were real people," she said. The youngest patient was Elsie at age 13; the oldest was a 108-year-old woman who was admitted in her 60s. Admission lengths for the patients varied from hours to 66 years.

Since the project began, 260 of the 900 markers in the older cemetery have been located and more than 800 out of 1,000 have been found in the other cemetery. Volunteers would like to see other improvements here, such as a pathway paved with memorial bricks, to turn the cemetery from a place of lost souls to a place of honor for anyone with relatives buried there and for anyone dealing with mental illness, Ms. Weber said.