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Springfield Hospital gives names to unmarked graves

Tidy rows of more than 900 small gravestones, each with a number but no name, line a steep hillside at Springfield Hospital Center in Sykesville, a state facility for the mentally ill. For decades the hospital buried patients who died indigent, without family or friends, in Sunny Side Cemetery.

Expediency made the grassy knoll surrounded by trees the patients' graveyard. In 1899, it was the closest ground to the complex that housed the most aged or critically ill.

For patients whose bodies went unclaimed, there were no last prayers, no gathering of mourners and no chiseled names and dates noting their years on earth. Many were not afforded caskets and were interred in coroner's cloths beneath numbered stones. There they remained in obscurity — until now.

It took staff and volunteers about eight years of tedious research through copious dusty records, often illegible, written in faded ink or pencil, to name the dead. It meant checking and cross-checking several references to match the names with the numbers, said Paula Langmead, Springfield's superintendent.

"We have finally turned the numbers into names," she said.

The effort was monumental from a historical perspective, but also a reminder of the drastic changes in mental health treatment in the past half-century. Around the 1950s, new medicines became available and new treatments were recommended. State hospitals shrunk in size, and in some cases closed. Patients no longer lived out their lives in institutions and frequently could remain in their homes while undergoing treatment.

"There was a real revolution in our understanding of mental illness," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. "Hospitals have since taken on a different role, and we strive for care within the community as much as possible."

Osbourne Broadwater was the last patient buried at Sunny Side in 1962, and his name is the last of 908 names on an imposing granite and bronze stone dedicated Tuesday at the cemetery "to the memory of beloved residents laid to rest."

Springfield, one of several state mental hospitals established in the late 19th century, at one time housed 3,500 patients on a campus which included a farm and a dairy and its own police and fire departments. It provided employment for generations of families living in Carroll County.

Many families abandoned loved ones to a life in the crowded state institution, often because they lacked the resources to care for them or because of the stigma that surrounded mental illness. Hospital officials often advised families to have little contact with patients and to move on with their own lives.

Patients were housed, clothed and fed. They suffered from schizophrenia, depression and other disorders for which there were no cures. The standard treatment — long-term institutionalization — was viewed as humane by caregivers but represented a hopeless existence for many patients.

The medical staff relied on standard methods of the time to subdue patients made unruly by mental disorders. Many treatments have long since been abandoned because of the stress and pain they caused to patients.

"There was no effective medical treatment and no meds that worked," Sharfstein said. "Patients were treated humanely but still suffered horrible symptoms that medicine could not abate. The goal at the time was to let the mentally ill live in a place where they would not be abused."

Springfield, which now houses about 240 patients, is "still a place to turn to and get the care important to recovery," Sharfstein said. But the medications, the treatment and the length of stay are far different.

Langmead said the effort to name the buried reflected the hospital's treatment of patients over its 116-year history. "We must take care of our patients with all sense of dignity and respect," she said.

Burt Kummerow, president of the Maryland Historical Society, lauded the research undertaken to locate and document the names.

"It is wonderful to find out that these people are being remembered for their role in a particular place and time," he said. "They deserve to have that memory. They lived in at a time when the mentally ill were housed in anonymous places. Society didn't care and wanted to be rid of them. We are doing better now, and this shows these people had lives that deserve notice."

Harriet Moore came to the service Tuesday from Garrett County to honor two great aunts who lived at the hospital for more than 30 years and died within days of each other in 1948. Moore pursued nurse's training at the hospital in the 1960s, unaware that family members were buried on the grounds. The cemetery is isolated, at least a mile off the hospital's main road, and unknown to many.

Bessie Murphy's stone is number 843 and her older sister Martha's is 845, both in the last row of markers. Moore and her husband, Carl, easily located the graves after the service.

Family memories have faded, but the Murphy sisters, born 10 years apart in 1882 and 1892 into a farm family in Western Maryland, were probably "mentally retarded," Moore said. When their mother died in 1917, no one else could care for them. They were sent to live at Springfield and shared quarters at the hospital. Given the distance between the hospital and extended family, they had few visitors.

"When they died, there was no money for the family to bring their bodies all the way home to Allegany County," said Moore. "And they had been here so long, the family probably thought it best to leave them here."

The names of Bessie and Martha Murphy are etched in the last column on the memorial stone.

"I feel privileged to be here today," Moore said. "I know these graves have been cared for and now the patients buried here have been recognized."

The ceremony Tuesday reminded the nearly 200 in attendance that "it is never too late to fix a problem," Sharfstein said.

"What we do here today reflects on us," he said. "The respect and dignity we have provided these patients is as much about us as them."

Jen Fry, a nurse at the hospital, lives near the grounds and frequently walks among the gravestones.

"There is a real peace here, but I have wondered forever about who they were," she said. "I knew the hospital had to have their names. Now that we have turned the numbers into names, there is still peace but a real difference in how this place feels."

The memorial means 908 people who lived and died at a state institution will be remembered, and that should comfort all people, said Kummerow, the historian.

"We actually die three times," he said. "Once, physically; again when all our immediate family and friends die off; and finally, when the world forgets us entirely. There are only a very few remembered through the centuries."

The Rev. Edward Richardson, hospital chaplain, placed his hand on the memorial and blessed it. The patients were probably buried without ritual, but "God knew all along how important it is to name them," he said.