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Finding dignity in death


In a grove of tall trees shading a gentle slope, the stone slabs are flat on the ground in crooked rows. They vary in size; some are cracked. Most have numbers that appear to have been crudely etched in wet cement with a stick; some have names.

Buried here are people once known as the feeble-minded, the idiots, the imbeciles. They died as patients at Crownsville Hospital Center, opened in 1911 as the Hospital for the Negro Insane on 560 acres of farmland in Anne Arundel County.

With no sign to mark the burial grounds and no names to identify the dead, the cemetery holds the graves where as many as 3,000 former Crownsville patients were laid to rest before 1957 and largely forgotten. They were society's unwanted - not only the black mentally ill, but also those suffering from tuberculosis and syphilis, alcoholics, the homeless and the elderly.

"There is something that overcomes you when you stand on that hill - a sadness and feeling of neglect," said Janice Hayes-Williams, a historian who is part of a group working to tell the story of the cemetery and, in the telling, restore some of the dignity taken from the people buried there.

"Because those people were ill, they were forgotten," Hayes-Williams said. "Not only forgotten, but put in the ground with no name on their stone, no dignity to their life whatsoever. When we went up there, we knew at that moment that this was something we wanted to be a part of."

"It's a resurrection of a people and a way to say, 'You're not forgotten,'" she said.

The group intends to search years of death certificates to name the buried Crownsville patients. Members also hope to create a computer database of burial records for use by relatives, and maybe a museum.

Dennis Dupont, the chaplain at Crownsville, said the cemetery project probably will shed light on a dark side of the state's history, but could bring healing as well.

"It represents deep racism and prejudice toward the mentally ill," Dupont said. "Those are two things we don't want to address even today in our culture."

Heading the cemetery restoration effort is George Phelps Jr., 74, who initiated a restoration and cleanup project 11 years ago at Brewer Hill Cemetery in Annapolis, the city's oldest African-American cemetery.

"We have 74 African-American churches in Anne Arundel County, and they don't know about this" [Crownsville cemetery], said Phelps, president of the Brewer Hill Cemetery Association and a community liaison officer with Anne Arundel's police department. "It's time for the truth to be told; sometimes the graves can speak."

Much of the cleaning of the 10-acre cemetery was done over the past 2 1/2 years, supervised by Sylvia Beale, Crownsville's director of volunteer services. On spring weekends, volunteers cleared weeds to uncover gravestones and secured grave markers.

Phelps' cemetery committee wants to take the restoration to the next level. Besides determining who's buried there, they plan to build a fence and a monument at the site and replace the dirt road to the cemetery with a paved road.

The committee plans to raise money for these projects through donations solicited from African-American churches and with foundation and state grants. They have a track record, having raised $90,000 for the Brewer Hill project.

To organizers of the Crownsville cemetery project, anonymous burial in the woods was the final dehumanization of a life.

In the years before burials stopped at the cemetery, many patients lived at Crownsville in overcrowded, unsanitary quarters and received no psychiatric treatment. Conditions were not much better at state institutions for whites, but as the catchall facility for the mentally ill and outcasts among Maryland's black population, Crownsville fell behind other psychiatric hospitals.

"This was a place you could put family members if they had syphilis or other diseases, and you didn't want people around town to know about it," said Hayes-Williams, who is Phelps' niece.

Patients might have been used for medical research, a practice that hospital officials said occurred at other psychiatric hospitals across the country.

"A lot of these people had electroshock [therapy] in such an intense fashion that it left burn marks on their temples," said cemetery committee member Antonio A. Brown, an Annapolis community activist.

The hospital was founded in 1910, when the General Assembly allocated $100,000 to buy land in Crownsville and build the hospital. It was intended to serve patients from throughout the state.

Crownsville's first patients were transferred from Spring Grove State Hospital in Catonsville and asylums and jails in the Baltimore area. Over the next two years, more than 120 patients living in a tent work camp cleared the land for the construction of the first permanent building. In 1912, the state legislature changed the name of the facility to Crownsville State Hospital.

A state report submitted to the governor in December 1913, detailing the construction of the first buildings at Crownsville, praised the patients' work abilities.

"Even two one-armed patients have rendered excellent service as water boys, and, while being occupied have been less irritable and better controlled," the report states.

In keeping with psychological theories of the time that hard labor was good therapy, patients at Crownsville were put to work on the hospital farm - planting, harvesting and canning crops for meals. They did laundry, made furniture, sewed clothes and probably built their own caskets and buried their dead, said hospital Superintendent Ronald R. J. Hendler.

"I suppose it was maybe a little bit better than a Negro criminal jail, but not much," Dupont said.

According to a 1949 series of articles in The Evening Sun on the state's psychiatric hospitals titled "Maryland's Shame," Crownsville's 1,800 patients were crowded into buildings meant for 1,100. Eight doctors and one nurse made up the medical staff.

The newspaper found that patients slept in damp basements, in attics without fire escapes and on porches; that children shared beds. "Sex-offenders, ex-prostitutes, epileptics and idiots are thrown together with young children who are only feeble-minded or mentally retarded," it wrote.

Because of staffing shortages, few patients received treatment, and the article concluded that "they grow worse and worse instead of better."

Although the articles led to an expansion at Crownsville and other state hospitals, overcrowding remained severe. Crownsville was essentially a dumping ground where patients were warehoused indefinitely.

Today, the average daily patient population at Crownsville is 218, and several private, nonprofit organizations and county agencies are housed in old hospital buildings on the 1,000-acre campus.

On a recent trip to the burial grounds, members of the cemetery committee stepped carefully around the flat grave markers.

"Fourteen eighty-two," Phelps said to himself, looking at the number on a stone. "I wonder who that was. Isn't that something?"

According to Paul Lurz, director of performance improvement at Crownsville and the hospital's unofficial historian, there are 16 rows of graves, but the lowest-numbered markers visible are in the 800s. Lurz said seven more rows are probably hidden.

During the recent cleanup, volunteers found stone markers at the bottom of a hill and replaced them. Crownsville officials say that erosion probably washed them away or the grounds crew pushed them aside to cut the grass.

"This was wild out here just a couple years ago," Lurz said. "The weeds were 2 feet high. I was afraid all of this would be lost."

Beginning in 1953, some patients were buried with names on their grave markers. Their autopsy records provide some clues about their time at Crownsville .

One elderly woman was transferred to the psychiatric hospital in 1955 after being treated for heat stroke at Johns Hopkins Hospital. After treatment, the report states, she was confused and disoriented, with hallucinations.

In August 1955, the report notes, "she became increasingly resistive and during the past year combative and spent the greater part of the time in restraint."

Before her death Dec. 12, 1957, at age 77, the woman had several high fevers and dehydration. Her son was "unable to care for the remains," the report states, concluding that "the Anatomy Board would not claim the body and it was buried at Crownsville."

Another autopsy report details a 34-year-old woman's admittance to the psychiatric hospital in 1928 with a diagnosis of "dementia praecox [the former term for schizophrenia] - paranoid."

She died 27 years later in the hospital infirmary, with the listed cause of death as "generalized arteriosclerosis."

"Efforts by phone and writing to family members in region of Baltimore were without success," the report states. "The subject was refused by the Anatomy Board as unfit for medical research and an autopsy was therefore done."

Hospital officials say the only record of patients' names and the corresponding grave numbers was lost, possibly when asbestos was removed from the medical records building. Without that list it won't be possible to match patients' names with numbers.

Hayes-Williams said she plans to go through each death certificate from 1911 through 1957 to compile the names of those buried in the Crownsville graveyard.

"It has to be done," she said. "These people need to be identified."

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