The Cemetery Project in Maine

The Forgotton Dead | Portland Press Herald | May 30, 2012

Back in 2000, an Amistad member returned from a National Conference where she learned about efforts in some states to locate cemeteries at State Mental Hospitals.  She returned to Maine, and enlisted the enthusiasm and energy of a committee of interested others at Amistad, and the Cemetery Project in Maine was begun.

The group wrote a letter to the then Commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services, Lynn Dub, asking where the patients were buried who died at AMHI.  The answer came a few weeks later.  The commissioner replied that the total number of patients who had died was not that many, and most of them had been returned to their families.

Suspicious of that response, the group then recruited some students from The University of New England (UNE) who needed a research project, and invited them to undertake basic research on the topic.  After a semester of going through records at the Maine State Archives, it was pretty clear that there was a far greater number of patients who were listed as having died than had been reported, and early reports suggested that some of them had been buried on the AMHI grounds.  The group had been able to access old Superintendent’s reports, and chaplain reports.

The following year, another group of research students again took up the challenge, and uncovered even more records at the Archives that confirmed what had been learned earlier.  They actually came across about 30 years of patient records that had been filed at the archives, and for the first time had access to a limited amount of hard data.  Information gathered during this search was very clear that a far greater number of patients had died at the hospital than had been reported by the Commissioner.

The committee then entered into a formal research agreement with DHHS.  This formal agreement allowed for the first time complete access to patient records.  The committee hired Laura Wilder to go through the all patient record from 1840 to the present and determine both how many patients had died, and who they were, and hopefully gather any information about where they were buried.

It was a monumental task, as the early records were simply long, hand- written narratives with chronological entries.  It required a careful reading of thousands of pages of very old records  After nearly a year of very conscientious work, Laura was finally able to produce the most accurate record possible of patients who died either while a patient at AMHI, or who were on leave from AMHI – and the number was 11,647 patients.

The research agreement with the Department was very clear that this information could not be made public as it was still protected by confidentiality laws.  The committee then petitioned the legislature to allow for the publication of this information.  The legislature was concerned that the release of this information might cause embarrassment to some families, and the committee agreed to publish notice in all of the major newspapers in the State of the intention to release this information, and a contact so that families could request that their family information remain private.  Six families did request that their family information remain sealed.  With this exception, the legislature agreed to amend State Law to allow for the general dissemination of this information.  Complete records are on display in the lobby of Riverview Psychiatric Center.  One book contains all of the names and identifying information listed alphabetically, and a second contains the same information listed chronologically.

The committee then organized a formal Memorial Service, which coincided with the final closing of AMHI in June of 2005.  In front of the old Stone Building, the committee organized a gathering at which all of the names were read in chronological order.  The reading began at 8:00 AM, and finished at 5:30 PM.  It was attended by a number of ex-patients, family members and old staff from both AMHI and other mental health agencies.  It was a very moving day, and much healing occurred.

Unfortunately we have not had success in locating burial locations for most of the patients.  We suspect that the majority of patients were buried in pauper’s graves scattered in Augusta. It is possible that a forgotten cemetery exists on the old hospital grounds that once consisted of more than 2,000 acres stretching from the Arboretum to the Kennebec River that we have not located.  We do know that a portion of the Cony Cemetery, which is across Hospital Street from the old hospital, does contain a number of patient graves.  Attached to this report is a copy of a map of the patient section of this cemetery – this crude, hand-drawn map seems in many ways symbolic of the almost casual manner in which these patients were buried.  There are a handful of stones marking individual graves – others may have been marked with wooden markers that have long since deteriorated.

After a period of inactivity, the committee has recently begun to meet again.  The committee members feel strongly that this work will not be completed until a proper and fitting Memorial has been erected to honor and remember these individuals.  They expect that they will have to likely raise private funds to make this happen, and are currently seeking input as to the best location for a Memorial.  We have been advised by the Maine Commission for the Arts that we will need to raise approximately $50,000 to erect a Memorial able to withstand Maine weather.  The committee is in favor of a site near the old Stone building on the AMHI campus.

We have also been approached by an individual who is interested in pursing research regarding the existence of a cemetery.  Apparently additional records not available to previous researchers have become available with the closing of AMHI, and these records are not housed at the Maine State Archives, but are protected under confidentiality laws.

In March of 2012, Amistad once again wrote to Commissioner Mayhew to formally request an update of the original research agreement to allow once again researchers identified and trained by Amistad access to AMHI records to try and determine once and for all if a cemetery exists on the old hospital grounds.

In March of 2012, the Cemetery Project Committee received its first donation dedicated intended for the creation of a permanent memorial.  The Viles Foundation committed $10,000 to the project – a great start!  The committee has been advised that we will need to raise in the vicinity of $50,000 to create a outdoor and weather resistant memorial appropriate to Maine weather, and we are determined to accomplish that.

Individuals interested in making a contribution may send a check in the name of the Cemetery Project to:

Amistad
PO Box 992
Portland, Maine.

Amistad is a 501(c(3) corporation and all contributions are tax deductible.

Download The Cemetery Project PDF (1.2 mb's)

Peter Driscoll  
Amistad
March, 2012