Faded numbers stamped into small cement blocks marked the graves of more than 3,200 mentally ill patients buried here at Western State Hospital between the 1870s and 1953. Over time, the stones themselves sank into the earth, leaving the dead in almost perfect obscurity.
But a nearly decade-long effort by volunteers — buoyed by national efforts to bring light to these forgotten cemeteries — has put names to some 660 people who went unclaimed by either family or friend after dying at the state’s largest mental hospital, about 40 miles south of Seattle.
The remaining numbered stones have been restored to the surface, cleaned and await their own personalized plaques. Another 59 markers will be added this fall.
“It’s righting a wrong,” said Laurel Lemke, chairwoman of Grave Concerns Association, the volunteer group working to give each person a named marker. “For me, a lot of it is reducing the stigma of mental illness.”
The hospital has always had a mapped list of the names of those who are buried in what once was the hospital farm, but the stigma of mental illness, and the state’s confidentiality laws, led to decades of numbered markers, Lemke said.
One of the newest markers identifies the grave of Sabra Garwood Langworthy, who entered the hospital in 1879. Alexsandra Stewart, Langworthy’s great-great-granddaughter, was doing genealogy research when she found Langworthy in census records that placed her at the hospital.
Stewart felt sadness and anger when she learned her ancestor was buried in an anonymous grave, marked only by the number 1412.
“There are records of the family visiting her, but the last 10 or so years, either they don’t have records or people didn’t visit,” she said. “I was angry about that too.”
Stewart, a 72-year-old Portland, Ore., real estate broker, said she had remembered hearing stories about Langworthy being institutionalized, but she said no one really remembered details.
Langworthy died of pneumonia at the hospital in 1915 at age 79. Records Stewart acquired from the hospital show the brutal diagnosis of the day: Insane.
Stewart said that Langworthy was “lost in time to a mental disorder of some kind and also lost to her family.”
“The records I found and the placing of a named marker was in some small sense a way to recover her, bring her back to the family,” she said.
The project at Western State is part of a national movement to attach names to more than 100,000 such graves across the country, “symbolically giving voice and dignity to people who have been ostracized by their communities,” said David Shern, president and CEO of Alexandria, Va.-based Mental Health America, a national advocacy group.
Similar efforts have been undertaken in several states, including Massachusetts, Georgia, New York and California. A new national memorial dedicated to the unnamed graves of the mentally ill broke ground at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. in June.
Western’s cemetery is within what is now Fort Steilacoom Park, across the street from the hospital, once the site of Fort Steilacoom. The named plaques are scattered through the cemetery, surrounded by a dog park, playgrounds and trails.
The oldest remaining building on the hospital campus is the 1934 administrative building, which replaced the first brick-and-mortar building that was built in 1887. The original asylum was established in 1871 in officer housing and military barracks at the fort.
Through the years, Western’s cemetery was overgrown and the stones sank.
“It just seemed abandoned,” said Lemke, who said that her own battles with bipolar disorder made her want to restore the cemetery. “I felt kind of a kinship for people who didn’t have the same opportunities I had.”Starting in 2000, Lemke and other volunteers, including patients at the hospital, began to raise and clean the numbered markers.
A large monument at the cemetery’s entrance was put up in 2003 in honor of all of those buried there, but because the state’s confidentiality laws still prevailed, Lemke’s group wasn’t able to disclose names. After lobbying the Legislature, her group was successful in getting the law changed in 2004. The first individual marker was placed later that year.
More than 530 names belonging to those who died and who were cremated between 1939 and 1952 are engraved on a large marker bearing the legend, “Rest in Peace.” An additional 127 people have individual markers on their graves.
On a recent summer day, tall, prairie-dry grass filled the cemetery, but the markers — both the numbered and the named — are clearly visible.
The granite marker of Robert Beatty, who died in 1888, is next to stone number 124, which has faded so much that the number is barely legible.
“I don’t know what their mental illness was, I don’t know if they were born in another country, I don’t know if they were a farmer,” said Lemke, who said she doesn’t have access to any of the personal medical records of the patients.
Family members who have a relative buried at the cemetery and want to find out additional details can request the records from the hospital.
Some of those buried here have historical significance, including John Moore, one of the first homesteaders in Des Moines who died in 1899, and Charles Victor ‘Victory’ Faust, who pitched two games for the then-New York Giants, and died at the hospital in 1915.
Of the additional markers planned for the fall, Lemke is planning a special ceremony for one of them — a Civil War veteran, Charles Cooley, who up until now has only been marked by the number 200.
Lemke said her group’s goal is to complete replacing all of the markers in the next 10 years, and she hopes that each unveiled name will bring honor to the memory of the people who had such troubled lives.
“To me it’s a peaceful place,” Lemke said. “For myself, I don’t have a family cemetery to visit. Many people have cemeteries they tend to, so this is mine.”