Cemetery memorial to honor Central State patients

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When John E. Cathcart got sick in 1927, his wife committed him to Indiana Hospital for the Insane, near Washington Street and Tibbs Avenue.

Three years later, Cathcart, 59, was buried in a small cemetery on the hospital grounds, along with hundreds of other mentally ill patients who went unclaimed by family members.

But over the years, the cemetery stopped accepting new interments, the hospital closed and the burial grounds went largely untended. Its modest, nameless grave markers were faded and broken, covered in mud and silt, or hidden under brush.

It got so bad that City-County Councilor Marilyn Pfisterer recruited 80 volunteers in 2010 to clean the cemetery. They collected bottles, cans, plastic bags and "all sorts of garbage that had accumulated over the years," Pfisterer told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/1pE54Wi ).

On Monday, city officials will commemorate the ongoing rehabilitation of the cemetery by unveiling a marble monument bearing the names of 575 patients buried there. For the last several years, the lawn has been mowed regularly and the grounds kept relatively tidy.

"This is to preserve the history of patients who have been overlooked and forgotten," Pfisterer said. "Where they lived is where they died which is unfortunate and unfair."

The hospital opened in the 1848 as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, changed its name to the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane before finally becoming, Central State Hospital. It closed in 1994.

The first burial at the cemetery was in 1905 and the last was in 1947.

After Pfisterer's cleanup, Cathcart's grandson, Roy M. Johnson, 82, Fishers, decided to check on his grandfather's grave. All he found was a rundown monument that served as a cemetery directory with inaccurate or missing information.

"You could hardly find the gravestone, and there was no name on it or any of the other ones, just a strip of plastic with its location," said Johnson, 82, Fishers. So Johnson bought his grandfather a new grave marker for $400. It's now the only one in the cemetery with the deceased's name on it.

Johnson said his grandfather, a laborer, had six children, but when he got sick in 1927 his wife "couldn't take care of all the children" and had him admitted to the hospital.

Indiana State Archives show Cathcart died of complications from syphilis, as a third of the patients there did, and was likely admitted because he showed some of the advanced mental or physical symptoms of the disease.

In fact, said Indiana Medical History Museum Executive Mary Ellen Hennessy Nottage, many of the people admitted to the asylum were suffering from dementia caused by latter stage syphilis.

"In its later stages it causes sores, attacks the heart and central nervous system, causing dementia and paralysis," said Indiana State Archives Assistant Patron Services Director Alan January. "This was before the invention of penicillin."

But others were admitted for more ambiguous reasons, though they were evaluated by a panel that included a law enforcement officials, a judge and a family member.

"There were procedures in place, but it was easier to admit people than it is now," Hennessy Nottage said.

Sometimes the police would petition to admit homeless people simply because "indigent type of behavior was not normal," Hennessey Nottage said.

Pfisterer, whose late husband was an Indianapolis firefighter for 46 years and was stationed near the hospital, said he told "heartbreaking" tales about patients there.

"They would be in the yard and come to the fence and put their arms through it and say, 'Please help me get out of here,' " she said.

Johnson's grandfather died on Aug. 3, 1930, and his newspaper obituary stated that "he feels bad about being kept in an insane asylum when he could be out enjoying himself."

"The patient gives a clear and intelligent account of his life," the obituary reads. Though he "was pale and rather emaciated," Cathcart "knew that Herbert Hoover was president and was good at arithmetic," according to the obit.

The medical museum has autopsy records of 2,000 people who died at the hospital. Besides syphilis, they succumbed to "acute melancholia" and "epileptic mania." Other causes of death were "senile dementia," ''chronic mania" and "mental depression."

But most weren't buried on the grounds.

"The ones that were left here had no family members who claimed them," Hennessey Nottage said.

The museum has collected records on 575 people buried in the cemetery, but the real number is probably higher because one of the cemetery's original four areas is unaccounted for.

"We know from maps in the archive there is a fourth area but we can't find evidence of the graves, which might have been destroyed over time," she said.

Johnson said his father died when Johnson was 3 years old years old and replacing the grave marker was his way of showing his affection for his family.

"I never got to tell him how much I love him," he said. "I think putting a stone on his father's grave is an excellent way to tell him."

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com

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