About 50 remains to be exhumed at Eastern State

They were probably buried before 1860

vhoneycutt@herald-leader.comFebruary 23, 2011 

Construction workers dug on the grounds of Eastern State Hospital on Jan. 19. The remains of 20 to 30 people thought to be hospital residents in the 1800s were found recently.

PABLO ALCALA | STAFF

On Wednesday, a team of archaeologists and state finance officials are scheduled to begin exhuming human remains from about 50 unmarked graves on the grounds of Eastern State Hospital.

It is unlikely the remains of thousands of Eastern State patients buried on the grounds will ever be identified, state officials said this week for the first time.

The remains that will be dug up Wednesday are thought to be those of patients buried from 1840 to 1860 at Eastern State, the second-oldest psychiatric facility in the country. The remains will be studied by the Kentucky Archaeological Survey before they are reinterred at a cemetery on hospital grounds, according to Cindy Lanham, a spokeswoman for the Finance and Administration Cabinet.

Eastern State, which housed more than 2,000 patients at its peak in the 1940s, is at West Fourth Street and Newtown Pike. The graves are where crews are preparing for construction of the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College, Lanham said.

Eastern State began admitting patients in 1824, and at least 4,000 are thought to have been buried on the grounds. The burials took place over more than 100 years.

Relatives of the deceased patients have been frustrated by the lack of information about where the patients are buried and how they died.

Thousands of Kentuckians have discovered that their ancestors were buried at Eastern State.

"We have no knowledge of any burial records," said Gwenda Bond, a spokeswoman for the Cabinet for Health and Family Services.

The arm of the cabinet that oversees Eastern State maintains patient records as required, but those records are protected under the federal law known as HIPAA, regardless of the age of the records, Bond said.

There are no headstones or other markers to help determine the identity of those buried at Eastern State, according to Lanham.

David Pollack, director of the state archaeological survey, predicts that more than 50 bodies are buried in an area that measures 25 feet by 150 feet. Some of the graves might contain more than one body.

There is a defined cemetery on the hospital grounds, and the Finance Cabinet has added new fencing and other improvements to it.

"Throughout this process, it is important that we preserve the grounds of this historic site and treat any remains discovered with the utmost respect and dignity," Gov. Steve Beshear said in a statement Tuesday. "Although we may never be able to identify the individuals found, we can still ensure they get a proper burial in the designated Eastern State Hospital Cemetery."

Reach Valarie Honeycutt Spears at (859) 231-3409 or 1-800-950-6397, ext. 3409.

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