Eastern State Hospital honors reburied remains once 'lost to history'

People gathered for a reinterment ceremony for 178 presumed former patients, held at the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery at 4th Street and Newtown Pike on Tuesday.
People gathered for a reinterment ceremony for 178 presumed former patients, held at the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery at 4th Street and Newtown Pike on Tuesday. Herald-Leader

The faint rumbles and thuds of construction could be heard as a group of people gathered around a large patch of dirt Tuesday in the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery.

Under the dirt patch lay the recently relocated remains of 178 presumed former patients of Eastern State Hospital. The bodies had originally rested where a road is being built in preparation for the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College.

The bodies were discovered in 2011, when the Kentucky Archaeological Survey was hired to examine hospital grounds where remains had been found in the past.

There were individual and mass graves that held patients who died between 1839 and 1861, said David Pollack, director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey. Pollack and others spoke Tuesday at a special ceremony held in honor of the reburied.

"These people have been lost to history. ... They had been forgotten; no one knew they were there," Pollack said.

The bodies, however, weren't unceremoniously buried, as the phrase "mass graves" might suggest, Pollack said.

All of the bodies were found carefully placed in wooden coffins, with one exception: a body in an iron casket that was not opened. While the archeological society kept and analyzed the majority of the remains, the iron casket and its remains were kept by the office of Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn until Monday's re-interment.

Ginn helped in Monday's burial.

"I'm thankful that they are now resting in dignity instead of being run over," Ginn said.

Although the graves were unmarked, they might once have been demarcated by wooden crosses that decayed, Pollack said.

One woman traveled from Adams County, Ohio, to see the service. Bonnie Wilson-Collins has been looking for information on a grandmother who died at Eastern State.

Her grandmother, Lydia Phipps-Wilson, listed in the hospital records as Lydia Phillips-Wilson, died there in 1924.

Wilson-Collins' father, Johnson Wilson, never saw a picture of his mother despite previous research, Wilson-Collins said.

"He had a great desire to see a picture of her, so that started me to desperately search," Wilson-Collins said.

Despite her efforts, Wilson-Collins has found only her grandmother's death certificate, which she had in her purse at the ceremony.

The ceremony and information from Pollack provided some solace, Wilson-Collins said.

"My imagination was that they had just thrown them into a mass grave," Wilson-Collins said. "It is good that they are being given the respect that they deserve."

Mary Hatton worked at Eastern State Hospital for 20 years and returned to attend the ceremony.

"I'm just glad they are doing this," Hatton said. "It honors the people who lived here."

Betsy Dunnigan, deputy commissioner at the Department for Behavioral Health, spoke about the new Eastern State Hospital in relation to the remains being reinterred. The hospital is moving to Coldstream Farm, which is farther north on Newtown Pike.

"It's a mark of how far we've come," Dunnigan said.

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