Fayette County

Discovery of graves at Eastern State Hospital fuels family mystery

Lois Shelton holds a copy of the only known photograph of her grandfather, James Harrison Cannon, who was buried at Eastern State Hopital in 1928, at her daughter Cindy Shelton's home in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, February 2, 2011. Photo by Matt Goins 11460
Lois Shelton holds a copy of the only known photograph of her grandfather, James Harrison Cannon, who was buried at Eastern State Hopital in 1928, at her daughter Cindy Shelton's home in Lexington, Ky., Wednesday, February 2, 2011. Photo by Matt Goins 11460

Lois and Cindy Shelton, a mother and daughter in Lexington, are trying to solve a family mystery that is buried along with the thousands of patients who were interred on the Eastern State Hospital grounds for more than 100 years.

The Sheltons want to know what led to the death of Lois Shelton's grandfather, a man named James Harrison Cannon, at the psychiatric hospital on Nov. 27, 1928, when he was 74. They want to know where they can find Cannon's remains among those buried on the hospital grounds between 1824 and the 1950s.

His death certificate, which confirms that he died and was buried at Eastern State, raises only more questions. It lists as the cause of death a streptococcus infection found in abrasions on his hand and forearm.

Human remains were discovered on the hospital grounds last month for at least the third time in 25 years. The Sheltons are hoping that the renewed attention to burials at Eastern State will lead them to more information about the Casey County farmer affectionately called "Pap" by his 10 children.

But the women and members of the Eastern State Hospital Cemetery Preservation Project said they haven't been able to get information about the patients who were buried at Eastern State.

"It's just like they didn't exist," said Lois Shelton. She called the lack of information about her grandfather "a mystery and ... a frustrating thing."

Cannon was born in Tennessee in 1854, said Cindy Shelton, who has been researching Cannon's fate since the mid-1990s. Traveling in a covered wagon, his parents moved the family to Casey County when he was 12. Cindy Shelton said Cannon married a woman named Polly Anne Young in the 1880s, and they had 10 children.

Over the years, the Sheltons talked to family members who knew Cannon. The relatives said his problems began years before his death when a mule kicked him in the head and he started having seizures.

At the time, there were many misconceptions about epilepsy, and many people diagnosed with the condition were mistakenly sent to mental institutions or isolated, said Kimberli Meadows, a spokeswoman for the Maryland-based Epilepsy Foundation. Epilepsy is not a mental illness, but a neurological condition, Meadows said. Cindy Shelton said there were few places where people with epilepsy in Kentucky could get care at the time.

Cindy Shelton said that as Cannon grew older, he required more care than his family could provide. She said that some family members speculated that he could have exhibited some sort of behavior or symptom that led one of his sons to take him to Eastern State.

Hospital officials told family members that Cannon contracted scarlet fever once he was admitted to the hospital and that he was quarantined.

"He basically disappeared," she said. "No one was allowed to see him. No one was allowed to go to his funeral."

Cannon died one year and 10 months after being admitted to the facility with a diagnosis of "epileptic psychosis," according to his death certificate.

Cindy Shelton said family members told her that Cannon was buried in a mass grave.

The remains most recently found on the grounds where the new Bluegrass Community and Technical College will be built are believed to be patients of the hospital from 1840 to 1860, said David Pollack, director of the Kentucky Archaeological Survey.

Eastern State, one of the nation's oldest mental hospitals, agreed in 2008 to move from Newtown Pike to a new facility at the University of Kentucky's Coldstream Research campus. Under the agreement, BCTC will move from UK's campus on Cooper Drive to Eastern State's location. Both new facilities will open in 2013, said Cindy Lanham, a spokeswoman for the Finance and Administration Cabinet.

A cemetery behind the Hope Center on Loudon Avenue was created for Eastern State Hospital remains in the 1980s. Some bodies were originally buried where Lexmark now stands.

Those bodies were moved to what is now Loudon Avenue in the 1950s when IBM — now Lexmark — began building. When Loudon Avenue was extended, the bodies were moved again to the area around the Hope Center, said Bruce Burris, founder of the preservation group.

As part of the BCTC project, the state has restored the existing hospital cemetery, adding benches, a fence and a wrought iron entrance gate.

Burris said his group has confirmed that there are at least 4,000 people buried on the grounds. He thinks there are more.

Last year, preservation group president Phil Tkacz filed a request under the state Open Records Act asking for a list of patients in the Eastern State cemetery. A hospital records custodian responded that the hospital had no such list, according to a letter provided by Tkacz.

Tkacz appealed the response to the attorney general, who in a September 2010 opinion said Eastern State had not violated the Open Records Act. The opinion said Eastern State did not have the records and had fulfilled its obligation by giving Tkacz information that the Cabinet for Health and Family Services might have them.

Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman Vikki Franklin said Friday that it would take longer than one day to research whether the cabinet has the records. Eastern State Hospital officials did not return phone calls last week.

Meanwhile, Mary Hatton, a researcher with the cemetery preservation group, said that by using census and family records, she has identified hundreds of cases in which people were said to be buried on the Eastern State grounds. But there is no way of knowing the exact location, Hatton said. She estimates that one or two relatives of patients contact her each week asking for information.

Cindy Shelton says she is one of them.

"There are all these families out there," said Cindy Shelton. "Are we ever going to have a place where we can go and say, 'This is where our relative is?'"

Alice Hunt Kaut's family was able to locate her grave site about 25 years ago because relatives had erected a stone decades before at Eastern State and had photographed it.

Kayt Schaefer said her mother, Patricia Boyle Hoke, now deceased, persisted until she found the stone marking the grave of Kaut, Hoke's great-great grandmother. Hoke arranged for Kaut's body to be removed and reinterred in the family cemetery in Greenup County in 1984.

"Alice was given a proper funeral complete with a hearse, new casket, flowers, a preacher and many family members in attendance," said Schaefer, who lives in Texas.

But Schaefer said she has not been able to get records about her relative from Eastern State.

"These unfortunate souls were no less loved, and their descendants long to know the truth, to piece together their stories, to find any information so they can understand potential health implications for their immediate family and to have a definitive final resting place to pay respects to their ancestors," said Schaefer. "It's vital that we right these wrongs so families can find peace."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments