Barlow: Asylum Cemetery

Print More

I’m a tombstone tourist, a grave hunter, a cemetery enthusiast, a
taphophile. That means I spend my days in remote parts of Vermont
searching for gravestones hidden away by weather and time. I’ve been to
more than 100 cemeteries and seen the graves of U.S. Senators, robber
barons and even an Egyptian prince. But Vermont’s most mysterious
cemetery may be in Waterbury.

My friends and I found it last
summer while searching for a completely different Waterbury Cemetery. We
hiked up a winding bike path and then scaled a steep dirt hill – all on
a hunch and a rumor – expecting to see a few dozen hundred-year-old
slate stones lost in tall grass. Instead there was a small monument,
less than thirty years old, sitting alone under a canopy of trees. It
was a graveyard without graves. This was the Vermont State Hospital
Cemetery. The plaque on the stone read, "May their spirits soar" and
"You are remembered."

To talk about the Vermont State Hospital
recalls a time when caring for the mentally ill was, you might say,
unenlightened. The Vermont State Hospital was built in 1890 to ease
overcrowding at a Brattleboro hospital. It’s where the state shut away
alcoholics, the criminally insane and people suffering from mental
illness. The "Asylum Cemetery" opened just one year after the
hospital accepted its first patient.

Joseph Warren, 45, was the first to
be buried there in 1892. His cause of death is unknown. Two years
later, Sarah Townshend, 61, was the sixth patient buried there. Her
cause of death is listed as "acute mania." The granite monument was
erected in 1991, long after the original wooden crosses had rotted away.
It’s dedicated to the "twenty or so residents of the hospital" at the

The world almost lost even this little bit of information
when the Hospital flooded in Tropical Storm Irene. Luckily, Ann Donahue,
a state representative from Northfield, researched the cemetery and compiled a list of 28 people likely to have been buried there.

She is
the sponsor of a Statehouse resolution passed by the legislature this
year requiring Vermont to officially take over maintenance of the
cemetery. That resolution also directs the Department of Mental Health
to determine the identities of those buried there.

This cemetery
once overlooked the Winooski River and the farm fields of the State
Hospital – until we built a highway through that landscape. Now, the
cemetery is almost hidden. It’s a serene, peaceful location, to be sure;
but it’s also secret.

In life, the patients buried there were
shut away and out of sight. One hundred years later, evidence of their
death is hidden in the woods.

The Legislature’s Joint Fiscal
Office estimated it would cost $300 a year to weed-whack and rake the
Vermont State Hospital cemetery. Seems to me like a fair price to pay
for a small gesture of belated recognition and perhaps – atonement.

Comments are closed.