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Local group will not let Westborough State Hospital's patients be forgotten

By Bonnie Adams, Government Editor

Ellen Z., a member of the Employment Options Clubhouse of Marlborough, places a flower on the grave of one of the Westborough State Hospital patients at the Pine Grove Cemetery.

Westborough – For 125 years, until it was shut down by the state in 2010, the Westborough State Hospital was “home” to hundreds of patients. Mental health issues were treated differently in the early days of the hospital's existence; its first name, the Westborough Insane Hospital is one that modern day society would never accept. Many of the hospital's patients were admitted because their families could not or would not deal with the patients” issues; they often left the patient there and dropped all contact. The staff in essence then became the patients” de facto families.

For over 500 of those patients, their deaths were treated in a pragmatic way. There was no wake, service, or other memorial – the body was simply put in a cardboard box and transported to the town's Pine Grove Cemetery for a burial. And in a final indignity, there was also no grave stone indicating who the person was, just a small stone with a number on it.

A newly formed group, the Westborough State Hospital Cemetery Project, is hoping to rectify what they feel is a terrible wrong. The group's members, some of who currently work as patient advocates, are now in the beginning stages of conceptualizing a memorial that they hope to have built at the cemetery. (They are also closely working with the state's Department of Mental Health, under whose auspices the hospital fell.)

Glen Malloy, who previously worked at the Westborough State Hospital, is one of the leaders of the group.

“These people were recipients of real injustice over the past 100 years,” he said. “They deserve to be recognized as human beings, not just numbers. It's about returning dignity to them. Hopefully this will also bring awareness to mental health issues and show how far we have come in 100 years.”

It was also important, he noted, to remember that there were many people who worked at the hospital, who were “altruistic and kind-hearted.”

The area the patients were buried in is at the far end of the cemetery, near what are known as “the ?paupers” and “the babies” sections. (Cemetery groundskeeper Don Gale explained that many families in the mid 1800s to early 1900s, especially young parents starting out, didn's yet have burial plots. So when babies died at birth, as was common at that time, they were buried in a common plot.)

Except for one veteran's grave marked with a flag (left there by VFW members), the area where the state hospital patients are buried looks like just an ordinary, well-kept lawn. There are

only a few of the small, numbered stone markers present; Gale said that is because they have all deteriorated over time.

The project to build the monument is still in the very early stages, Malloy said. But a Holliston architect, Ed Clinton, has agreed to help them with an initial design concept. Those plans would feature a granite rotunda with a statue and panels that would illustrate the history of the hospital. Possibly the panels would also list the names of the patients, although that may not be allowed because of privacy concerns, Malloy said. And in some cases, names have been lost forever, he added, because the early hand-written records have either faded or were not updated at the time.

Although the project is just getting started, the group is hopeful that once others learn of their mission, they will join them in ensuring that the 500 plus patients finally get the justice they deserve, he added.

On May 29, several members of the Employment Options Clubhouse of Marlborough paid tribute to the former patients as they laid flowers on the graves.

Ossie Rambarran, a site director with the state's Department of Mental Health, said it was appropriate that the group did so on that day as May is Mental Health Month.

“Hopefully this will be a tradition we can hold every year,” he said.

For more information on the initiative to build the new memorial, contact Malloy at 508-877-2104.

Photos/Bonnie Adams

Only a few of the 500 small grave markers have survived over the years.

Short URL: http://communityadvocate.com/?p=22758

Posted by on Jun 1 2012. Filed under Byline Stories, Westborough. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

5 Comments for “Local group will not let Westborough State Hospital's patients be forgotten”

  1. Thank you for this article. I particularly appreciated the photo of the person laying a flower on the gravesite, and the closeup of the person uncovering a remnant. The only comment I would make is that families did not simply leave their loved ones at Westborough or any other state institution. They were most often advised to do so by doctors, and as they were almost always families in poverty they most often did not have the resources that the rich had at their disposal in order to visit them. Thus, they did not abandon them. This happened to families of people who had developmental delays too. The problem with less than family friendly policies and practices towards people diagnosed with mental illness goes on today. This can be seen in the decision of the Department of Mental Health”s decision to close local state hospital beds while building a largely family inaccessible “state of the art” 360 bed institution in Worcester, MA., for example. Also, it is my understanding (from Glenn Malloy) that “pragmatic” practice at Westborough State Hospital consisted of burning of bodies in the crematorium on the hospital”s grounds, which were sent with a numbered brick, not a stone for “burial” at the cemetery.

    The introductory comment of your article could be felt as hurtful to loved ones, most of whom were very poor families who, as today, who did not have other choices. For example, the well to do, such as “Madame Secretary” Frances Perkins, family members placed their loved ones in institutions such as McLean”s Hospital in Belmont, where they were able to visit them frequently. I think it”s important in the effort to provide a memorial to the patients/people who died at Westborough that we not distrust any group, whether these be families, patients or ex-patients, or mental health professionals. All were hurt and degraded by these “burial” practices. Thank you

    For an interesting treatment of the important issue of family and medical professionals read “Inventing the Feeble Mind: A history of mental retardation in the United States” by sociologist James Trent. Although the book is not about diagnoses of mental illness, in the early days not much distinction was made and we were most often institutionalized together. You can look at websites such as http://www.disabilityhistory.org/dd_camp2.html too, for more history on this.

    While I am grateful that the Department of Mental Health is interested in sponsoring the efforts to provide a suitable if belated memorials for these patients, I am a interested in what really happened. To me, the meaning of such an effort today is to restore dignity that was not accorded to patients there, as history indicates, and going forward, to not allow these types of practices to happen again.
    Naomi Ruth Pinson, Cambridge, MA

    • Thank you for your reply. My great-grandfather was here for a time (we think for depression), and as you mentioned, was not abandoned, but his family could not afford the best.

  2. My records indicate that my Great Grandfather, John Baptiste Picard, died at the westbrough State Hospital in 1911. Is there any record of this? Thank you.

  3. Community Advocate Staff

    Richard, you can contact the Westborough Town Clerk’s office at 508-366-3020 to see if they might have any information. Good luck!

  4. Constance Whitney Redd

    My great grandmother, Emma Jane Bont Whitney died in Westborough on April 29, 1906 of tuberculosis and was buried in Pine Grove Cemetery on May 1, 1906. I am very interested in the memorial that you are working on to honor those buried there. I feel a closeness to her even though I never met her and only found her while doing family research. Story was that no one knew anything about her and she was probably and American Indian……not true……just insane, which was passed down through the generations in one person or another. Bless her heart and bless you for taking an interest in those who could not help themselves.

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