AUGUSTA – A researcher has concluded that more than 10,000 psychiatric patients have died in the 163 years that Maine has operated a psychiatric hospital in Augusta.
A Portland-based group made up of Mainers who have been treated for mental illness has launched an effort to compile the names of the dead and try to find out where each was buried.
The $25,000 project spearheaded by Amistad Inc. also will attempt to locate what researchers believe is a lost cemetery where the remains of hundreds of patients may be buried.
Amistad’s executive director, Peter Driscoll, said the effort on behalf of patients at Augusta Mental Health Institute and its predecessor, the Maine Insane Hospital, is long overdue.
“People deserve to be remembered,” Driscoll said. “But these people were discarded, really.”
Laura Wilder, an Amistad researcher paid by a federal grant though the state Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services, has spent much of the past year combing through AMHI records, searching for names of patients who died at the hospital.
She said she has identified more than 9,000 names, with another 1,000 to 2,000 requiring more study.
“No one ever had any idea it would be 11,000 people,” Driscoll said. “The department thought it would be a handful.”
The hospital’s average daily patient population burgeoned from the time it opened, with less than 100 in 1840 to a peak of 1,749 around 1960, then plummeted during the ensuing 43 years to fewer than 90 today.
Wilder said she has discovered several references to a hospital cemetery, leading her to believe a paupers’ burial ground was somewhere on the grounds.
Unlike state psychiatric hospitals in many other states which buried most of their dead on hospital grounds, Wilder said, evidence indicates the bodies of most patients who died at the Maine Insane Hospital were shipped back to their hometowns.
Project leaders hope to identify all the patients who died at the state hospital and to memorialize them in some way, perhaps with a listing of their names or in a book at the chapel of the new Riverview Psychiatric Center, which is being built to replace AMHI.
“We would really like people to be known by name, because there’s absolutely nothing wrong or shameful about having died at the hospital. And we think that should be honored,” Wilder said.
“A lot of people know they had a relative at AMHI, but there’s no good source to show who they are or what happened to those patients, and it would be nice for people to know that.”
The project is part of a national movement to identify and memorialize patients who died at state psychiatric hospitals.
Driscoll said the movement started at the Milledgeville Insane Asylum in Georgia and has already spread to as many as 18 states.