Burying Trauma: Cemeteries and Heritage at Central State Hospital
In September 1903 The Indianapolis Journal reported that Oliver S. Clay and his mother Charlotte “for years have lived in their home at 1405 East Sixteenth street, but on account of reverses, financial and otherwise, were compelled to mortgage their property for several hundred dollars, which, on becoming due, remained unpaid.” In many ways, Clay’s story of ill fortune might well be told of many of his early 20th-century neighbors. His father J.H. Clay had been the Pastor of the Bethel AME Church in Indianapolis until his death in 1892. After his father’s death Oliver was an advocate for African-American education and a Black political party, and in the 1902 election he led an African-American movement to vote a blank ballot, telling The Indianapolis Journal that “if the white politicians will give the negroes recognition then he will advocate voting.” However, like many Americans entertaining the American Dream, Clay’s ambition and hard work ended in tragedy as he was evicted, institutionalized, and eventually relegated to a potter’s field. The ultimate fate of his mortal remains punctuate both his unfortunate end and the way contemporary society routinely ignores the unpleasant histories at the heart of American life.
In 1901 the Public Library Bulletin reported on Clay’s aspiration to turn his home into what he dubbed the Claysonian Library. Clay’s collection included “the 315 volumes comprising the library of his father, the Rev. J. H. Clay, deceased, to which have been added by donation a sufficient number of books to make the collection 521 volumes, besides miscellaneous magazines and periodicals. The object is to cultivate a taste for literature among the young colored people, especially of the immediate neighborhood.” Oliver Clay’s neighborhood library was dedicated in April 1901 on what would have been his father’s 51st birthday, and several months later he received a gift of 50 volumes from Congressman Jesse Overstreet. The library subsequently hosted regular events at the Clays’ home and local venues, such as a lecture on the Emancipation Proclamation’s 40th Anniversary in January 1903.
In August, 1903, though, the Indianapolis Sun reported that Clay “has, with the furniture of the institution of which he is founder, been ejected into the street.” Clay moved his things back into the home and told the newspaper that “`You may say, mistah, that the Claysonian will be re-established in other quatahs soon and that the good work started by me will never die.’” In September a realtor returned in an effort to eject the Clays and once again “started to move the furniture out into the street. When he looked up he was gazing into the barrel of a revolver held firmly in the dusky hand of the Claysonian. `Claysonia forever!’ cried Oliver Clay, `and if you dare to move anything from this house you will forfeit your life.’”
Clay was taken to the Marion County jail and then sentenced to serve 60 days in the county workhouse. He was being held at the workhouse on October 31st when a train carrying the Purdue football team was in a head-on collision on the tracks adjoining the workhouse. Seventeen passengers aboard the train died, and Oliver Clay was apparently profoundly affected. On December 12 the Indianapolis Recorder reported that he “was declared insane yesterday,” noting that a “peculiar feature of the case … was that the Purdue wreck seemed to increase the metal disorder of the reformer.” Two days later the sheriff took Clay to Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, with his admission papers indicating that Clay was “accusing the officers of the workhouse with causing the wreck of the Purdue train.” The admission records identified Clay as suffering from “melancholia acute: cause—financial recourses” and noted that he was convinced that “someone is trying to kill him. Thinks his best friends are plotting against him.”
Clay remained in the hospital almost 20 years to the day, dying in the asylum December 13, 1923 and autopsied the day after his death. His mother had died 13 years earlier in September, 1910, and Oliver Clay had no family to claim his remains, so he died a ward of the state. The number of patients who died in the hospital varies in official records, with one count in 1908 indicating that between 1848 and 1907, 4553 patients died at the hospital. Most of their remains were returned to families, but others were buried at the hospital. Most including Clay were autopsied (and in most cases some tissue preserved), and some almost certainly were used in medical training at the institution.
Oliver Clay joined scores of patients consigned to burial on the grounds of the hospital, a practice that was typical of numerous institutions serving the indigent, mentally ill, and prisoners. Clay was buried in plots alongside Mt. Jackson Cemetery, a post-1821 cemetery immediately west of the hospital, which became known as Central State Hospital in 1927. Most of these graves initially had modest markers, but few survive today. In 1889 the Hospital’s yearly report noted that the administration planned to place posts with the name of each deceased patient at the head of their grave, but this plan does not appear to have been systematically followed. It seems likely that at least 500-600 patients are buried alongside Oliver Clay, but it is impossible to reliably count the patients buried there and the remaining spaces the hospital used for more than a century prior to closing in 1994.
The interpretive challenge is to avoid reducing a person’s life story to their institutional experience. Since we know nearly nothing about Clay’s two decades at the asylum, he and thousands of other patients’ experiences risk being effaced by the asylum’s contemporary ruination. The hospital grounds were once a massive tract that was a landscape of fountains, topiary, and numerous structures supporting the hospital. Today, though, nearly all of the buildings have been razed, the surviving buildings are in ruins, and the landscape is overgrown, including the patients’ burials. A 2007 assessment of the Central State Hospital grounds aspiring to reclaim the acreage acknowledged in passing that the hospital’s first cemetery lay in the northwest corner of the tract, and it clumsily concluded that the space should be left as undisturbed (and unmarked) “green space.” However, the exact dimensions of that earliest cemetery remain unclear, the burials are unmarked, and police horses graze along the boundaries of these earliest graves in a cemetery whose exact dimensions remain unknown.
Like many spaces of ruination and tragedy, Central State invites visitors to imagine historical narratives in a space that today appears largely vacant and dead. The untold traumas of Central State’s patients and the mostly abandoned and eroding ruins make it an attractive target for paranormal enthusiasts. Facing an anguished heritage, ghost hunters turn to the mystical to make the hospital tell its patients stories and fantasize that ghost-hunting will resolve the contemporary uneasiness those tragedies continue to inspire.
The desire to weave a coherent tale from the tragedy and dehumanization that characterized such places is perhaps understandable, but a truly challenging heritage would instead tell the stories of people like Oliver Clay and locate them on the contemporary landscape. The Indianapolis Oliver Clay knew is nearly erased: the workhouse became a garden in 1918 and is now a factory; Clay’s 16th Street home and library has long been razed and is today a parking lot; and the Central State landscape is today completely transformed. Telling stories for people like Oliver Clay is perhaps harder when their material landscape is erased and their mortal remains are lost, and the loss of patients’ remains hazards reducing them to faceless victims. Nevertheless, the cemetery spaces on the former hospital’s grounds provide exceptionally compelling places to tell sober and even humanizing tales about the people who were lost in such institutions.
Much of the institution’s story mirrors a local and national history familiar in the early 21st century. Like many African Americans, Clay was deeply invested in ambition, hard work, education, and citizenship, but in the face of everyday racism and economic challenges he met ill financial and personal fortune and succumbed to mental illness that contemporary medicine was clearly unable to resolve. His path from the jail to prison to asylum was quite typical for people of color at the turn of the century, as such institutions served common racial disciplinary ends. In her study of Black admissions to the hospital between 1900 and 1910, Nicole Paschal found that 41% of Black men were admitted to the hospital by the Sheriff (about 18% of White male patients were admitted by the Sheriff). One-third of the Black male patients were returned to jail or the workhouse after they were released. For instance, the Sheriff brought Samuel Harper from the jail to the hospital on March 7, 1903 for “intemperance, melancholy, restless, intemperate, and threatened homicide.” The Indiana Avenue barber was discharged on May 1st and returned to police custody. Oliver Clay was among nearly half of the Black men in Paschal’s sample who died in the hospital, and 10 were buried on the hospital grounds, including Clay.
There are compelling ways to confront the traumatic history of an institution like Central State. The Indiana Medical History Museum sits in the midst of the former hospital grounds in the 1895 Pathological Department Building; the exhibit space’s clinical labs, auditorium, and autopsy room interpret medical care and education in the late-19th and early 20th centuries and commit much of their attention to the Central State story. Next week a memorial to some of the patients is being dedicated not far from Oliver Clay’s grave, a modest but consequential step toward memorializing those who died in the state’s care. Yet much of the local response to Central State’s heritage lusts after its hundreds of acres and convenient location or devolves into a fantasy that tortured spirits are circling the hospital’s fields; few observers have devoted much attention to the thorny but compelling stories the space might instead be used to tell. Development of the hospital grounds is certainly not opposed to thoughtful historical interpretation, and the presence of countless patients’ graves provides a fascinating way to illuminate an unpleasant but familiar history of mental illness and the color line. Clearly many of the patients like Oliver Clay who now risk drifting into anonymity provide compelling life stories that illuminate the complications of American experience we often seem too eager to ignore.
Francis Gavsik, chairman
1919 Mental Defectives in Indiana: Second Report of the lndiana Committee on Mental Defectives. Indiana Boys’ School Press, Indianapolis.
R Joseph Gelarden
1994 Central State Cemeteries. Indianapolis Star 18 December: A.1.
1892 Funeral of the Late Rev. J.H. Clay. Indianapolis News 8 February:6.
1919 Interesting Facts in the History of the Old Workhouse are brought to Light by Garden Association Plans. Indianapolis News 29 March:15.
2007 Colored and Confined: Inside the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane. Black History News & Notes Spring: 3-6.
1977 Indiana State Central Hospital for the Insane, Pathological Department Building. Historic American Building Survey, Washington, D.C.
1908 Baist Map Marion County Workhouse from IUPUI University Archives
Autopsy Room, Old Pathology Building from Huw Williams on Wikimedia
Indiana Crazy House image by Albert Thayer from Indiana Commission on Public Records