Dehumanization, Dignity, and Development: Contemporary Cemetery Preservation

The Women’s Ward (often called the “Seven Steeples” building) at Indiana Hospital for the Insane in about 1903 (Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society).

In July 1905, Martha Spinks was buried at the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, laid to rest among hundreds of patients to die at the hospital since it opened in 1848. Like many of the men and women treated in the hospital, Spinks’ story has been forgotten as she quietly rested on the grounds of what became known as Central State Hospital and eventually closed in 1994. Spinks was among the last patients to be buried on the grounds of the hospital, which indicated in 1908 that 4,704 patients had died since the hospital opened in 1848. If patients’ bodies were not claimed by their families they were buried in the northwest corner of the hospital grounds, and some were used for medical training. In 1889 the Hospital’s yearly report announced 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. In the early 20th century patients began to be buried at the neighboring Mt. Jackson Cemetery, with the last burial on the hospital grounds around 1905 but perhaps as late as August 1909.

The 1889 Marion County Atlas included this image of the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane, at the yellow arrow in the northwest corner (Indiana State Library Digital Collections).

A 2007 city planning document for the former Hospital grounds acknowledged that the hospital’s first cemetery lay in the northwest corner of the tract, and it concluded that the space should be left undisturbed and unmarked “green space.” Yet today Martha Spinks rests alongside a newly constructed Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department K-9 kennel, and this month construction utility lines were excavated through the unmarked but well-documented cemetery. A series of burials was excavated by heavy equipment, with monitoring only required once burials were inevitably disturbed (the city apparently is exempt from cemetery development requirements until it excavated several burials; see the Indiana Medical History Museum’s statement on the construction, and compare coverage from the Indianapolis Star and WTHR).

This disturbance of the graves of our most marginalized ancestors is not at all unique; if anything, it is part of a nationwide pattern of ignoring, denying, dismissing, and openly displacing burials that disproportionately represent the impoverished, African Americans, and people like the patients at Central State. Such a dismissal of African-American cemeteries is especially marked, recently including a petrochemical complex in Louisiana slated to efface captives’ graves on a former plantation; captives’ burials in Charlottesville, Virginia; a captive cemetery now under a Tallahassee, Florida golf course; an African-American church cemetery now paved over in Williamsburg, Virginia; and a 19th-century African-American burial ground now under the University of Pennsylvania campus; compare this National Geographic overview of the preservation of African-American cemeteries or Archaeology magazine’s study of New York City’s African Burial Ground). The effacement of Martha Spinks and the men and women buried alongside her illuminates a nationwide preservation crisis that routinely dehumanizes the dead while rationalizing contemporary developments ranging from parking lots to palatial dog houses.

Martha Spinks lived most of her life in Noblesville, a city north of Indianapolis in neighboring Hamilton County. In October 1883 Noblesville’s Republican Ledger launched a crusade against prostitution in the modest city, claiming Noblesville had 26 bordellos, including three managed by African Americans. One of those accused African-American prostitutes was Martha Spinks, and a week after his first article editor W.W. Stephenson wrote that Spinks asked to meet with him. He reported a week later that “she was terribly hurt over the article published; that she had known us for over twenty years, and if what we had published was true she would lose fifteen acres of good land; that she did not care for it for herself but did want it for her boy. She did not want any hard feelings between us.”

Spinks had indeed lived in Noblesville for about two decades, moving from Plainfield with her father Allen Sparks sometime in the 1860s. African Americans had lived in Noblesville as long as Europeans, but it was always a modest community: in the 1870 census Noblesville had just 186 African-American residents; a decade later there were just 276 Black/Mulatto residents; and in 1900 there still were only 341 African-American residents. Martha was born in Indiana in about 1846, shortly after her parents Allen and Dicey moved to Indiana from North Carolina. In 1860 Allen and Dicey were living in Plainfield, and their personal estate and real estate were each valued at $1000, but a decade later Allen was a widower living in Noblesville with real estate worth half as much and a personal estate valued at just $200. Twenty years later he was receiving a pauper’s allowance from the Hamilton County Commissioners.

When W.W. Stephenson targeted prostitution in 1883 he aimed much of his moral wrath at Martha Spinks and the anxieties posed by prostitution along and across the color line. After meeting with Spinks, Stephenson only redoubled his attacks of the week before, when his paper called Spinks’ Conner Street bordello “the resort of the vilest characters of Noblesville … filled nightly by negroes and whites.” The paper claimed that Spinks “had been here for many years and has always, as far back as we can remember, kept a house of prostitution.” Spinks failed to secure Stephenson’s sympathy for her ambition to provide for her sole child George, who was born in about 1865. Stephenson used the pages of the Republican Ledger to accuse Spinks of having borne her son out of wedlock, implying his father had been an anonymous customer. She may well have been a prostitute for much of her life, but if so it had not been an especially profitable income, and there is only evidence she was arrested once (in 1891). There were few opportunities for African-American women to secure a dependable income, with most resorting to laundry and domestic labors, and Martha Spinks was working as a laundress at the turn of the century and probably had been doing washing throughout her life.

A 2017 aerial view of the northwest corner of the former Central State Hospital shows IMPD horses in the green space atop the cemetery.

In July 1903 the Hamilton County Ledger reported that Spinks had been jailed because “Her queer actions have attracted the attention of the officers for some time. She has been out at all hours of the night and at daylight Monday morning was found lying on the lawn at S.A. Kelser’s residence. She talks incoherently and when arrested resisted the officers, but was subdued.” She was escorted to Indianapolis in August, when the newspaper suggested that “Her mental condition is such that it is believed she will recover.” She was a patient at the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane from August 1903 to September 1904, and after being discharged she moved in with her son George. But in June 1905 George filed to have Martha committed, indicating that “her mental condition has become noticeably worse and at times she is considered dangerous.” Records for her second admission indicated Spinks was suffering from dementia and chronic nephritis, and Martha died a month later in July 1905. She was buried in the “asylum yard” a day after her death by the hospital’s contracted undertakers, Tutewiler and Son.

It is unclear how many other people were buried alongside Martha Spinks, and some patient internments were already occurring at neighboring Mt. Jackson Cemetery by 1905. Nevertheless, a handful of patients appear to have been buried in the hospital cemetery around the same period as Spinks’ death. In August 1905, for instance, Andrew Jackman’s death certificate indicated he was buried on the hospital grounds, a week after Thomas J. Stone’s death certificate also indicated he had been buried there. Both Jackman and Stone were African Americans, but in November 1907 the death certificate of Irish immigrant Dennis Mack indicated he had been buried in the asylum yard.

Local television cameras captured this image of the excavation of a utility line to the newly constructed IMPD kennel (image WTHR).

It is perhaps possible that the death certificates were mistaken about the burial place, though hospital staff provided the death and burial information and did explicitly identify some burials as being at Mt. Jackson and others as “asylum grounds.” In November 1905 Robert Alexander apparently met a different fate. Born in about 1858, Alexander was living in Indianapolis with his wife and four children in 1900, but in May 1903 the Indianapolis Journal reported that Alexander “Imagines he owns two white elephants and a monkey and thinks he is going to give performances at the Park Theater.” Alexander was declared insane and was being held in the police station jail when he set fire to a mattress. The seriously burned Alexander was taken to the Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane. Released in August, Alexander returned to the hospital in January 1905, when admission records indicated he was “Destructive, and violent. Imagines himself possessed of great wealth and has many influential friends. Has been necessary to keep him in a padded cell at station house.” In November Alexander died after 18 hours of convulsions, and his death certificate indicated his body was used for anatomical research. Alexander’s name today appears in an inventory of those buried at Mt. Jackson, so his bodily remains after medical research may have been buried near the hospital where he had spent his final days. Many more patients had anatomical specimens preserved prior to burial (compare the Indiana Medical History Museum’s online exhibit on the anatomical specimen collection and “rehumanize” the patients represented in the collection).

In a society that placed little value on the lives of the mentally ill or African Americans, even modest burial rituals acknowledged the social meaningfulness and humanity of these people. The cemetery at Central State was never forgotten (a ground-penetrating radar survey was conducted in September), and in 2004 planning for the hospital grounds acknowledged that “Unmarked Gravesites present a potential `no build’ issue.” Nevertheless, the 2004 Reuse plan included a proposal to cede the northwest corner of the grounds to “City Services such as the mounted patrol.” Respect for the humanity of the men and women buried there was conveniently dismissed when the IMPD horse stables and pastures were placed in the northwest corner of the former hospital beginning in April 2004; now the police dogs’ kennel rises in the same corner, a more palatial space than many of the structures that held Central State patients. After local media questioned the placement of the kennel alongside the cemetery, the IMPD simply offered a clumsy defense that their construction had adhered to all local and state reviews. Perhaps now the space can simply be fenced off and the people buried there can secure some measure of dignity and not be reduced to a police dog park.

This work was supported by the Community Engagement Associates program (Center for Service and Learning IUPUI).


1889 Wayne Township Map from Marion County Atlas in Indiana State Library Digital Collections

1908 Baist Map Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane image from Indianapolis Sanborn Map and Baist Atlas Collection

Buildings on the Grounds of Central State 2006 from Central State Reuse Commission

Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane undated early 20th century image from Indiana Historical Society General Picture Collection

Central Indiana Hospital for the Insane circa 1903 image from Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

Central State Excavation and Drone images from WTHR

Central State Hospital aerial view 1931 image from Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society.


Posted on December 1, 2020, in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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