Sunday Snapshots: Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground

A few weeks ago, Jim and I drove out to Osawatomie to check out the town and drive past the grounds of the historic state hospital. I find the hospital’s origins fascinating; according to Lowell Gish’s Reform at Osawatomie State Hospital: Treatment of the Mentally Ill 1866-1970, the hospital came to be at a time when a Quaker ideal–that there is goodness and light in all of us, no matter what–drove treatment providers to see mental asylums as places to care for people instead of incarcerate them.

Most Kansans are familiar with the story of Quantrill’s Raid on Lawrence in 1863. Not as many people realize that Osawatomie was also in the thick of it. As an antislavery stronghold with connections to John Brown and Samuel Adair, Osawatomie citizens were attacked numerous times. In 1856, proslavery bands destroyed much of the town.

To honor both Lawrence and Osawatomie, the 1863 Kansas Legislature voted to reward the two towns. Lawrence would become the official home of the state’s university, and Osawatomie would become the home of the state mental asylum. The “Kansas State Hospital for the Insane in Ossawattomie [sic]” would come to be in a time when many damaged men were returning from the Civil War.

During the next century, thousands of mentally ill patients would find their way to what would become known as Osawatomie State Hospital. Many would live out their lives there. Some would have no family to claim them after they died.

A view of the cemetery from the southwest corner.

A view of the cemetery from the southwest corner.

The hospital’s burial ground lacks an official sign or entrance found at even the smallest abandoned country cemeteries in Kansas. A sign reading “Historic Memorial Site” is the only indication of it’s importance.

numbered graves

Although the cemetery is maintained, there is something tremendously sad and lonely about this particular burial ground. The graves are numbered 1 through 346 and were assigned in the order that they were occupied, with the last burials occurring in the 1950s. Only two stones have been replaced by family members who wanted or were able to honor their loved ones.

The grave of Clyde Nelson, a father, is one of only two stones bearing a name instead of a number.

The grave of Clyde Nelson, a father, is marked with a homemade stone.

The grave of Minnie Devine, a granny, is one of only two markers bearing a name instead of a number.

The grave of Minnie Devine, a granny, is one of only two markers bearing a name instead of a number.

The other markers belong to those who have been forgotten.

Grave 34

Grave number 34.

Reading a name on a tombstone is a powerful thing. You acknowledge the interred’s existence. The stones at the Osawatomie State Hospital’s burial ground tell us nothing beyond the order in which the patients were interred. It is a testament to how lost and forgotten some of our mentally ill can be.  And that is why this cemetery is worth visiting.  Bring a tissue.

Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground, facing southwest.

Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground, facing southwest.

7 thoughts on “Sunday Snapshots: Osawatomie State Hospital Burial Ground

  1. jlee1057

    Very interesting and poignant. Is the building still there? I drove out to see it in the ’90s, and it was a bit forbidding looking. A relative of my husband’s resided there between the ’20s and ’50s — before psychotropic drugs. She was what we would today call bipolar. Back then she was misdiagnosed as schizophrenic. Sad to think of how many other permanent inmates could have lived comparatively normal lives on the outside with present-day medications.

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      It is my understanding that most of the buildings are still there, but they aren’t all in use. When we drove around a few weeks ago, you could see that some of them almost looked like abandoned castles in Europe…pretty ruins. Lowell Gish’s book really details the history of attempts at treatment as medicine endured different fads in understanding mental illness. I had no idea that they actually did court-mandated sterilizations and lobotomies. At the same time, in their early years, they wouldn’t accept any patients who they didn’t think they could cure. It seems that each fad ended with realizing that the best thing the hospital could do is treat their patients with care and respect. It really is sad to think how many of these people could have lived successfully within their communities had they been around today.

  2. Brenda Brazell

    My great great grandmother was last found in the 1920 census for this hospital. I would love to find when she died and where she is buried. Mahala Applegate born 1866 in Illinois, married Franklin Thomas Trigg, later married a man, last name Lancaster. When she was in the hospital she was Mahala Lancaster. Never knew Mr. Lancaster’s first name or when she died or where was buried. Are there any records for this hospital which may shed a light on my questions? Thanks for your write-up, love to see information like this for those of us doing genealogy and don’t live nearby. Thanks.

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      Brenda, thanks for sharing your family story! One of the challenges of researching family members who were in OSH in its earlier years is that many records were destroyed in a fire. However, there are a few places to check. One is the Miami County Historical Society:
      Another is the Kansas State Historical Society:
      Both places might also be able to help you locate more information. Good luck with your research. I hope you’re able to at least find a burial site!

      1. Mallory Cook

        Thank you Diana for taking the time to photograph and research this place. I will contact the historical society.

    2. Mallory Cook

      HI Brenda, I just today found out that my Uncle William “Willie” Scott Ethington died at and is buried here also, having died in Oct 1952. I was wondering if you have ever found out how to get any information concerning your Ggrandmother. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.. it’s so sad!

  3. Marilyn Yee

    The “historic graveyard” at the entrance has only a few actual bodies buried there. Most of these are just the markers that were moved from a previous site on the grounds where a building was built over the bodies that were never moved. My great grandmother is under one of those buildings and it is something I had to be persistent about to find out .


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