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.
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.
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 Only two stones have been replaced by family members who wanted or were able to honor their loved ones.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 other markers belong to those who have been forgotten.
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.