August 25, 2022

Pocantico Fellowship Reflection: Stigmatized Land & Central State Hospital’s Unmarked Cemetery

This summer, I was awarded the 2022 Pocantico Fellowship, a joint research fellowship awarded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. My proposal, “Stigmatized Land: Central State Hospital’s Unmarked Cemetery,” looks at the literature behind stigmatized land, sites of trauma, dark tourism, and toxic sites, while considering Indianapolis case studies— particularly that of the unmarked but known burial ground at Central State Hospital, Indiana’s first mental hospital.

In this piece I wanted to lay out not only the particulars of the situation at Central State Hospital, and how the Pocantico Fellowship supported my work to tell these stories, but I also wanted to provide additional reading and action steps for those who would like to do more.

photo by: Map Collection, Indiana Division, Indiana State Library.

Central State Hospital area with cemeteries marked from 1889. “Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana. | Credit: Hervey B. Fatout, “Atlas of Indianapolis and Marion County, Indiana.”

Central State Hospital: A Case Study

This project and case study considers what happens to stigmatized land, specifically unmarked cemeteries, during a time of rapid redevelopment.

In 2020, the Indiana Medical History Museum, the institution on the former hospital grounds focused on preserving the state’s medical history, brought in archaeologists from Ball State University’s Applied Anthropology Laboratories to collect data using ground-penetrating radar (GPR) to identify burials and confirm boundaries of the unmarked cemetery. This GPR study was completed with permission from the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department. Grave markers had been lost over time, but using historic documentation, archaeologists were able to identify and confirm grave shafts and general boundaries of the cemetery.

In a tragic turn of events, the Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department disturbed patient graves at Central State Hospital’s Cemetery Section 1 during a recent project to construct a K-9 facility on the grounds. As the construction crew dug a trench for a new water line, human remains were discovered. Before the crew noticed that they were hitting burials, the skeletal remains of three individuals, former Central State Hospital patients, ultimately were crushed and mangled in the backfill pile.

Frustratingly, the police department did not heed the GPR Study and continued their construction, with contractors switching to directional drilling in two other areas. According to the archaeologists, directional drilling depth is consistent with the burial depths, leading many advocates to question how many additional remains were harmed. Time is of the essence to prevent any more disturbances as redevelopment projects continue piecemeal on the 160 acres of this former institution.

Advocating for Sites Related to Mental Health

This project hopes to reveal the complexities of stigmatized land/sites of trauma in regards to the site-specific issues of cemeteries. With a focus on historic mental hospitals, I wish to highlight the underrepresented, marginalized, and erased stories of those suffering with mental illness, disease, and other disabilities, at a time before modern medicine fully understood how to identify and treat such ailments. Those individuals commonly grouped with mental illness in the early days of psychiatry had little recourse or agency. Central State Hospital treated patients for a variety of diagnoses, including those related to schizophrenia, depression, alcoholism, senile dementia, menopause, and epilepsy.

Many of these patients suffered greatly in life, and they deserve to be remembered with respect after death. In addition, the Covid-19 pandemic amplified our mental health crisis and the fact that there are vast inequities in the provision and access of mental health services in this country. This research can help reflect how mental illness was stigmatized, discussed, and treated in the past; local preservation designation gives Indianapolis a rare opportunity to directly connect this narrative to a longstanding historic site and help us humanize this heritage.

The work of local urban archaeologist Dr. Paul Mullins revealed one story of a patient buried on the hospital grounds. Martha Spinks was a Black woman residing in Noblesville, a town just north of Indianapolis. She was accused of prostitution, immediately jailed, and then sent to Central State Hospital. She was discharged a year later, but her son sent her back to the hospital; admission records showed that she had dementia and chronic nephritis. She died a month later and was buried in the cemetery in 1905. Many of these deceased patients, who could not find treatment or relief with medical and/or pharmaceutical limitations of the time, were buried on the ground if families did not claim their bodies—due to stigma, financial burden, family estrangement, or other tragic reasons.

photo by: Drawing, State of Indiana, INDOT, Job No. 940084, December 12, 1994.

L-R: 1927 Baist atlas of Central State Hospital, with only southern cemetery sections marked. | Credit: Baist Atlas, MapIndy, City of Indianapolis, 1927. 1962 aerial photograph of Central State Hospital, showing evidence of cemeteries | Credit: Aerial Photograph, MapIndy, City of Indianapolis, 1962). Central State Hospital area with cemeteries marked from 1994 Indiana Department of Transportation drawings

Developing a Literature Review

Completing a literature review was the first step in protecting sites such as Central State, and the two weeks I spent at the Marcel Breuer House provided me the space and time to begin that work. My topics included: stigmatized land, sites of trauma, cemetery advocacy, dark tourism, uncomfortable history, civic shame, anxious landscapes, and toxic sites/brownfields. Secondly, I applied this literature review to the unmarked cemetery on the grounds of the former Central State Hospital and included other local examples of Indianapolis sites of trauma.

These local examples included understanding our inventory of toxic sites/brownfields; other unmarked (Greenlawn Cemetery) and relocated cemeteries (Bethel Cemetery); the Norwood neighborhood (a Black separatist neighborhood with a history of municipal disinvestment); and the lynching of George Tompkins in the Memorial Grove Woods of the Riverside area. I then connected content from the literature review and local case studies, considering best practices for documentation, preservation, and advocacy.

Once I had made those connections, I used my remaining time to prepare documents for an individual property listing with our local historic preservation commission, and the next cycle of the National Park Service’s Underrepresented Community Grant Program, in order to update and amend the National Register of Historic Places nomination.

Listing the property with the local historic preservation commission would provide enforceable protections to help ensure there will be no more grave disturbances

What’s Next?

My remaining efforts involve engagement and completing research and documentation. I’ll engage with the public in both education and advocacy capacities in these vastly underrepresented, erased, and marginalized communities.

I’ll complete the local historic preservation commission preservation plan and pursue National Register additions. Coincidentally, on the first day of my fellowship, local news stations announced that a soccer stadium may be developed on the former grounds of Greenlawn Cemetery—another known but unmarked cemetery in Indianapolis.

While many remains were reinterred at other city cemeteries, a substantial number were not, and remain under buildings which would be demolished if this soccer stadium is constructed on site.

As Louise Harmon states in their book Honoring Our Silent Neighbors to the South: The Problem of Abandoned or Forgotten Asylum Cemeteries, “In many ways, our outrage at the depersonalization of the graves in abandoned or forgotten asylum cemeteries, and our sense of deep regret over the loss of the patients’ names, reflect a shift in attitude towards the mentally ill… By opening an asylum cemetery up to the public, by erecting monuments to commemorate the former patients who lived and died there, by allowing family members to find their ancestors and erect headstones, we make amends. Making amends may matter to the former patients who are buried in those cemeteries… but even if it does not, making amends to those former patients will matter to those among us who suffer from mental illness.”

The work is extensive, traumatic, and important, and I am grateful to the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the National Trust for Historic Preservation for providing me with the space to move this project forward.

photo by: Indiana Medical History Museum

Ground-penetrating radar (GPR) study by Ball State archaeology staff and students, 2020.

Recommended Readings:

  1. Preservation Brief: Mary F. Striegel, Frances Gale, Jason Church and Debbie Dietrich-Smith, “Preserving Grave Markers in Historic Cemeteries,” National Park Service, Preservation Briefs #48, September 2016.
  2. Article: Dan Barry, “Restoring Lost Names, Recapturing Lost Dignity,” The New York Times, November 27, 2014.
  3. Digital History Project: Asia London Palomba,“Below the Surface: A Special Report,” 2020.
  4. Article: Louise Harmon, “Honoring Our Silent Neighbors to the South: The Problem of Abandoned or Forgotten Asylum Cemeteries,” Touro Law Review, vol. 34 no. 4, 2018.
  5. Article: Nora McGreevy, “Florida Archaeologists Find 29 Unmarked Graves at Site of Razed Black Cemetery,” Smithsonian Magazine, February 19, 2021.

What can you do to support cemetery preservation and advocacy?

  • Support the African American Burial Grounds Preservation Act, which was introduced in the Senate (S.3667).
  • Identify your state laws and local (city, county, or municipality) ordinances regarding cemeteries.
  • Contact your State Historic Preservation Office to connect with staff knowledgeable on historic cemetery preservation policy, advocacy, and implementation.
  • Identify potential local stakeholders/advocates: property owners, genealogical groups, cemetery associations, archaeologists; nearby schools and universities with archaeology & anthropology programs, state historic preservation office staff, etc.
  • Support cemetery research, surveying, and documentation efforts.
  • Donate and/or volunteer with planning & assessment projects, like cemetery development plans, condition assessment plans, fundraising assessments, memorial/remembrance plans, etc.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Donate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll help preserve places that tell our stories, reflect our culture, and shape our shared American experience.

Jordan Ryan is an architectural historian, archivist, and principal owner of The History Concierge LLC. Their scholarship revolves around the built environment, urban planning, historic preservation, and spatial equity.

The Mother Road turns 100 years old in 2026—share your Route 66 story to celebrate the Centennial. Together, we’ll tell the full American story of Route 66!

Share Your Story