NewsLocal News / June 3, 2014

Central State's Forgotten Cemetery Remembered

Jill Sheridan
Central State's Forgotten Cemetery Remembered

On Monday, a new headstone remembering more than 575 patients of Central State Hospital was dedicated on Indianapolis' near west side.  

The psychiatric hospital closed in 1994, but well before then the graveyard was overgrown and neglected.  There the bodies of many patients were buried in unmarked graves.

In 2000, staff from the Indiana Medical History Museum, which is also on the grounds of the old hospital, started to piece together the stories of the people who were buried there.  Museum records and state archives helped solidify a list of the unclaimed bodies.  

Medical History Museum Executive Director Mary Ellen Hennessey Nottage says a complete census began to emerge. 

"About 54 percent of the people buried here are male, 46 percent female.  We have a 1 percent population of African Americans in the cemetery.  Patients who were buried here came from 53 different counties,"  says Hennessey Nottage.

Local leaders, volunteers and area historians have also helped in the effort to restore the cemetery.

City County Councilor Marilyn Pfisterer, who represents this west side community, championed the cemetery clean up that included clearing years of dirt and weeds off the small blocks with broken numbers marking the sites. 

Phisterer’s late husband was an Indianapolis fireman who told tales of patients pleading for help through the old iron fence.  She says a lot of people have a connection to the site and want to know more about the individuals buried there.

"It all boils down to family and the memories that people still have who grew up around here and were associated with the facility in one way or another," says Phisterer. "They cared."

Roy Johnson cared enough to have a gravestone placed after a visit to the rundown cemetery.  His grandfather died at the hospital in 1930 after his wife admitted him.

"He was sick and she couldn't take care of everybody," explains Johnson. "So, she put him out here and he didn't even last a year here and he passed away then."

There are likely many unidentified plots remaining.  The hospital opened in 1848 as the Indiana Hospital for the Insane, and researchers were unable to find any records on the cemetery’s first section.

The former Central State site is currently undergoing a $56 million redevelopment project that includes apartments, a track and field space and a new school.