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A Brief History of the Burial Site

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A Brief History of the Burial Site

The piece of land was a part of the original land purchase of the Northampton Lunatic Hospital, when it opened in 1858. Since at least the 1950s, it has changed hands between various State departments. At one point during the 50s, it was used by UMASS Amherst's agricultural department for instruction of students in haying.

The land is currently in the proprietorship of the Department of Food and Agriculture. The City of Northampton currently holds a 100 year lease with DFA. They also hold a permanent agricultural-use restriction on the property, which protects it from any further development. Northampton in turn farms out this property to Smith Vocational School, who use it to train their students in agricultural skills. This is currently haying.

Records for NSH are sorely lacking. Over the years, many old reports and logs have been lost or stolen. What remains is full of gaps. The existing early Reports of the Superintendent, otherwise a rich picture of the early years of NSH, have no direct mention whatsoever of a gravesite, or for that matter, of the disposition of any dead patients. These reports do record in detail the census and changes thereof, including deaths, but not of where these people were buried. Pliny Earle, the second superintendent, recorded in detail facts about the life and upkeep of NSH, and yet made no mention of establishing or caring for a graveyard.

Likewise lacking is any log of a burial plot. Assumably there must have been some plan for interring bodies on the land, so that there were no accidents in the burial process. However, there is no existing map or plot book.

The clearest records of burials exist in the few remaining books of mortuary slips. These slips record the names of patients that died causes of death, and disposition for internment. The majority of deceased were transported to their towns of origin, for burial by family members. Many deceased were transported to local cemeteries with which NSH had arrangements. These appear to be Catholic cemeteries specifically for Catholic patients.

The mortuary slip books contain several direct references in the section for disposition of the body. These include:

"hospital cemetery" (12/25/14)

"hospital burial ground" (7/23/15)

"hillside cemetery" (6/11/16)

"State hospital cemetery" (6/11/16)

There are indications from the mortuary slip books that burial on NSH property ceased in the early 1920s. Patients who did not return with family began being listed as "Chapter 113 of general law" or "Chapter 77 of regular law" which are State laws still in effect. These allows for citizens in the care of the Commonwealth (in state hospitals or prisons) to be sent to medical schools as cadavers upon their deaths, if not otherwise claimed by family.

There is one indirect reference to the cemetery in the Superintendent's Reports 1932-1936. In the November 1933 section, in describing land that needed draining, the superintendent writes that it is "land at the foot of what used to be the hospital cemetery which borders on Mill River and runs up towards the spring in back of the barn." This referenced piece of land is what is now known as "the pumpkin patch," and is still known for its poor drainage.

Elizabeth Kroon researched a related project for DMH in June 1997. She cross-referenced the records of deaths in casebooks with existent mortuary slips and the death registers of the City of Northampton. She also double-checked local cemeteries to confirm some of these burials. Her research confirmed the presence of 181 burials on the NSH grounds. Her research also points to 413 burials with unlisted or unclear dispositions, leaving open the possibility of their being buried on NSH grounds (e.g., a disposition left blank or listed only as "Northampton").

While there are definite indications of patients being buried on NSH grounds, the exact location of their internment is currently less incontrovertible. The plot in question is highly suspected primarily due to oral tradition. As mentioned, there are no hard records indicating locations of grave plots on NSH lands. However, there still remains one strong source of information. Bob Mielke currently works in the DMH business office, located in one of the former NSH buildings. He had grown up just across the river from the plot in question. His mother worked at NSH. He then worked himself as groundskeeper of NSH for several years. Growing up in the 50s, he and his friends used to cross the river and play on NSH property. People who cared for that land used to tell them that the land was a cemetery, and jokingly warned them to beware of ghosts. During his childhood, Mr. Mielke and his friends came across two rectangular stones on the cemetery hill, which Mr. Mielke believes were marker stones of some sort. He describes them as small squares with no metal on them, and no legible inscriptions. He says there may have been faded inscriptions, but is not sure.

Then, when Mr. Mielke was in the employ of NSH, he remembers how that plot was always referred to as a cemetery by all who should know. He recalls there being a room with records of burials and the layout of the cemetery, but says that such records have been lost over the years. He also claims that the hill in question has never been tilled as long as he can remember, only ever mowed or hayed.

Mr. Mielke also tells a story of how when Bill Goggins became involved with NSH Board of Directors in 1958, he did some research on the burial site. He had heard that there were four veterans who were among the patients. Using his political connections and influence, he was able to both confirm four veterans being buried there, and to erect a monument at the top of the hill. This is what currently appears to be a bench with four overgrown bushes. Each Veteran's Day thereafter, NSH employees would come out to the site and plant a flag near this memorial. This is referenced in a 1967 NSH newsletter for employees.

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Last update: 5/22/99