Monday, August 20, 2007

A Forgotten, Lonely Place

This powerful story appeared in my local paper. The author gave me permission to print it here.

For those not in this area, the institution mentioned in the article was closed a few years ago amidst charges of neglect, abuse and deaths. Part of the grounds, called "the farm", is now a prison. The state is making motions to reopen the institution, under a new name, Lincoln Estates.

If they do, Lincoln Estates will be the new name for Lincoln Developmental Center which was a new name for Lincoln State School. Lincoln State School was the new name for Lincoln State School and Colony. Lincoln State School and Colony was the new name for Lincoln Asylum. Lincoln Asylum was the new name for The State Hospital for the Insane.

No matter what they call it, they cannot dress up an institution. It is a prison for people whose only crime is having a disability.

A Forgotten, Lonely Place

by Dave Bakke
State Journal-Register,
Friday, August 10, 2007

There is an old cemetery on the grounds of one of the prisons in Lincoln.

It is not the final resting place of prisoners. There are secrets buried here.

Visitors need permission to enter this cemetery. Permission to visit was granted me by Lincoln Correctional Center warden Carolyn Trancoso. After checking in at the office, I drove (slowly) past the fence, the signs warning vehicles to stop under the guard towers.

I was at the cemetery before I knew I was at the cemetery. It does not look like a traditional cemetery. Instead, there are rows upon rows of small grave markers, most barely visible inches above the ground. A few stones have sunk below the surface. There are hundreds of graves here, but not a flower, a wreath or any sign that anyone has come to visit.

Here lie residents of the Lincoln State School and Colony*, later known as the Lincoln Developmental Center.

For the better part of a century, the institution was a notorious hellhole where people with mental disabilities were stockpiled, medicated and forgotten. In the 19th century, it was known as the State Hospital for the Insane. By 1945, there were 5,000 patients and only three doctors.

It was also used as a “home for unwed mothers,” in the quaint term of the time. Some of those babies are buried here, too. I saw graves of those who were born and died in the same year.

The Lincoln State School and Colony was self-contained. It had its own power plant, its own hospital, its own farm and its own livestock for food. Vegetables were canned on-site. Residents were used as free labor until the Illinois legislature shut down the farm. But real reform didn’t arrive until the mid-1970s. Most of these people were buried prior to that.

There are no reminders of the State Colony here anymore. This is a lonely place, just yards from the double razor wire and high mesh gates of the prison.

From their towers, the guards watch deer roam among the graves. Usually, deer are the only living things that come here, other than the person who mows the grass. Trancoso says a few visitors come around Memorial Day.

Some of these graves are inches from a gravel road that winds behind the prison. Most of the stones show simply a name, a year of birth and a year of death.

Some of these people drowned in Salt Creek while trying to run away. Others died of neglect. The dates on the stone show that most were young. 15 years old. 8 years old. 23. 9. 13.

I counted the graves showing the date of death as 1960. There were 24 women and 11 men. That’s almost three deaths at a state institution every month. No hearings were called. No investigations were launched.

What are their stories? Why were they here? How did they die? The oldest grave I found was from 1905, but the institution is older than that. Where are those graves?

Among the rows of small, triangular stones are three more elaborate markers. One of them reads: “Alva Gamble April 12, 1885-Dec. 4, 1905 Gone But Not Forgotten.” Though it’s only three feet high, Alva’s stone towers above the others. Who was she? Why is her stone different?

There are three sections to this cemetery. The last one I visited was across the gravel road to the west. Most of these graves are from the mid-1960s onward. Farther west, the graves are newer. 1995. 1999. 2007.

The cemetery is rarely used, but it happens. A young man was buried there on March 11.

Don Peasley of Peasley’s Funeral Home in Lincoln buried him. It was Don’s first funeral at that cemetery. But the deceased, he says, had no known family and lived in a group home for the disabled. There was nowhere else to bury him.

In the middle of a spring downpour, Don and a few residents of the group home drove slowly behind the prison, past the graves of the babies and the teenagers and laid him to rest. No one will visit him but the deer.

Everybody has a story. The problem is that some of them are boring. If yours is not, contact Dave Bakke at [217] 788-1541 or His column appears Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.

Dave is also the author of Only God Knows His Name: The True Story of John Doe No. 24. It is for sale on

Book Summary: In 1945, the police in Jacksonville, Illinois found John Doe No. 24. He was deaf and unable to communicate. A judge declared him to be feeble minded and sentenced him to be placed in the Lincoln State School and Colony (the same mentioned in the article above). He remained in the Illinois mental health care system for over thirty years and died at the Sharon Oaks Nursing Home in Peoria Illinois on November 28, 1993.
Mary Chapin Carpenter also wrote a song about John Doe #24.
* The pictures in this blog entry are of the institution. They did not appear in the original article. I collect old post cards of institutions and of people with disabilities as documents of our history and struggle.


Penny L. Richards said...

Very very cool postcards!

For more on asylum cemeteries:

Diane Coleman said...

I suggest that the Division of DD use the Lincoln campus as a training-in-residence for DD service provider staff, from all levels including supervisory, public and private. Trainees would spend two weeks in residence, with all the rules and procedures in effect, except the second week of their "day treatment program" would switch from the usual workshop activities to training in person-centered planning and other best practices.

FlyKimmie said...

In my honest opinion - superstitious or not - The grounds should be cleared, and cleansed - asking for forgiveness from the souls that wander it...or that may wander it.

A place with so much destruction and pain has got to be crawling with a presence just waiting to lash out to try and relieve the pain "it" feels.

Scary to think about.

stacey said...

it's hard to believe that institutionalization, especially for people with mental health disabilities, is still so accepted in our society with all the changes we have made (still a lot needed of course). when we discussed institutions in my law class last week, the professor and all the students were for locking people up and resented the closing of a large institution not too far from here.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know how to find info on people that where placed here? My grandparents were there between the 1930's and the late 40's. From them being my grandparents I have never known anything to be wrong with them. Interested in why they were put there.
Any help would be great.

Thanks, Melanie

Lincolnite in Exile said...

For an online history of the Lincoln State School (a.k.a. Lincoln Developmental Center), copy and paste this URL into your browser and then hit go:

Russell said...

My Mother was there. she was put there by her father who dint want her. She is now 86 years old, and still remembers as if it was yesterday.
Russell Chadwell