- Associated Press - Saturday, December 23, 2017

HASTINGS, Neb. (AP) - For decades, only a small brick engraved with the number “1685” marked a grave in the far corner of a grassy field that sits on the outskirts of town.

Over the decades, thick sod had overgrown the brick, obscuring the resting place of a patient who died at a place called the Hospital for the Incurably Insane.

The grave, and its story, might have been forgotten if not for a pair of sleuthing genealogists from the Omaha area, the Omaha World-Herald reported.

Lisa McLaughlin and Kristin Riggle were researching their family’s history, but had hit a dead end when it came to the life of a great-great-grandmother named Ella Mattisdotter-Pearson.

The tiny Swedish immigrant, who didn’t speak English, was born around 1856. She settled and married in Omaha, and had two children. But what eventually became of her was a mystery.

Then one day Riggle, a sign language interpreter at Burke High School, came across a newspaper article from Dec. 6, 1899.

Mrs. Ella Pearson became suddenly insane early yesterday,” read the article in the Omaha Bee. A cop, aided by Pearson’s husband, took her to the police station for “safe keeping.”

More digging led them to the sad discovery that Ella Pearson had ended up as a patient at a state mental hospital in Hastings, a place where, back in the day, now-discredited treatments like lobotomies and shock therapy were not uncommon.

After more digging, and navigating a slew of red tape, they found out that she was buried amid 1,150 graves, marked only by a brick with a number.

That was something they could not tolerate.

“We were just appalled,” said Riggle, who lives in McClelland, Iowa, northeast of Council Bluffs. “These people were here on this earth. Whether they were sick or not, their memories need to recognized by their names, not a number.”

On Dec. 9, Riggle and McLaughlin drove to Hastings, dug into the turf and replaced Pearson’s numbered brick with a headstone.

It reads “Remembered with Love.”

A dozen graves are marked with simple white crosses, but this was the first headstone placed at the cemetery, located at the end of a narrow dirt road behind the facility, now called the Hastings Regional Center.

“We found her and she’s never going to be forgotten now,” said McLaughlin, a substitute teacher who lives in west Omaha. “Even though for a long time people wanted to forget her.”

The two, who are cousins, are part of a small but growing number of people trying to right a past wrong.

Nearly 2,500 patients were buried in cemeteries at the state’s mental hospitals, in Hastings, Lincoln and Norfolk. The burials ended in 1957, but each grave was marked only by a patient’s medical ID number.

Riggle called the practice “inhumane.” But officials said it illustrated how mental illness was regarded decades ago.

“A lot of families, a lot of patients, due to the stigma of those days, didn’t want people to know they were there,” said Marj Colburn, an administrator at the Hastings center.

Some patients used fake names, Colburn said. Some believed that mental illness was connected to witchcraft. Traumatic brain injuries, migraine headaches and even senility were lumped together as mental illness.

The public still has a way to go in openly discussing mental illness, said Sheri Dawson, who directs the behavioral health division of the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.

“It affects one in four of us,” Dawson said. “We need to raise the conversation.”

Today’s medications and treatments can be effective, she said. Mental illness should not be considered a secret, but a treatable, chronic illness, Dawson said.

Some things are changing, particularly when it comes to recognizing the patients who lived at the state’s mental hospitals.

In 2009 the Nebraska Supreme Court ruled that families did not have to undertake an expensive legal battle to obtain information - then considered private - about ancestors who were patients at such state facilities.

The ruling was hailed as “a great victory for human rights,” and it eased the process of discovering whether a loved one had been buried in the nondescript graves.

In Lincoln there are now 14 headstones marking graves at two cemeteries used by the Lincoln Regional Center, where there are about 700 graves.

While the tombstone placed in Hastings was the first there, Riggle and McLaughlin hope that other families follow their lead.

Learning about the life of Ella Pearson, they said, helped them better understand their family history, as well as society’s struggle with recognizing, and treating, those with mental illnesses.

“We have a long way to go,” Riggle said. “We need better health care in this country.”

McLaughlin said that they learned that their great-great-grandmother, a small woman, perhaps 90 pounds, suffered from what was called “chronic mania” and was listed as refusing treatment. She worked buffing floors at the mental hospital, spending 25 years there until her death in July 1928.

“The minute we saw the brick with her number, we decided we needed to get a headstone,” McLaughlin said. “We’re just so glad that we found her.”


Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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