Nearly 12,000 people died at the Augusta Mental Health Institute from its opening in 1840 to its closure in 2004.
Where they were buried is a shameful mystery, advocates for the mentally ill say, because no burial records were kept and only a handful of graves have been found in a nearby cemetery.
Now, the Maine Legislature is considering a bill to appropriate $50,000 to erect a permanent memorial to the lost souls of AMHI on the grounds of the former state psychiatric hospital, overlooking the Kennebec River.
The bill’s advocates and sponsors say they realize that their request comes at the time when the state faces multimillion-dollar revenue shortfalls, but they believe the people of Maine have a collective obligation to rectify a long-ignored wrong.
“It’s a tiny sum to convey an important message,” said Rep. Terry Hayes, D-Buckfield, one of nine legislators sponsoring L.D. 613.
“This is the final tribute to a very large group of people who might otherwise be forgotten,” Hayes said. “If we don’t ask for something, we won’t get anything. Sometimes it takes more than one ask. It might be funded over time.”
The State and Local Government Committee will hold a public hearing on the bill March 11.
Hayes said erecting a memorial would promote understanding of mental health disorders, which affect one in four American adults. The bill is personally important to Hayes because her mother, who had bipolar disorder, was a patient at AMHI in the 1960s and 1970s, though she didn’t die there.
“As a child, I visited my mother at AMHI and I can tell you, from my perspective, it wasn’t very fun,” Hayes said. “I think it’s very likely that the hospital’s lack of concern for people who died there was not intentional, but it was insufficient.”
The names of 11,647 people who died at the hospital during its 165-year history were culled from dusty ledgers and old files by a group of volunteers organized by Amistad, a Portland nonprofit that serves people who have a mental illness.
The AMHI Cemetery Project started 13 years ago after Karen Evans, an advocate who had been a patient at AMHI, learned about the prevalence of unmarked graves at U.S. psychiatric hospitals and ongoing efforts to recognize more than 300,000 forgotten dead in other states.
Nearly all 11,647 names of people who died at AMHI were read aloud during an emotional, daylong, rain-soaked ceremony on the hospital grounds in 2005. Several names were removed from the list at the request of family members.
With permission from the Maine Legislature, the remembrance list is posted on the website of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services. It’s also published in a book that’s displayed in the lobby of the Riverview Psychiatric Center, which opened next to AMHI in 2004.
Last year, the project group launched a campaign to raise at least $50,000 for a memorial, hoping to build on a $10,000 lead donation from the Elsie and William Viles Foundation, headed by 97-year-old philanthropist Elsie Viles of Augusta.
But fundraising since then has been slow, so Peter Driscoll, executive director of Amistad, reached out to Hayes, a guardian ad litem who had worked with him in the past.
Driscoll said he understands that it might be difficult to allocate $50,000 for a memorial when the state is struggling to pay other, more pressing bills, but he thought it was worth a shot.
“We’re giving the Legislature an opportunity to correct an oversight that’s existed since 1840,” Driscoll said. “We’re not pointing fingers of blame. We want to work together to address an unfortunate oversight once and for all.”
Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at: