APPLETON, Wis. (AP) — For almost 80 years, no one is thought to have visited Peter Gauslin’s grave.
Relatives didn’t know where he was buried or how he died until his great-grandson Andrew Daft began researching family history in 2012 and learned his death occurred at a mental institution. He also discovered that Gauslin, his grandmother’s father, is buried in an unmarked grave in Appleton, about 100 miles north of Milwaukee.
Gauslin is among tens of thousands who were buried in unmarked graves around the nation during the 20th century after dying at state- or county-run psychiatric hospitals, then called insane asylums or sanitariums. Families were either too poor for a headstone, couldn’t be reached or had forgotten about their relatives.
The area of land where Gauslin is buried in Outagamie County along with 132 other people who were mentally ill or disabled will soon get row markers, a plaque with their names and a memorial bench — part of an effort by volunteers nationwide to recognize the forgotten and bring attention to mental illness.
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“When we forget those who are buried here then we forget that they ever existed,” said Laurie Shinkan, a volunteer with the group Friends of Outagamie County Cemetery, where burials occurred from 1889 until 1943.
There’s no record of how many mentally ill people are buried in unmarked graves in the U.S. Records kept by states are inaccurate, destroyed or can’t be located in some cases. But almost all states ran psychiatric institutions where they buried unclaimed or unwanted patients in unmarked graves, said Dr. Daniel Fisher, one of the founders of the Massachusetts-based mental health advocacy group, National Empowerment Center.
More than 500,000 people were in state mental hospitals in 1963, a number that decreased significantly after the 1963 Community Mental Health Act, 1965 adoption of Medicaid and closing of many state-run hospitals.
Efforts over the years in states including Georgia, South Carolina, Ohio, New York and Minnesota have focused on locating and identifying the people buried in these cemeteries. But usually records are limited, if they exist at all. And sometimes the approval process for making changes to land still owned by public entities is quite long.
The work being done in Wisconsin’s Outagamie County to recognize those buried there has been underway for two years.
“If you think about it, the individuals that we care for today — that we care for, that we love, that we serve — would be in this same cemetery,” said Gwen Zimmerman, a residential case manager with Agape of Appleton, Inc., which houses people who have disabilities and are mentally ill.
Zimmerman is heading the effort to honor those forgotten in Outagamie County. The row markers and other changes will be unveiled during a Sept. 24 ceremony.
Daft, who plans to attend the dedication, said family members had told him and his cousins for years that his great-grandfather Gauslin died in a lumber mill accident. But after researching, he found the man died of a stroke in 1943 at an institution, where he was taken after acting violently and threatening his wife.
“I think it was something people were ashamed of. He had a stroke. It wasn’t like he was a criminal or something, but I think in some ways that he was treated as such,” said Daft, 28, of Caledonia.
Daft’s grandmother, June Daft, was young when her father died so she didn’t know the truth about Gauslin. In August 2012, Daft and his father were likely the first to visit Gauslin’s burial site.
“I think it’s great that the people buried there and the other people at the asylum will be remembered,” Daft said.