Willard Tour / Cemetery / Names / Thoughts – Part 1
This year’s tour of the former Willard Psychiatric Center was overwhelming in many ways. (See my post about 2014.) It was clear that the crowds would be large when, about a mile from the site, traffic was completely stopped on Route 96A. I ended up parking in the Grandview lot. Those of you who are familiar with Willard will know where that is in relation to the facility. Someone mentioned that social media might have had something to do with the crowds as there were a lot of Facebook posts going around. There has never been this kind of turnout for a tour.
I had hoped to meet up with some folks who follow this site, but the crowds made it nearly impossible.
My main reason for being there was to attend the ceremony honoring the gravedigger and former patient Lawrence Mocha.
Colleen Spellecy’s group has done an amazing job, not just in pressuring the New York State Office of Mental Health to allow Lawrence’s surname to be used, but in cleaning up the site and uncovering the markers placed in lieu of headstones. Here is a link to her group’s site. I can’t stress enough how her drive and dedication to honor the folks buried at the cemetery made this happen. There is currently a bill before the legislature (S840 / A6386) to allow the release of names of patients, and if you live in New York State, Colleen has made it easy to contact your local representative. Here is a link to the page on her site where you can click to send a message to your rep.
I also want to mention Lin Stuhler’s hard work in pressuring legislators to introduce a bill that would release the names of patients buried in psych center cemeteries. Here is a link to Lin’s site. Anyone interested in her work should buy her book, The Inmates of Willard, which you can order through her site or on Amazon. She could really use your support, as dealing with the state bureaucracy can be a draining experience, and she has really hung in there to move this ahead.
Lawrence’s grave marker was identified by someone who knew its location, so the committee was able to have an exact location of his burial. It was lovely to see groups of people standing near the spot and honoring his memory. Just how this all happened is still amazing, really. I won’t go into a long summary here, as I am not familiar with all the ins and outs. But in a nutshell, Colleen had been working for years to get Lawrence’s name made public. It wasn’t until an article appeared in The New York Times last November that OMH felt compelled to cooperate with her.
This whole naming thing is something that has been frustrating to me and others. I am able to see both sides of the argument, but I am still strongly favor being able to use surnames when talking about the patients. I understand the idea that some shame is attached to those who have suffered from a mental illness, but I feel it is dehumanizing to not identify them. And for families that want to learn more about their ancestors, it is important to be able to access records. I get contacted almost daily by relatives asking if I have photographed a suitcase belonging to a family member.
That being said, it seems that OMH is apparently now more open to providing information about former patients. John B. Allen, Jr, who is Special Assistant to the Commissioner, told me explicitly to post his name and contact information so that family members can learn more about their relatives. The telephone number is 518 473 6579 and his email is John.Allen@omh.ny.gov.
I want to write so much more about this, but I have to run out to check out the historic Pelham Town Hall building, which I will be photographing soon. So I will post this now, and continue with part two in a few hours. I haven’t had time to proof read this, so pardon any typos. I will catch them later.