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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery

The Brattleboro Retreat was founded in 1834 as the "Vermont Asylum for the Insane".  Anna Hunt Marsh endowed $10,000 to establish a hospital that was independent, and would care for the welfare of the mentally ill.  The asylum was to offer a "humane alternative" to other treatments which were common around the country, often defined as demeaning or dangerous.

"Warm, caring, respectful and moral treatment for the mentally ill was to be the hospital’s main intent.  The vision was to offer both a home and treatment hospital in a beautiful, calming setting.  Through the years, walking paths were created throughout the woodlands, patients were taken on daily outings, a farm was built to serve both as a means of food and work for those patients who could participate.  Dr’s and nurses were sought and hired who were to follow the guidelines of respect as well as the latest humane treatments that could be found.  The first patient was admitted on December 12, 1836.  Within nine months the Asylum had 48 patients.  The new construction built in 1841, was able to accommodate up to 150 patients.  In 1886, after fifty years of operation, there were as many inmates as 450 at times."   -wiki

" Gravestones in the photograph, above, include the names:

Bathsheba Benton, Mary Brown, Apptah Cornett, Sarah Culy, Henry C. Dawson, Julia Ann Denniston, Rebekah Fuller Drown, Silas French, Welcome Fuller, John Graham, Thomas Welles Hale, Abram N. Horton, Ann Jessups, Caroline Gordon Jones, Susan Leach, Mary Ann Litchfield, Othniel Looker, Maria McDonald, Misella Mears, Michael Merwin, Elizabeth "Lizzie" Schaffer Moss, Moses Palmer, John Paul, Nathaniel Perrin, Ann F. Perry, Peter Jas Quinlan, Samuel S. Seymour, Abby C. Smith, Franklin Strong, Sarah Tebedo, Jonathan T. Throup, John W. Tomson, Charles Clinton Treat, Gilbert J. Wanzer, Zenas C. Ward, Nancy Warner, ______ Wheeler.

"The question of the deaths and burials of the patients who died at the Vermont Asylum for the Insane, has become of interest to those who are ardently seeking answers to genealogical questions relating to their families.

It also seems appropriate that these inmates should receive the dignity of having their life recognized in some way, if only in the fact of their death.  

In an attempt to address these issues, the compiler of this database was, after many months, able to locate a fragile old book entitled The Old Burying Ground: An early journal dated back to the 1830's.  

(This book is in possession of the Brattleboro Retreat and is for all practical purposes not available for public perusal.)

Image for sample only - not actually from the above mentioned book
...listings in that book were carefully recorded just as they appeared in the book and were presented in a booklet entitled, “A Record of Burials at the Vermont Asylum, Later Known as the Brattleboro Retreat, 1837-1900.”  Many of the early names and some of the later ones were unreadable as the whole book was handwritten in old script.  Most of the "illegible" entries appear only as a squiggly line. 

The book itself consists of three separate sections.  

The first is called Record of Burials in the Village Burying Ground.  

The second, Records of Burials in the Asylum Burying Ground dates to 1898.  

The last section has three entries from 1900 and 1901, and is called List of Internments in the new Retreat Cemetery known as Fairview. This is where the book ends. 

Sarah Culy
Wife of 
Hezekiah Culy
Dec. 17, 1854.
AE. 34

"The eye of him that hath seen me shall
come no more. Why hast thou set in
me a mark against thee so that I am a
burden to myself? and why dost thee not
pardon my transgression and take away
mine iniquity? for now shall I sleep in the
dust and thou shalt seek me in the

morning, but I shall not be."

"Sarah Culy wrote her own epitaph, perhaps while finding some consolation in several different verses in the seventh chapter of the Book Of Job.

Her gravestone was cut from soapstone---not a common practice in Windham County. Soapstone was mined in the Cambridgeport part of Athens, Vermont.

Sarah Culy's monument was destroyed by vandals who coated it with a corrosive white powder that hopelessly stained and defaced it. The stone had marked her grave for one hundred fifty-seven years.

Brattleboro individuals and one group promoted this cemetery as a "spooky nature walk", fit only for fright fantasies at Halloween, and for shooting horror videos, complete with irresponsible promotion which quite possilbly contributed to its vandalizing.

Vermont State law made belated burials in the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery illegal at this time." -brattleborohistory.com

Since the publishing of the above noted booklet in 1999, more information has been found giving more insight into how and where inmates who died at the Asylum during that period were buried.  

Henry C. Dawson

"Private Henry C. Dawson was born on January 19, 1842 in Wallingford, Vermont, and served with the 10th Vermont Infantry, Co. "E", after mustering in on September 1, 1862. He was wounded at Petersburg on April 2, 1865 and mustered out on June 22, 1865. Henry Dawson died on August 17, 1906 and is the only known Civil War soldier to be buried in the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery."

"After a hundred years
Nobody knows the place,--
Agony, that enacted there,
Motionless as peace.

Weeds triumphant ranged,
Strangers strolled and spelled
At the lone orthography
Of the elder dead.

Winds of summer fields
Recollect the way,--
Instinct picking up the key

Dropped by memory"

In follow-up research, it was found that some of these patients were also buried in Prospect Hill.

Prospect Hill cemetery is a very large cemetery close to the center of the town.  It was used very early for burials and was at one time known as the Village Burial Ground. 

The section that held the few stones seen of patients from the Vermont Asylum is known as the “Poor Section.”  The stones are scattered few and far between leaving large areas that most likely held other burials.  Thus it is assumed that the earliest patients to die at the Asylum were indeed buried in this cemetery. 

This has not been proven except where a stone was seen or a record of the burial was found, however, for the purpose of sorting where patients were buried, during what time periods, the compiler is using this assumption unless otherwise proven false.
The Asylum soon created its own cemetery behind what is known as Linden Lodge.

Although this cemetery has been cleaned of brush and debris and the remaining stones reset, there are very few stones left.  This is not a large piece of land and is on a side hill.  Though many were buried with no stone, it is not known how many patients actually were placed here.  And because there are over 700 patient burials listed in the little journal, it does not seem like there is room for all of them in this cemetery.


Although rumors have been heard about the Asylum taking bodies in baskets on a wagon to a place beside a corn field and burying them, this has not been proven.  An early map of the Asylum land does show an area next to the upper golf course that is marked ‘cemetery’. 

Because of the great number of patients listed as buried at the Asylum, a further search has been done for other possible cemeteries.  

There are no stones on this little piece of land however and it was not sold until recently.  Because so many of the patients were people whose families had left them in the hands of the Asylum for the rest of their lives, they were immigrants with no family, or were just not able to afford a proper burial, the idea that they were buried in an unnamed and unknown burial ground is possible but not proven.

The listing of patients from the Asylum journal can be found here with the 1999 attempt at reading the scrawled and scribbled entries.  There were very few dates given, one page gave places of possible births beside the names but this book is not a good source of other information.

The column labeled as Journal Entry was what was actually seen in the journal.  Tier numbers given in the journal are in column labeled Tier.  Other information, such as year, comments about stone or no stone, place of birth, marital status and 1880 census listing have been added as seen on either 1880 Vermont Death Index, 1880 Vermont Census or Brattleboro Vital Records.  Very few of the early burials are in the Town Clerk’s records."   Source:  usgennet.org

"Cynthia Kaley was resident in Brattleboro, she took photographs of all the remaining gravetones in the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery on March 23, 2006. The photographs taken that early spring day, record accurately---for the first time---the complete stone inscriptions." -brattleborohistory.com 

Click this link to open a new page from "Find A Grave": 

 Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery Listing

The Haunted Tower


The Brattleboro Retreat Tower is located west of Brattleboro Retreat.  I have never visited the tower personally, but from what I have read, it may be a bit tricky to get to, without asking proper directions.  

The Tower stand 65 feet high, and is built in a cylindrical Gothic fashion,  It's construction history is unique, as it was made by the patients as a prescribed method by physicians believing that hard labor may aid their overall mental health. Granite blocks were used to build the tower between 1887 to 1892.


Once the building was complete, many despondent patients climbed to the top of the tower, and jumped to their death.  


Beyond the tower, reportedly, there is a small cemetery where patients were buried.  

Upon doing the research for this blog post, I learned that many of the patients who were buried in this section, as if to rub salt in the final proverbial wound, the patient number has been inscribed on the headstone in place of their actual name.  

Photo for representation only
To me, particularly for an institution of it's time touted as a pioneer in which they approached "mental illness as a medical condition and not a character flaw or the result of sin." This is akin to some science-fiction novel where people are only known as a number.  I am saddened to discover this.  

I am also curious to find out that if my opinion is wrong -- perhaps it was a Christian attempt to bury those who had committed suicide OUTSIDE the confines of a blessed or sacred cemetery -- much like the alleged witches from Salem being buried outside of a consecrated cemetery? 

Please email or comment if you have information, and feel free to explain.


Many visitors have reported that when they have visited both the tower and/or the cemetery, they are left with a strong, uneasy feeling.  Others state they have witnessed a white shadowy figure falling from the top of the tower, only to disappear into thin air.  Shadows and figures are seen from the corners of eyes.... in such a beautiful and tragic place, I cannot help but think that these poor souls are cursed with repeating their ultimate demise. 


"The Brattleboro Retreat is a private, not-for-profit mental health and addictions hospital that provides comprehensive inpatient, outpatient, partial hospitalization and intensive outpatient services for children, adolescents and adults." -wiki

UPDATED 11/6/14 by Vermont DeadLine