Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Oldest Mental Hospital West of the Alleghenies

Eastern State Hospital is moving. The old buildings will be torn down. In their place, the Bluegrass Community College and Technical School will build a larger campus. I have nothing against the Community College expansion, or against modern, state of the art, facilities for Eastern State. But I find the move an incredibly sad event because the hospital is a living part of Lexington's rich history.

Eastern State Hospital was started by private citizens, mostly from Lexington, through a fund raising campaign announced in the Lexington Register. Many gave anonymously. Some of Fayette County's most famous citizens were involved in the efforts to raise money for the hospital. John Hunt, Andrew McCalla, George and Samuel Trotter, Alexander Parker, Thomas January, John Bradford, JD Young, William Morton, Thomas Pendell, J. Postlethwaite, John Pope, Lewis Sanford, John Bradford, Robert McNair and Samuel Ayers were among the contributors. A ten acre tract of land at Sinking Spring was purchased for construction of the Fayette Hospital, as it was originally named. Henry Clay not only supported the effort financially, he delivered the oration when the cornerstone for the first building was placed.

Fayette Hospital was intended to treat "lunatics" and the "sick poor." But the Panic of 1819 halted construction. Lexington was devastated by the panic. Thomas January, one of the largest contributors to the project, had to close his factory after 24 years of operation. Governor Adair was able to keep interest in the project alive in the legislature. He pressed the state to take over and finish the hospital. After studying the advisability of the project, the state decided to purchase the property and complete the hospital, but wished to use it exclusively as a mental hospital.

Eastern State is the oldest hospital in the United States built for the express purpose of treating the mentally ill. The hospital opened on May 1, 1824 with a single brick building 66 feet square and three stories tall. As news of the work done there spread, the hospital became more and more involved in the care of mental patients from all over Kentucky with diseases of the mind were sent to Eastern State. Later, additional property was purchased to provide a park and farm to the hospital. Eastern State was a village within a growing city. Within the walls of the hospital grounds there were medical facilities, a farm, houses for employees, stores, parks, trails a cemetery and a private lake. Events like the "Lunatic Ball" allowed local citizens to visit with residents of the hospital community, but there was little interaction beyond these special events.

Today there is archeological research going on at the site of the cemetery and volunteers are trying to build a database of information about the patients buried there. Some of the graves discovered contain as many as four bodies. Geological studies have indicated there could be more than 10,000 people buried on the grounds. Many will never be identified. I truly wish there were some way to preserve what remains of this historical site.

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