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Kristin Murphy, KSL

Marker memorializes 55 patients who died in Utah's first asylum

By Christina Giardinelli, KSL | Posted - Jul. 3, 2019 at 8:00 a.m.

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This archived news story is available only for your personal, non-commercial use. Information in the story may be outdated or superseded by additional information. Reading or replaying the story in its archived form does not constitute a republication of the story.

SALT LAKE CITY — The neighborhood where 1300 South intersects with Wasatch Drive is quaint and residential, the green hills of the Bonneville Golf Course sprawl out to the north and the Wasatch Mountains tower over the valley to the east.

However the neighborhood wasn't always a peaceful place. On a plot of land just south of the golf course once sat Utah's first asylum.

"There were good reasons why it was so far from town and why it took several hours to get there in a buggy on bad roads," said Laurie Bryant, a retired paleontologist who uncovered the names of 55 patients who died at the facility.

"The asylum was little more than a jail where patient treatment could be described as somewhere between cruelty and indifference," she said. "People would be sent there and held for years without any legal process."

Bryant's research and dedication to preserve the memory of those who died at the facility led to the erection of a monument. A stone plaque, unveiled at a ceremony on Tuesday at the Salt Lake City Cemetery's B plat, bears the names of the facility's deceased patients.

The facility opened in 1871 and operated for 15 years before it moved to what is now the Utah State Hospital in Provo.

Bryant, who considers herself an “activist for the mentally ill," said her discovery happened by chance as she was doing research for her book on the history of adobe homes in Salt Lake City.

In her research, she said, "I found something I wasn't looking for."

The first clue, she noted, was an archived news article from 1878 that alluded to a fire and the death of two women at "the Salt Lake City insane asylum."

"I thought to myself, 'What asylum? The one in Provo?'"

Lee Bollwinkel, director of Salt Lake City Parks and Public Lands, speaks during a dedication ceremony on Tuesday, July 2, 2019, for a new granite marker at the Salt Lake City Cemetery memorializing those who died in the state’s first insane asylum. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

After poring through archived news articles, Bryant was able to piece together— through secondhand accounts — the history of a facility, which she said housed individuals ranging from violent criminals to those suffering from epilepsy.

The facility was initially opened, she said, specifically to house one man — Joseph Sherman. "He was so strong and at times so violent that rather than a room in the asylum, he was kept in a wooden cage in the yard, winter and summer," she said.

Bryant noted that Sherman's memory stands as a reminder of the "ways (mental health) care has changed even in the last hundred years."

After he was transferred to the Provo facility and "given meaningful work and decent care," she said "(Sherman) began making shoes — because he was a bootmaker — and clothing for the other inmates."

"When he died, his obituary described him as a model patient."

As she spoke, Bryant stood on what appeared to be a large vacant plot at the Salt Lake City Cemetery. Amy Barry, the cemetery and burials program manager at the Utah Division of State History, said, however, that the lot is actually full.

Wendy Fayles, mentor with the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, takes a photo of a new granite marker memorializing those who died in the state’s first insane asylum following a dedication ceremony at the Salt Lake City Cemetery on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, KSL)

The plot, she explained, contains what are known as “paupers' graves.”

Tasked with the burial of individuals who "were indigent or didn't have money," Barry noted, the cemetery did so "unceremoniously" and the graves remain unmarked.

"Back in the late 1800s the city notes the name and dates (in their records) but (those considered paupers) were buried in a section that didn't have plots, they were mostly wrapped in blankets," Barry said.

"You'd recognize some of their names when you see them on the monument," Bryant added, noting that "almost half the names on this memorial were those of pioneers."

Inscribed on the stone unveiled Tuesday are historically prominent last names in Utah's history such as Kimball and even the name of one Louis A. Bertrand, who carried out the first French translation of the Book of Mormon.

Funds for the monument were provided by a $1,500 grant from the state’s cemetery preservation program, and Salt Lake Monument Co. matched an equal amount.

“I’m pleased that we were able to tell that history and honor these lives and uncover these things that history likes to forget,” Barry said.


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