1 of 7
Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Ginger Phillips, a former patient at the Utah State Hospital, hugs hospital Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw at the Provo City Cemetery on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, near a monument featuring the names of 485 former patients of the then-Utah Territorial Insane Asylum who were buried in unmarked graves at the cemetery. The monument was unveiled Wednesday.

PROVO — Relatives of Zilpha Bay Conger often wondered about how and where she ended up.

"She's been a mystery to us for a very long time," Denise Hupfen said of her great-grandmother, who died at the Utah State Hospital in 1922.

Conger is among 485 former patients of the then-Utah Territorial Insane Asylum who were buried without markers at the Provo City Cemetery.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
Utah State Hospital Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw thanks hospital historian Janina Chilton on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, during the unveiling of a monument featuring the names of 485 former patients of the then-Utah Territorial Insane Asylum who were buried in unmarked graves at the Provo City Cemetery.

And, until recently, few people knew they were there.

"It took three years, but we were able to find all 485 people who are buried here — each with their own sad and brave story," said hospital historian, Janina Chilton, who, after finding no on-site cemetery at the hospital, delved into state historical records to discover what happened to patients so long ago.

"It has been more than my privilege to get to know them," she said.

On Wednesday, the Utah State Hospital memorialized the 485 patients with an official grave marker bearing all their names, honoring them "for the courageous and lonely battle with mental illness that was never recognized in life," Utah State Hospital Superintendent Dallas Earnshaw said.

It is a portion of a statement he wrote that is inscribed on the monument.

From 1886 to 1960, Chilton said, families and friends were not only more difficult to track down, but were discouraged from visiting the hospital, believing patients would never recover from their conditions. At the time, it was also hard to move patients after they had died. Therefore, they became the responsibility of the hospital, which didn't have the resources to conduct a proper burial.

"It's sad to know that so many patients died without friends and family and are buried without markers, losing their identities both in life and in death," Chilton said.

The three cemetery blocks owned by the Utah State Hospital are full, but few gravesites bear markers. Families are encouraged to add them when they can.

Conger's marker was placed by family earlier this year.

They knew little about her, but that she was committed to the hospital and abandoned there at a relatively young age. It is also unknown if Conger's own children knew of her condition.

"For that we feel sad," said Hupfen, who happened to be in town to attend the ceremony on Wednesday. "It is very meaningful to be here today."

She said her grandmother was "phenomenally strong and hard-working" — characteristics that must have been passed down.

"We become better human beings when we acknowledge the dead," Hupfen said, adding that the family is better equipped to treat its members dealing with mental illnesses.

"This is far-reaching," she said.

Records indicate that the patients buried at the cemetery came from all walks of life, from inside and outside of Utah and from many nations, and ranged from 20 months old to age 93.

Chilton said 147 patients stayed at the asylum for less than a year; 219 for more than five years and less than 10; 115 from 10 to 45 years; and four patients remained there for more than 50 years.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News
The names of 485 former patients of the then-Utah Territorial Insane Asylum who were buried in unmarked graves at the Provo City Cemetery are featured on a monument that was unveiled on Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018.

At least 27 of them had been institutionalized with epilepsy, some struggled with substance abuse, and 20 were deemed "feeble-minded." Many, Chilton said, were admitted for causes that would not be reason to remove a person from their homes for treatment today.

Utah Rep. Edward Redd, R-Logan, carried a successful proposition in the form of House Concurrent Resolution 3, aiming in 2017 to drum up support for the then-proposed monument. As a mental health care provider, Redd said these patient predecessors helped to pave the way for people who continue to battle various mental illnesses.

"Everybody tries to do the best they can with what they've got," he said, pointing to numerous pharmaceutical interventions that have come to light in recent decades and are commonly and successfully used now to treat mental illness.

It has been 10 years and five months since Ginger Phillips spent a year as a patient at the Utah State Hospital. That was her second year-long stint there for treatment for schizophrenia.

She has recovered and advocates for other patients at the state legislature every year.

Phillips said giving the forgotten patients a name helps to provide current patients with hope, showing that people care for them and want to help.

"It took me a long time to get here, but recovery is possible and I will never say that someone won't recover or that they'll spend their life in a treatment center, sedated on medications … I've seen the difference. I am the difference," she said.

Kim Gardner, of the Utah chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said "strides" have been made in the care and treatment of those who live with mental illness, but more needs to be done.

"We at NAMI know that treatment works, that there is hope for recovery and that individuals and their families who are touched by mental illness should never be alone," he said. "Those individuals and their families must never be alone or ever forgotten again."

Chilton will continue to sort through old photographs that will be hung at the hospital's renovated museum sometime next year. Because of the forgotten patients project and all the information she has gathered throughout its duration, she can inform families of those 485 patients how and where they were treated and connect them to a past they haven't known.

More information about the project can be found online at ush.utah.gov.

2 comments on this story

"You can tell this has been a labor of love for many of us," said Doug Thomas, director of the state's Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, which operates the hospital. He said having a name is important, as it "represents our identity, our culture."

"It denotes identity and purpose," Thomas added, encouraging everyone to "show dignity to each person we meet, regardless of their circumstances."

"Go out and live a little better and treat the person who maybe gets marginalized by our society a little different," he said. "Show compassion. Honor those who lived valiant lives."