by Sebastian Wren
In the early years of the operation of the Texas Lunatic and Insane Asylums in the 1850s, when patients of the Asylums died and nobody collected their remains, they were buried near the entrance to the grounds (near what is now 41st Street and Guadalupe). By the 1880s this became problematic for Asylum expansion, and so a new site for a cemetery on the northern edge of the Asylums was identified. The remains from the old cemetery were exhumed and moved to the new, much larger site. (Originally, the Asylum grounds were a very large and sprawling complex of 1,000 acres that included a large pond, a dairy farm (now the Intramural Fields), and a hog farm (now the Triangle).)
However, over time, even the new 11-acre cemetery site became quite crowded. Most people who died in the Asylums were claimed by their families and loved ones for a proper funeral elsewhere, but when somebody was not claimed, they ended up at the cemetery on the north edge of the Asylum grounds. Additionally, unclaimed remains of residents of the Austin State School (a state residential facility for the mentally handicapped) have been buried at the cemetery in recent years. All told, over the course of 100+ years, approximately 2,900 people have been buried there. About 700 of them are completely unknown – records of their names and the locations of their graves have been lost. Most of the graves that are marked are only marked with an identification number in a stone slab, usually just under the surface. The only tombstones in the cemetery were ones provided by families or loved-ones, often years later.
Until quite recently, autopsies were regularly performed at the Asylums and State Hospital, including U.T. Tower shooter Charles Whitman. The human “byproducts and waste” generated by those autopsies were buried at the cemetery. One full row of the cemetery was dedicated to the disposal of body parts, but after a flood of Waller Creek washed many of those remains downstream, an incinerator was built in the 1990s to dispose of medical waste.
As one would expect, the cemetery is largely racially segregated. Until the 1960s, blacks were segregated even in death, and there is a wide, largely unoccupied swath down the middle of the cemetery separating the blacks from the whites.
By the 1970s, the whole “flightpath” zone around North Loop was falling into neglect, and many of the city’s homeless and delinquents found that the cemetery was a quiet place where they could camp and engage in illicit activities without being disturbed. Rumors of late-night Satanic rituals in the cemetery (probably untrue) began upsetting people, and both the city and state decided to intervene. A more secure fence was built, and police began to regular patrol the cemetery. Visitors to the cemetery were strongly discouraged, and the grounds were cleared of vegetation to make it easier to see when people are trespassing.
With the new century came renewed interest in the cemetery. The internet gave rise to a widespread interest in genealogy; people began tracing their ancestral roots, and found that some of them ended in a state institution. Mueller Airport closed, and planes stopped skimming over the roofs of Northfield. New people moved to the neighborhood, and visitors to Epoch Coffee often cast their gaze to the east and wondered about the grim cemetery – apparently neglected.
This interest was fueled by historical notoriety that came to the cemetery about the same time. For many years, people had known that John Neely Bryan (founder of the City of Dallas and Postmaster for the Republic of Texas) had been buried at the State Hospital Cemetery, but it was unclear exactly where he was buried. While many people of his public stature would have been buried at the Texas State Cemetery, Bryan had suffered from alcoholism and dementia late in his life, and was sent to the Lunatic Asylum in 1877. He died the same year, and despite his notoriety, his remains were unclaimed, so he was buried near the entrance at 41st Street and Guadalupe.
When his remains were exhumed and moved in the 1880s, no records were kept to identify individual remains. Approximately 50 graves were moved to the new site, and supposedly wooden markers were placed to identify individual sites. However, if those wooden markers ever existed, they rotted away. The only remaining marker was a stone pillar placed at the end of the row of moved graves.
Extensive research into the precise location of Bryan’s grave was fruitless – records from that period were sketchy at best. Finally, in 2006, Bryan’s descendants decided to just pick a grave and place a marker to commemorate his remarkable and colorful life. (So there is a 2% chance the marker actually does mark his gravesite.)
The recent attention to the cemetery and the interest in the stories of the people buried there has led to an effort by the Austin State Hospital to improve both the records and the grounds. In 2002, the cemetery was designated an “Historic Texas Cemetery,” and before the recent economic crisis, a revitalization effort was started to substantially improve the grounds.
Shortly before he died in 2010, Charles McCarthy, a former patient of the State Hospital, hand-welded and donated a new main gate to serve as a grand entrance to the revitalized grounds. A driveway was paved, and construction began on a limestone and iron fence along the south border (along 51st Street). However, the economic crisis brought all of the renovation work to a halt. The unfinished limestone pillars began to crumble and fall.
Now that the economic crisis is coming to an end, hopefully there will once again be interest in fixing up this long neglected cemetery. Maybe it could be a public place with a promenade down the middle of the cemetery (that swath of unoccupied land separating the whites from the blacks). Maybe proper markers could be installed to better describe the lives of the people who are buried there. Or maybe it will continue in its current condition, fenced off and forgotten. (That is, after all, what happens when nobody does anything.)
The cemetery is a relic of history much older than our neighborhood. It long predates everything standing around it, and as an historical site, it deserves our deep respect. Like the Austin State Hospital itself, it has lived for decades on the edge of ruin – a crumbling and neglected artifact of an ancient Austin that is almost impossible to imagine any more.