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Curious Cbus: What's The History Of The Columbus Insane Cemetery?

State Psychiatric Hospital Cemetery sign in olumbus
David Holm

In Columbus' Hilltop neighborhood, if you know where to look, there are two small cemeteries with plaques that say they are the final resting place for patients from an old insane asylum.

That led one intrigued resident to ask WOSU'sCurious Cbus project: "What's the history of the insane cemetery? And are there really body parts buried there?"

To see what's buried, we have to go back almost two centuries in our state's history. The Ohio Lunatic Asylum was the state's first treatment center for mental illness, and the first state-supported hospital ever.

The state approved plans in 1835 and the asylum was built on East Broad Street, about a mile from the Ohio Statehouse. Tragically, that building was destroyed in 1868 by fire that killed six patients.

Instead of rebuilding there, a new hospital would be set on 300 wooded acres along West Broad Street. When the hospital opened for business in 1877, it was renamed the Columbus Hospital for the Insane.  It's said to have been the largest building in the United States, until that title was taken by the Pentagon in 1943.

Designers created the building in a style advocated by renowned psychiatrist Thomas Story Kirkbride. Its sprawling floor plan intended to promote a healing environment filled with fresh air and natural light.

Photo of the Columbus State Hospital circa 1901.
Credit Franklin County at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century / Columbus Metropolitan Library
Columbus Metropolitan Library
Photo of the Columbus State Hospital circa 1901.

Originally, the building was designed to treat about 850 patients but it reportedly housed almost 3,000 by 1935. Over the years, doctors treated patients with lithium, lobotomies and electroshock therapy - considered the best therapies at the time.

The Columbus institution went by many names during its life. For decades, it was known as the Columbus State Hospital, but by the time it was marked for demolition, it was called the Central Ohio Psychiatric Hospital.

By the 1970s, the building was falling into disrepair and increasingly expensive to maintain. Despite efforts by preservationists to save its Victorian architecture, the massive hospital was completely demolished in the 1990s. Today, the land is home to the headquarters for the Ohio Public Safety Depatment and the Ohio Department of Transportation.

Patients who died at the hospital and whose families didn’t have the resources for a proper funeral are likely those buried on the Hilltop property.

Many of the headstones are in bad shape, marked with serial numbers, or read "unknown." But at least one victim of the 1868 asylum fire, Caroline Conner, is known to be buried at the cemetery.

An 1893 map of Columbus shows the location and footprint of the Columbus Hospital for the Insane.
Credit Century Lithograph Company / Columbus Metropolitan Library
Columbus Metropolitan Library
An 1893 map of Columbus shows the location and footprint of the Columbus Hospital for the Insane.

One headstone that sparked interest among visitors is marked "Specimens." There's a lot of speculation online about what might be buried there, but WOSU was unable to track down a definitive answer.

Parts of cadavers used for medical research is a likely answer, but for the time being, that part of the story will have to remain a mystery.

Do you have a question about our region? Submit your own question below and Curious Cbus may investigate the answer.

Michael De Bonis develops and produces digital content including podcasts, videos, and news stories. He is also the editor of WOSU's award-winning Curious Cbus project. He moved to Columbus in 2012 to work as the producer of All Sides with Ann Fisher, the live news talk show on 89.7 NPR News.