Monday, 12 May 2014

State mental patients killed in 1918 fire to get markers after long-lost gravesite found in Norman cemetery

The night watchman smelled smoke in the linen room of Oklahoma State Hospital Ward 14 at 3:45 a.m. on a spring Saturday morning in 1918. He quickly sounded the steam whistle at the hospital's power plant to wake the sleeping patients. Nurses, ward watchmen, and other employees fought the fire with hand-held extinguishers and a one-hose stream.

Night-shift attendants bravely began trying to evacuate the men and boys from the ward and the sleeping room above them. Dr. D.W. Griffin was on the scene within minutes, organizing rescuers.

The south wind was blowing fire debris and quickly caught the dining room on fire. Flames caught Ward 13 and 16 on fire but all 88 patients were safely evacuated and the flames beaten back. In all, about 1,000 patients were housed in the sanitarium that spring.

Some of the patients were violent and the fire excited them even more, making the rescue more difficult. A few were confused and ran back into the buildings. Sitting on the grounds, the attendants wrapped the patients with blankets and took a head count: Forty men and boys out of 48 patients in Ward 14 were dead, mostly smothered in their beds. It is believed to be the highest number of deaths in a single Oklahoma fire, outdistancing the 36 killed in the Babbs Switch school fire on Christmas Eve in 1924.

The bodies were mostly unrecognizable. Undertakers I.M. Jackson and Meyer & Meyer removed the remains and prepared them for burial in coffins. One body was identified. The Rev. and Mrs. L.H. Havill identified their son, Ona, and took custody of his remains for burial at nearby Independence Cemetery.

Other families came from throughout the state to try and identify their sons, husbands and brothers. In a large, unmarked grave, in the northeastern part of the I.O.O.F. cemetery in northeast Norman, 37 coffins were covered with dirt on a Sunday afternoon.

For nearly 100 years, the exact location of the grave was unknown. Deputy Fire Chief Jim Bailey and others became interested in marking the grave to remember the fire victims.

Bailey enlisted the help of hospital administrators and staff of the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Scott Hammerstedt ran ground penetrating radar twice on the area where the mass grave was believed to be located. He'll discuss his findings in a talk at the hospital cafeteria at 6 p.m. March 25.

"We found something," he said. "But without excavation you never can be sure. We found an anomaly around that size. We are reasonably sure but you can never be 100 percent sure."

The site was one identified by a previous cemetery manager.

In newspaper accounts of the time, they were called simply "the unfortunates," the 40 patients of the Oklahoma State Hospital for the Insane who died on April 13, 1918, in a grisly, pre-dawn fire.

While their names were known, their bodies for the most part were unrecognizable. And with the exception of one man who was identified and claimed by his family, they were buried together in a single, unmarked grave.

Other graves were dug to the right and left of them, and tombstones lovingly planted to record for posterity who was buried there. Yet, the 39 unclaimed bodies remained with no marker, no message to posterity that they once had lived —— and violently died —— at the state hospital for the mentally ill. Soon, the site where they were laid to rest was forgotten.

Now, almost a century later, the grave of "the unfortunates" has been located, and hospital officials say they want to rectify what was a grievous oversight.

Monday 12 May 2014


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