Private developer denies access to former state maintained cemetery

Posted on February 18, 2012 by


The soles of my shoes have been on many a cemetery in Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, in search of kin…

Just this morning I decided to try to visit the cemetery where a distant family member of mine is buried… and was told I could not do so.

In addition to being TOLD I could not access the cemetery... I found this sign on the south end of the property.

This was a personal first… and one I didn’t appreciate.

The cemetery behind what is now... "The Village at Staunton"

You understand… of course… it’s a liability issue, private property and all… hazardous construction going on, and what-not. But then, I didn’t see any construction going on in the vicinity of the cemetery… I suppose it was a blanket statement that this fellow at the sales office of “The Villages at Staunton” needed to tell me, in order to cover all the required bases.

Of course, I understand perfectly… regarding liability… but can’t help but find it incredibly odd that this cemetery was, after all, a state maintained cemetery up until the time the state turned the property over to the Staunton Industrial Authority, thereby turning public property into private property… to include the headstones and corpses in the ground, I suppose. The property is now part of the Villages at Staunton… a mixed-use neighborhood; the first building being renovated is known as “The Bindery”, which holds residential condos. The development team consisted of Frazier Associates of Staunton, Folsom Group of Charlottesville, Miller & Associates of Richmond, and The Arcadia Land Company.

O.K., a little more background.

The cemetery is just behind the former Staunton Correctional Facility… now the Villages at Staunton.

While I, personally, find it rather strange for the “Villages” to be former prison buildings turned into condos… there’s actually something a little more disturbing about this… really. Granted, it’s quite amazing, really, what they’ve done by converting the buildings, but… that place wasn’t always a prison… well… actually, in a way, one might consider it WAS, nonetheless…

Prior to its time as a correctional facility (beginning in the 1970s), the place was known as…

…the Western State Lunatic Asylum, which began operations in 1828. Later (1894), it was given a more PC name… the Western State Hospital. The name change still doesn’t mask the horrors that were conducted there, however… but that’s another story for another day, perhaps. You can get a glimpse at what I’m talking about by taking a look at the Wikipedia page for the place.

The "Asylum" in 1871

Hmmm… I wonder how many folks think that is a prison cemetery, and don’t realize it was the cemetery for the old asylum/state hospital. I’ll add to that… I wonder how many think that… ok… if it is an asylum cemetery…  there were nothing but “crazies” buried there.

If this comes to mind… that’s just sad.

Of course, the study of mental health has come a long way from the truly horrific practices of the past. Not to mention, we’ve come to understand those who were once considered “fit for the loony bin”… not so “crazy” after all.

I happen to know that there were, for example, veterans of the Civil War held in Western State… yes, that’s right, Confederate AND Union veterans.

So, now… let’s think about this…

If these veterans died there… how many were buried there?

Let’s give it some more thought, shall we?

Remember, Western State Hospital didn’t leave the place until the early 70s. What about veterans from… oh, say, WW1, WW2, Korea… get where I’m going with this? What if these folks suffered from what we classify today as PTSD?

But, it doesn’t begin and end with veterans that may rest in these graves with blank headstones.

Image of stones in the cemetery. Most appear to be blank-faced, as we see here. This photo comes from the Western State Hospital Memorial Project website. I'll mention more about this at the end of the post.

A closer image of one of the stones. Note the numbers below the raised portion. No... I didn't trespass... this is another image from the WSH Memorial Project

What about the other folks?

Take for example, the family member whose stone I wanted to find today… Phinnel Corbin.

Phinnel/Fennel Corbin

You might remember my posts about the Nicholson family back in November. I didn’t mention Phinnel (also seen, sometimes, as “Fennel”), but he was married to Eliza Nicholson, sister to Aaron Nicholson… and sister to my third great grandfather, Garnett Nicholson… not to mention, Phinnel was a grandson of yet another Nicholson.

Phinnel was one of those from the “hollers” of Madison County who had a life that was a bit more difficult than most. No doubt, the man lived a hardscrabble existence, and appears to have fit the images of Madison County hollow folk painted by George Freeman Pollock, and especially Miriam Sizer… although, as I’ve pointed out, it didn’t necessarily apply to all over in those hollows.

According to a clipping from the Page News & Courier, from April 30, 1937…

Finnell Corbin, who during his life… has had several tilts with the law, though always coming out on top in court, a resident in the Corbin Hollow neighborhood in Madison county, not far from the Page county line, has been removed to one of the Old Folks Homes in a different part of the State.

Corbin, a familiar figure in Page county at intervals for the last half century, dispensing his wares- axe handles and split baskets- has had a friend in that institution where he is spending the closing days of his life write one of his relatives in Corbin Hollow, saying: “My treatment here is good, but I long for the roar and swish of Broken Back River along which I have always lived. I would like again to have a chance to show younger folks how to carve out axe handles and weave split baskets, but my days for that kind of work are over forever. Even if my fare in Corbin Hollow was meagre, often corn bread and potatoes and sometimes not these, I would again like to have a morsel of them as they were prepared by my mother when I was a boy and by myself when there was no one else to prepare them. Ever since I was a boy, Broken Back River even when it went on a tear, was music to my ears as it swirled and snarled by my cabin’s door.”

Finnell Corbin years ago, shot and killed Clark Dodson, a youth, who was making himself an intruder in the Corbin home. Corbin was promptly acquitted by a Madison county jury. It is said that the then Commonwealth’s Attorney of Madison refused to prosecute the case against Corbin before the charge had been half aired in court.

Phinnel was born in 1867, and died of heart disease, on May 23, 1945… while at Western State Hospital. Exactly why he was at Western State… I don’t know… but, from what I gather from the above article, it doesn’t appear that he was mentally disturbed… even according to criteria for the 1930s.

Now, I’ve digressed a bit from the opening of this post, but had to make the connections. After all, this is why I was disturbed over the denial of access. Granted, he may rest under a headstone with no markings… but, I wanted the chance to find out for myself.

In short, I just find it wrong that this former state-maintained cemetery is now in the hands of a private firm, and that they can tell folks that they cannot visit the cemetery. I’m pretty sure I’ll be following-up on this with a letter to local representatives in the state legislature.

*Note regarding cemetery restoration efforts: The Western State Hospital Memorial Project site seems to date to 2008. Since that time, I don’t see evidence that anything further has come of their proposed restoration, and frankly, considering I was turned away this morning, without the fellow mentioning any such efforts… well…

You can see more at their website (but be prepared to get bombarded by an annoying pop-up that appears whenever you try to access their pages). Here are some details from their page that I found of interest…

There are 3045 burial places at the second site behind the old Hospital building, in which 200 burial places remain empty.

If you do the math, this means there were 2835 people buried at the second site, and 104 people buried at the Original site, giving us a grand total of 2929 people buried at both cemetery sites

The first burial at the Original site occurred sometime near or around 1828. The burials at the second site behind the old hospital building started about 10 years after the first burial at the Original site.

Most people buried there are only represented by a small marker without a name and only a painted number. Just a few markers have numbers that are still legible.

The last burials behind the old building took place around 1984. In 1986 a law was passed requiring Names and Dates on headstones.