BRATTLEBORO — After a few cold winters and some careless behavior, the Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery, originally known as the Asylum Cemetery, has seen hard days. The Retreat has deemed it necessary to make some restorations and improvements that should be complete this November.
"This is still a place of peace and solitude, and as its caretakers it is our responsibility to make sure it is kept up to date" said executive coordinator at the Brattleboro Retreat, Brenda Nichols. Nichols is also the unofficial historian within the Retreat and has lived in the area since her early childhood.
The Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery restoration project is funded by a $10,000 gift from the Ben & Jerry's Foundation that was made in honor of a former Retreat trustee, Julie Peterson. The project will entail headstone repairs and provide an engraved new stone marker for the site. The bulk of the work is being done by Abbiati Monuments in Brattleboro and the Retreat's facilities and grounds crew will perform landscaping and miscellaneous repairs and upgrades. Peterson had asked that the money be used in some fashion to help preserve Brattleboro Retreat history, and to say the least, this "final resting place," as Nichols puts it, has a tremendous history dating back to about 1837.
Until 1858 records of death were not required by the town, and the place of burial was not recorded until about 1905. Fortunately, there is one known tangible record of Retreat burials that was written inside of a delicate book, "The Old Burying Ground: An early journal dated back to the 1930s." An anonymous source handwrote all the entries in cursive, detailing the names of the people buried in the patient cemetery.
The first few pages are titled "Record of Burials in the Village Burying Ground," and the next section is called "Record of Burials in the Asylum Burying Ground." The last section of the book, which contains only three entries with the first dated 1900, is headed "List of Internments in the new Retreat Cemetery known as Fairview."
Majorie Valliere Howe, a former resident of Williamsville, compiled "A Record of Burial at the Vermont Asylum." Howe noted that the current Prospect Hill Cemetery on South Main Street was originally known as The Village Burying Ground.
According to the journal, 50 people were buried in the Village Burying Ground, dated as early as 1837 or 1839. Howe states "This does not mean that those were the only ones from this page who were buried here." Six stones from this list were actually seen at the present cemetery located on South Main Street. Since the recorded burials, some stones may have fallen or been destroyed through the years by weather, vandalism, etc.
The cemetery that is currently undergoing renovations, which is located behind the old Anna Marsh building, among the Retreat trails, has a record of 659 people that have been buried there. There are notes next to some of the names that state "removed" or replaced." According to "The Brattleboro Retreat: 150 Years of Caring," "(The trustees) also decided to move some of the graves to Morningside Cemetery in Brattleboro."
In addition, there is a map at Brattleboro.org that shows where a cemetery may have been located adjacent to East Orchard Street. At that time, this body of land was owned by the Brattleboro Retreat.
"We're not really sure how many people are left here" said Nichols about the Retreat Cemetery.
According to the journal, the burials at the patient cemetery were laid out in tiers. There are 10 tiers listed in the journal; for example there is a gravestone that reads "Nathaniel Perrin" and according to the journal he was buried in "tier 1." Another stone, which has been spotted and even stolen from the patient cemetery, was Henrietta Frankenstein, who was at one time buried in the ninth tier, according to the journal. Since the theft occurred, the gravestone has been retrieved by the Brattleboro Retreat and is now in safe keeping to prevent her stone from further desecration.
"This isn't a scary place" said Nichols who has been traversing the trails since she was a young girl. "I look at these woods as a peaceful and beautiful place and even if there were any spirits or souls, I think they'd be gentle."
The Brattleboro Retreat Cemetery restoration project will reposition the granite posts and will preserve some of the stones from further erosion. In addition, a large piece of granite will be engraved that will state a brief history about the Brattleboro Retreat cemetery as well as a Robert Frost poem that Nichols found fitting.
"I think people should understand that care for people with mental illness has really changed" said Director of Ambulatory Services, Kurt L. White, who played a role in prompting the project. "I hope this will be an opportunity to remember and honor the experiences of individuals who probably had really difficult lives."