In Alice’s Story Part 2, I wrote about the Exeter School, formerly known as the Rhode Island School for the Feeble-Minded, where Alice spent the last twenty years of her life. In this final installment, I conclude the story which began in Alice’s Story Part 1.
When I think of my great-aunt Alice Tillotson’s story, I feel sad for her. She was abandoned at a state institution and forgotten by her family. But was she? Surely my grandfather, not yet ten years old when she was taken away, must have missed his sister and childhood companion. When Grandpa showed Mom, then only eight years old, the photograph of Alice, it might have been around the time she died in 1933. Perhaps he heard of her death somehow, and was motivated to find the photograph of the two of them together. If that is the case, then I think he never forgot his sister, and her death filled him with sadness and regret.
Looking for Alice
In 2012, I decided to visit Alice Tillotson’s grave, if I could find it. I remember feeling that this was a peculiar mission, even though at the same time, I felt compelled to do it. At that time, I had never visited an ancestor’s grave site, partly because none of them are buried in the Washington, D. C. area where I grew up. Dad’s relatives were in Indiana, and Mom’s were from Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Quebec. My family rarely went to any of these places to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles, and cousins, much less to visit deceased relatives in a cemetery. I started my search for Alice with an Internet search, which turned up a helpful resource.
The Rhode Island Historical Cemetery Commission oversees old cemeteries in the state of Rhode Island. They regard old cemeteries as historical documents of the people and the society whose needs they served. I searched their online database in the hope that her gravestone might provide more information about her than I had turned up in my genealogical research. Alice Tillotson was listed in their online database, but there were no birth or death dates recorded. I contacted the Commission through their website, and was told that when they document a graveyard, they record the full inscription from each gravestone. Sadly, there probably was no more information on Alice’s gravestone than her name.
This news, however, did not dampen my urge to find Alice’s final resting place. She’d had such a sad life, probably with few, if any, visits from her own family. Although I knew my visit couldn’t make up to Alice for all the years she spent there, forgotten by her family, something in me knew that there was a reason for going anyway. I didn’t fully understand why I needed to visit the grave of a great-aunt I never knew. Over the years that have passed since I first became a genealogist, I have reflected on how researching my ancestors changed my attitude toward family history research.
Genealogy is more than listing ancestors in pedigree charts, which is what I thought when I was still a reluctant genealogist. Now I believe that what I am doing is gathering family members and their stories. Even though most of them are dead, knowing who they were and what happened to them tells me something about myself, about how I became who I am. Whenever I come across a story of an ancestor who lived and died in an institution or in poverty or was buried in an unmarked grave, I feel moved to do something about it. It doesn’t matter to me that the relative in question died 80, 90, or 100 years ago. Genealogy has become a way for me to make sure that those of my relatives who suffered bleak lives won’t be forgotten. History — as written by the rich, the powerful, the privileged — tends to overlook the poor, the mentally ill, and the disabled. I think the history of a society is not complete unless it includes how it treated its most marginalized members. Setting down the sad stories from my mother’s family tree is my way of contributing to a wider knowledge of human experience. Perhaps it will lead to healing both within my family and beyond.
The Exeter School Cemetery
During the eighty-six-year history of the Exeter School, over 5,000 inmates were confined there. Some “students” may have gotten a bit of schooling and given work to do, but that was the exception, not the rule. According to my research, the school was much less than an education institution and more one of a custodial nature meant to keep the intellectually disabled away from general society, at the least possible cost. With a mental age of around five years, I suspect Alice was one of the many who spent most of their days in a crowded dormitory with few activities.
Out of the thousands of inmates who came through the Exeter School, 84 of them died and were buried at the school. These were probably people whose families had died off or were too poor to bury their family members themselves. In Alice’s case, it was because the school had no idea where her family was. When the school closed in 1993, the cemetery was moved to the grounds of the Veterans Cemetery in Exeter.
It was a sunny autumn morning in October 2012 when I left Stonington, Connecticut to drive to three cemeteries I had chosen to visit in Rhode Island. The skies were crisp and clear and the temperature was comfortably cool in the high fifties. I thought that the bright sun would chase away any gloomy thoughts I might have about visiting the dead or about overcrowded conditions in state institutions. As I drove into the Veterans Cemetery, and wound my way all the way to the rear of the property, the sky gradually became overcast. A little drizzle came and went a couple times throughout my time in the cemetery, sucking the brilliance out of the early fall color. Nevertheless, I didn’t let the dreary change in weather dissuade me from my mission.
Although I did not have an exact location for Alice’s grave site, I had figured that with only 84 stones to look at, I wouldn’t have trouble finding it on my own. When I arrived at the cemetery, I was confronted with a glitch in my assumption. Many of the stones were completely covered with moss, rendering their inscriptions illegible. Others were sunken deep in the ground, with no inscription visible. Feeling worried that one of these lost causes could be Alice’s grave marker, I went about checking the ones that were readable. Each one as I expected, had just a name but no dates. I did not find the name of Alice Tillotson on the sixty or so gravestones that weren’t obscured by moss or the earth.
I felt sad that I might have come all that way for nothing. I had this weird longing to somehow right a wrong by visiting her grave. I suspected that Alice had had no family visitors for the last several years of her life, so I considered myself the first family member to visit her in more than eighty years. I really wanted to find that grave! When I didn’t find her name among the readable gravestones, I went back to the moss-covered ones to try to see if there was any way I could discern the names.
As I approached one of the mossiest stones, I thought I saw the letter A showing on the left side of the stone. Here was someone whose name began with “A”! I knelt down on the damp ground in front of the stone. I touched it, and realized that if I pressed my fingers into the spongy moss, I could feel the inscription in the stone. Next to the A, I found L, I, C, and E. Moving down to the next line, I discovered that the letters were much smaller, probably because the surname was longer than her given name. I continued to feel the letters through the ragged brown and green moss, and found that it did indeed read: TILLOTSON. I felt her name from beginning to end twice, just to be sure.
I knew it would be easy to let wishful thinking take over and convince me that this was Alice’s grave, but after checking a third time, there was no doubt in my mind. I took a photo of her gravestone, even though there was no way to discern her name visually. I wanted it for my files and for upload to findagrave.com, so that future members of my family would know where to look for it, if they cared to. I felt it was the only thing that I could do to draw the name of Alice Tillotson out of obscurity, and make undeniable the reality of her existence. I wanted to bring her story, what little of it I knew, into the twenty-first century.
Several years after my visit to the Exeter School Cemetery, someone cleaned Alice’s gravestone. I can’t post the photograph of the stone here, because I haven’t gotten permission from the photographer. If you go to this page on Find A Grave, you can see it: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/44802693/alice-tillotson
Inherited Family Trauma
Grandpa Tillotson lost his sister when he was a young boy. As far as I know, his father dropped Alice off at a state institution and forgot about her. It is likely that Frank Sr. declined to talk about her once she was gone. Grandpa may have been encouraged to forget about her, but I believe he never did. He also may have resigned himself to the idea that this was the way the families were supposed to resolve difficult issues such as having a mentally ill person in the family. Many years later, when his wife was committed to a mental institution, and he was determined to be in no shape to raise a child, the state of Connecticut took Mom away to live in a county home. Grandpa rarely visited her, and as she got older, he just stopped coming.
I’m not defending Grandpa’s behavior towards my mother, but I can’t help noticing the parallel parallel story in his own childhood. As I wrote in my unpublished memoir Secrets of the Asylum, if inherited family trauma isn’t dealt with head-on, it continues to affect subsequent generations. I wrote the memoir, in part, as a testament to the potential of family history to empower people and heal old wounds.