Alice’s Story, Part 3: Final Resting Place

Exeter School Cemetery, Exeter, Rhode Island. October 2012
Exeter School Cemetery, Exeter, Rhode Island. October 2012

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 They regard old cemeteries as historical documents of the people and the society whose needs they served.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 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, having 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.

15 thoughts on “Alice’s Story, Part 3: Final Resting Place”

  1. Sad, but beautifully told. I hope you find a suitable publisher. As I indicated in an earlier exchange, I had one relative in Norwich State Hospital. Since then, researching on my mother’s Irish side, I came across a few instances of mental illness or abandonment, further back in the late 19th century, though with scant details.
    I agree that it is incumbent on genealogists to not forget their lives, for their sake, our own and the wider society.

  2. Sad and beautiful at the same time. I am feeling the same way about some discoveries in my own family. Imaginings of their lives are seeming very real to me.

  3. Having to touch the gravestone to feel her name through the moss. How beautiful that image is to me.
    “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye.”– Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

  4. Beautifully and movingly written with important messages throughout. The description of your “reading” Alice’s tombstone and affirming that it was indeed her final resting place gave me chills. Thank you for persevering with your research and intentions. Yes, illuminating what lives in shadow promotes understanding and acceptance. Well done

  5. Thanks Julie: Your story (so well written), struck me very personally as I have a somewhat similar family history which I did not fully learn about until later in life. Take care and keep up the great work.

  6. Wow! This is very moving. Your observations of family trauma and how it is passed down from one generation to the next are borne out by scientific research. Trauma can change your DNA and be passed on to future generations. My work with those struggling with the effects of abuse and trauma bears this out. Your personal story is amazing and touching.

  7. Your description of tracing the moss with your fingers moved me to tears. Then, when I was able to see the cleaned stone, her name acknowledged, her life acknowledged, I was moved further. What a beautiful image of seeing Alice and bringing her into the light of your personal history. This encourages me to explore my own family’s secrets while I still have enough hints to go on.

  8. Sad and at the same time somehow uplifting. I think you have succeeded in making Alice’s life meaningful — at least to the people who read your story. The account of your finally finding the gravestone and “reading” Alice’s name was very moving. Seeing her name on the cleaned gravestone was powerful.
    Good work, Julie.

  9. Your story of your “forgotten” relative, Alice, is touching and very beautiful. Because of your research and especially, visiting her grave, she is no longer forgotten. You and other genealogists are leading the way and I believe there is much to be learned from this effort: healing, enrichment, love and much more as you have mentioned. Thank you for sharing your quest.

  10. Reading your story brought back so many memories of my own family. The Norwich State Hospital buildings now deteriorating have a long legacy within my own family.
    Like you, my cousin and I have invested years in genealogical research with DNA testing. Our shared ancestry from Quebec to the Little Canadas of Eastern New England’s mill towns linked in Norwich.
    In the past 3 generations nursing was the most common profession amongst women in my family. My mother and father’s cousin both found themselves working at the Norwich State Hospital early in their careers . Many sad stories were shared (often in French) of the commitments of family and friends. I still vividly remember the trauma of having to take my own brother to that same hospital 40 years ago for treatment with my younger sister (now also a nurse). We where lucky my brother was later treated for his bi-polar condition and never had to return there. My son later suffered same condition with limited options beyond a 72 hour hold and meds.
    When I go back to visit Norwich it is extremely sad that today people with mental illness and addictions have only the streets to care for them.

  11. Perhaps you’ve read this book but it might be of interest to a follower of your blog. History, images and stories from they many years this state hospital was in operation.

    Quoted from the publisher:
    “Norwich State Hospital (NSH), established in 1904, was more than just a series of mortar and brick buildings to house and treat persons suffering from mental illness. For nearly 100 years, generations of people dedicated their careers and lives to developing NSH as a humanitarian community for mental illness rehabilitation. NSH gained international attention from some of the world’s most renowned psychiatrists for being the first state hospital to boast a brand-new state-of-the-art building to house all occupational therapies under one roof. Although NSH closed in 1996, the structure has continued to be one of Connecticut’s most notable historical landmarks, despite its ongoing demolition and redevelopment. Today, Norwich State Hospital is still alive in the timeless, emotional memories employees and family members share of what it was like to work and grow up in a place where employees were not just employees and patients were not just patients; they were family. ”

    Norwich State Hospital
    Images of America
    By Christine M. Rockledge, Introduction by Steve DePolito
    9781467129626 – Arcadia Publishing – 10/15/2018

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