Cases from the Asylum Archive
Eli Hill (1832-1877)
Robert C. Allen
Epilogue and Epitaph
We do not know who brought Eli to the asylum that January day in 1870 or where he was brought from. We have yet to find any records of his family. A pension index card from 1907 shows him as being an invalid, suggesting that he suffered some kind of war-related injury–perhaps associated with his hospitalization in early 1865. But there is no widow or minor listed on the card, and so no one eligible to receive his pension.
The last record we have regarding Eli Hill comes from someone else who was looking for him in 1870. A small notice was posted in the Raleigh Standard of May 28, 1870 by H. C. Vogeli of the Office of the Superintendent of Education hoping to find the whereabouts of two USCT veterans: John McCabe of the 36th Regiment, and Eli of the 37th. “I have information of importance for each.” “When McCabe was last heard from,” the note concludes, “he was in the vicinity of Smithfield, N.C.” There is no word of the whereabouts of Eli, but, of course, we know what Mr. Vogeli apparently did not: Eli had been in the asylum for the last four months. What was the information of such importance that an official would take out a newspaper notice trying to locate these two men? Were they eligible for an educational benefit of some sort?
We do not know how Eli was treated at the asylum, but we do know the other eleven African Americans men and eight women with whom he shared whatever accommodation had been arranged. We also know who was not there: Isaac, the person who first sparked our interest in the African American presence in the asylum when we saw his name and the notation “African” at the bottom of the admissions ledger for April 1865. He is discharged as “cured” after only a month, but reappears in the admissions ledger (we think) in August 1866, when he is re-admitted for an unknown cause with the diagnosis of “mania.” He dies on May 24, 1867 from “exhaustion” due to his mania. Nine of Eli’s fellow inmates would have been there to mourn his death on October 2, 1877.
Eli is probably the only one of the 47 African Americans at Dix before the mid-1960s whose life was ever memorialized, but until now it has been a “secret” memorial. As was the case with most public asylums, Dix had a cemetery where patients were buried if there was no family to claim their bodies or if the families could not afford to do so. Between 1859 and the 1970s some 900 people were buried there. As was also the practice at most public asylums, although records were kept of the burials, there were few named grave markers made. It was assumed that families and descendants would not want others to know that a loved one had been an inmate in an insane asylum. By the 1970s the cemetery had badly eroded and trucks travelling to and from an adjacent landfill had done further damage. In the early 1980s a woman came to Raleigh from Rhode Island to research her family history, including the life of her grandmother rumored to have been an inmate at Dix and who had been buried in the cemetery. As Marjorie O’Rorke tells it in her history of the hospital, with the help of physical plant director Dave Davis, she found her grandmother’s name on a grave marker. Davis said: “She just lay across the grave face down and cried.”
This helped to spur an effort by staff and volunteers to locate cemetery records in the State Archives. Some 700 names of those interred were found. Some tombstones were returned to the site from storage and in 1997 a memorial wall was dedicated. However, specific grave sites could not be identified, so “volunteers randomly placed the restored stones in the cemetery for visual interest.” Using an inventory developed from records in the State Archives, flat name and date markers were placed for those known to have been buried there. (O’Rorke, pp. 208-211)
In the mid-1990s Jim Tipton created a website reflecting his hobby of documenting the graves of American celebrities. The site was expanded to allow families to add the grave sites of (non-celebrity) loved ones, and in 2013, it was sold to Ancestry.com. According to its Wikipedia page, Find a Grave now contains more than 165 million records and 75 million photographs.
The inventory for Dorothea Dix Hospital Cemetery is now accessible through Find a Grave and shows in Ancestry.com searches. This is how I discovered “who” Anna Kirkland really was: one of the first returns on my search for her in Ancestry was the link to the Find a Grave site showing the Kirkland Family Cemetery in Hillsborough and her grave stone: Anna Cameron Kirkland. (You might want to go back to the first chapter of Eli’s story to refresh your recollection. We deserves and will receive her own case study!
In my now routine searches through Find a Grave, I came across—you guessed it—Eli Hill.
This is, of course, not the actual site of his grave—that’s long since lost—but it is at least a memorial to his having been buried here. But no one seems to have yet identified Eli as anyone with a more specific connection to this place. So far as I can determine at this point, he is the first and, for the more than a century between 1865 and the late 1960s, the only African American buried here. I ran all 46 other African Americans through Find a Grave, but no one else turned up.
In early June 2020, I asked archivist Doug Brown at the State Archives of North Carolina if the SANC had any extant burial records for the Dix Hospital Cemetery. He said he was not aware of any but would do a search the next time he went to “the office” (this was, of course, in the midst of the pandemic, when all but a skeletal SANC staff were working from home). A few days later I received an email attached to which was a computer-printed alphabetical inventory of some 900 burials from, 1859 to 1970. CHW undergraduate fellow alumnus Thomas Burnett volunteered to create a searchable spreadsheet. The first name I looked for was, of course, Eli’s. It was there.
Leah Tams took responsibility for cleaning and updating the burial inventory, converting it to a spreadsheet. We can now begin formulating questions we might ask of it and imagining how and by whom it might be used.
We have yet to discover why Eli was interred here. Did it have to do with his military service? Now that we know Eli “is here,” it also means that this is a public nineteenth century African American burial site and, given the rigid racial segregation of the period, a significant social anomaly. Is this a last gasp of Reconstruction? An expediency? A mistake? Regardless of the circumstances of Eli’s burial, how will his life and connection with Dix be recognized when the site becomes a “destination park”?
The Master Plan for Dorothea Dix Park was approved by the Raleigh City Council in February 2019. Attached was a 400-page landscape history that “explores the depth of research into the history of the site as a part of the planning process.”
Eli’s life, presence at Dix, death and burial there provoke many urgent questions about the state’s long history of racial subjugation, violence, inequity, and exclusion. At a time when millions march to demand the removal of statues and monuments, this one case study forces us once again to ask hard questions about public memory–who and whose name becomes and remains a part of it; who and whose name was never meant to be spoken, written, or remembered.
On June 22, 2020, the Dix Park Conservancy Board circulated an email on its listserv. It began:
In the wake of the killing of George Floyd and others, and the nationwide protest marches that followed, the Board of Dix Park Conservancy unequivocally rejects systemic racism and police brutality. We support the non-violent protesters in our community and vow to work with those trying to counter historical inequity, inequality, and injustice.
We often talk about the benefit of great public spaces as places of refuge and peace. But, as we saw illustrated in the video from Central Park, when birdwatcher Christian Cooper was accosted for no other reason than the color of his skin – it is a fundamental reality that places of refuge often aren’t a refuge for everyone. We believe that they must be, and we believe that they can be.
The Conservancy is dedicated to and reaffirms our core purpose: to help create Dorothea Dix Park as “a park for everyone, built by everyone.” We believe in our community’s future and in the promise of a signature urban park that truly brings everyone together – one that lives up to its ideals as a haven for all who seek a place of peace and fun. We know it will require enduring leadership and prolonged hard work to realize that promise – and we are committed to listening, reflecting, learning, and acting.
Among several “starting point” commitments the board made in the statement was:
We commit to telling the full racial history of this land.
Dix Hospital was built in 1856 in part by enslaved people and served mostly whites throughout the years, not fully integrating until the 1960’s. Before that, the land was a plantation, with at least 65 enslaved people working the land. And before that, the land was used by Native Americans for hunting and gathering. Multiple projects are underway to create interpretive signage and other opportunities throughout the park to share this history, and we commit to working with diverse artists, writers, and community leaders to tell these stories.