The 1900: Voices From The Athens Asylum

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Monday, August 25 • 8 p.m. and Saturday, August 30 • 7 p.m. 

The Athens Lunatic Asylum, now known as “The Ridges,” is a place of mystery. The Victorian-style buildings loom large on a ridge overlooking Athens, Ohio, and were home to mental patients in southeast Ohio for more than 100 years. Produced by WOUB Public Media, The 1900: Voices from the Athens Asylum gives a voice to those buried on The Ridges, many buried with only numbers on their tombstones. The program looks at the lives of these lost souls.

No one knows why patients were buried only identified by numbers. Many believe the stigma of mental illness was the cause, others believe they were forgotten people.

To demystify and give recognition and respect to the more than 1,900 people buried there without identities, representatives from several agencies including Ohio University, the Gathering Place, the Civilian Conservation Corps and the National Association of Mental Illness came together to create the Ridges Cemeteries Committee.

The committee pushed to have the names associated with numbered tombstones released to the public and gave researchers an opportunity to explore the life stories of the people buried there. They began the journey of trying to contact family members and listing names on the tombstones.

The research found the patients came from many walks of life from all parts of the country. Their backgrounds were varied – they were mothers, grandmothers, civil war soldiers and criminals. The stories are told in the patient’s voice and tell about their lives, what brought them to the hospital and the way they died.

Producer Cheri Russo says she became fascinated with The Ridges during her time as an undergraduate student at Ohio University. After learning about the Ridges Cemetery Project, one patient’s experiences were similar to something she had experienced.

Viola Rapp was admitted to the institution for postpartum depression, and Russo says it became a personal story for her.

“Her story was one I identified with,” Russo said. “She suffered from postpartum depression after having a child and was sent to the Ridges. I suffered from postpartum depression, as well, and really became fascinated with her story. I knew it was a story that needed to be told.”

Russo says Rapp’s postpartum depression made the story very real for her, but the fact that her daughter found her grave with the help of the Ridges Cemetery Project was also compelling.

“She [Rapp’s daughter] finally got the chance to properly say goodbye to her mother because she now knows where she is buried,” she said.  “To see the power of the moment when her daughter came to her mother’s grave site was amazing.”

As she completed the documentary, she was surprised at the reasons behind many patients’ admittance to the institution.

“Many of these people just needed a little help and compassion at a difficult time in their lives,” added Russo. “But, instead they were hospitalized and eventually died. The stories are very sad and I’m so glad I had the opportunity to give these people a voice. It’s a voice that they did not have in life or death, until now.”

The 1900: Voices From The Athens Asylum was edited by Evan Shaw and narrated by Doug Partusch and can been seen on WOUB-TV Saturday, August 30 at 7 p.m.

*Cheri Russo is former Digital News Manager for WOUB and is currently Manager of Communications and Marketing at Ohio University Lancaster campus