WOUB’s ‘WHO Lies Beneath: The Asylum’ uses actors and lots of research to tell the stories of patients of the former Athens Lunatic Asylum

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — Nearly 1,700 patients buried on the grounds of the former psychiatric hospital now known as The Ridges lay interred under slim, white headstones marked with a number where their name should be. Each one indicates a patient not claimed by their family after death.

To many, these no-frills gravesites are a melancholy reminder of the oppressive stigma of mental illness and the countless quiet tragedies which befell hundreds at the asylum throughout its 119 years of operation.

For WOUB Community Engagement Manager Cheri Russo and retired Ohio University Libraries archivist Doug McCabe, however, these markers are nothing short of a call to action.

July 28 WOUB launches “WHO Lies Beneath: The Asylum,” a limited series podcast hosted by Russo and McCabe which uses asylum records and voice actors to literally give a voice to those who were buried at the asylum namelessly. Ultimately, Russo and McCabe hope the resulting stories will assist surviving family members of asylum patients in identifying their loved ones.

A promotional image for WOUB's "Who Lies Beneath: The Asylum" podcast. The image is of an aged headstone in a grassy graveyard with the podcast's title superimposed over it.

The podcast has roots in another WOUB project Russo spearheaded over 10 years ago: a documentary entitled “The 1900: Voices from the Asylum.” At that point McCabe and several others had already put a great deal of work into identifying the patients lying under the numbered headstones, and Russo came across a newspaper article about the stories they were unearthing.

“One of the stories they were telling was about a woman named Viola Rapp who was institutionalized because of her postpartum depression. She ended up dying in the asylum after contracting tuberculosis while she was there. I personally had postpartum depression after the births of both of my children, so that really hit me,” said Russo. “I remember thinking to myself, ‘wow, you know, if I had been alive at that time, what would’ve happened to me?”

Inspired by this sense of resonance, “The 1900: Voices from the Asylum” used actors to give voice to the patients who had been known only as a number, and not by their name, for so long.

“These were people who may have been institutionalized, I don’t want to say against their will, but often it wasn’t their idea. And now they had a voice in my feeling for the first time in this documentary,” said Russo.

Fast-forward to the more recent past, and WOUB’s general manager, Mark Brewer, suggested to Russo that the premise for “The 1900” would make an excellent podcast – to which Russo eagerly agreed.

Russo said the first season of the podcast will feature many of the stories spotlighted by “The 1900,” including the story of Viola Rapp.

Rapp, known only as 607 for decades after she died at the age of 25 in 1934, is a searing example of one of the many who died too soon due to an institutionalization that just doesn’t make sense in the context of our contemporary understanding of mental illness.

To make sense of these injustices, Doug McCabe said it’s important to understand that the concept of asylums for the mentally ill came from a compassionate place.

“What we would come to call ‘lunatic asylums’ really came about through a physician by the name of Thomas Kirkbride. Before him, most people who were judged mentally distressed would be put in prisons or attics or basements. Kirkbride, who was a Quaker, thought that there had to be a better way to help these folks, to help them someday come back into society,” said McCabe.

In Kirkbride’s 1854 publication, “On the Construction, Organization and General Arrangements of Hospitals for the Insane With Some Remarks On Insanity and Its Treatment,” the doctor laid out the specifications for a layout of insane asylums which would eventually be known as “the Kirkbride Plan.” The Athens Lunatic Asylum was one such hospital, built with special attention to natural light and air circulation.

These state-funded Kirkbride plan hospitals were a major step towards a more humane and effective way to treat mental illness, but that doesn’t mean they were without their gaping moral flaws. Take, for example, the legal process widely used to commit individuals such as Viola Rapp.

“The people who would become patients would be brought before a probate judge in the county in which they had lived, where an inquest into lunacy was held. This gave them the opportunity to testify on their own behalf, but then also other people, such as family members, and also a doctor who would examine them, would also testify. Then, the judge would make the decision as to whether they would be placed in the asylum,” said McCabe.

Accepted reasons for institutionalization at the time included “change of life” (literally menopause), melancholia (now widely believed to be Major Depressive Disorder), or even in one instance McCabe has identified, “trying to start a labor union.”

“There also are indications that some of them were placed in the asylum just because they were a lot of hassle for their families or their neighborhoods, who just wanted to get rid of them,” said McCabe. “There are also examples of women being placed in asylum, and when you dig into her history, you see essentially what happened was her husband had taken up with another woman, and he needed to be able to cohabitate with and marry this other woman. So, did the woman who was made a patient at the asylum actually have any mental problems? It’s tough to say.”

“WHO Lies Beneath: The Asylum” has created opportunities for closure for those whose family members were institutionalized – many of which in a manner that now seems starkly inhumane.

WOUB Audio Supervisor Adam Rich said his involvement with the podcast has been rewarding for just this reason.

“In the first episode of the podcast, we spoke to the granddaughter of Viola Rapp – and even though Viola and her granddaughter never met, Viola’s story still means so much to her family,” said Rich. “Looking into the future, to continuing this project, I hope we get to see more of these folks coming forward and asking for our help, because it means so much to them that we could put a name and a story to this person in their family who never got a chance to tell their stories themselves.”

Find more information about the podcast on Facebook and Twitter, and catch the debut of the show July 28 on Apple Podcasts, NPR One, and Stitcher.

You may also find WOUB podcasts on the NPR Podcast Directory – or