My great-grandfather was part of a sad statistic: he was one of 11,647 people to die at the Augusta Mental Health Institution. After suffering a brain injury while working at Bath Iron Works, he spent the last year of his life in the famous mental institution. Fortunately, he was brought back to Bath for burial, unlike the thousands of patients who lie in unmarked graves at AMHI’s 800-acre campus.

Instead of saying I’m going crazy, people around here used to say “They’re going to send me to Augusta.” Quite a few people did get sent there during the institution’s 164-year existence. In the early days, people ended up there for Alzheimer’s, epilepsy, anti-social behavior and even for expressing erroneous views on religion.

The institution was built in 1840 across from the capitol building so legislators would not forget about the people there. At first, it had the rather catchy name of Maine Insane Hospital. Later, it was changed to the Maine State Hospital and then to the Augusta Mental Health Institution.

The institution was a very old place when it shut down in 2004. Psychologists were working in the same buildings where patients had once been treated with bleeding, cupping, electroshock treatment and other primitive therapies.

Reforms began in 1946, when a Dr. Sleeper was named superintendent. He made a number of important changes to the institution during his 16-year tenure. A pharmacist and a dentist were added to the staff, the number of psychologists tripled and a library was built. Overcrowding became a serious problem during the 1950s, however, and there were as many as 1,600 patients housed in rooms that were designed to hold 1,270.

New medications in the 1960s led to a drop in population, and the 1970s saw the De-Institutionalization Era, where the number of patients dropped from 1,500 to 350. Much more emphasis was placed on rehabilitating patients and getting them back in the community, and AMHI became a place where only the most severe cases were treated.

In 2004, the Riverview Psychiatric Center was built to replace AMHI, and the old asylum was abandoned. Today, it stands empty as a sort-of monument to the complicated and sometimes horrifying history of dealing with society’s mentally ill.

Around a quarter of the patients who entered AMHI passed away there. The Maine Cemetery Project was formed to research these forgotten souls, but almost no records were kept of burial locations. In 2012, they launched a campaign to raise funds for a memorial, which was installed in Augusta in 2015.


Zac McDorr is a Coastal Journal contributing writer. He can be reached at:
[email protected]